COMBAT OUTPOST DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan — I first met Sgt. San Pao of Standish late one night six years ago in a dank, dingy laundry room at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq.
We both found ourselves up to our necks in an unexpected challenge:
As an embedded journalist covering the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, I was chronicling the aftermath of an attack on a convoy that killed one member of the unit and injured a number of others.
Pao, then a 22-year-old specialist with the 133rd, had it infinitely tougher: He’d been a driver in the convoy.
“I can totally see (the attack) right now,” Pao said with a smile Tuesday evening in a quiet corner of the Maine Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry headquarters. “It’s still right there.”
Nobody would blame this veteran soldier if he were safely back home in Maine right now, doing his best to get on with life after a tour of duty in 2004-05 that left him damaged physically, mentally and emotionally.
Instead, lo and behold, Pao is here on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. One rank higher and six years older, he’s doing it all over again and then some.
“This is my environment,” Pao said, again smiling. “It’s just my personality. I can’t accept ‘no.’ I can’t accept the phrase ‘You can’t.’“
He was born in 1981 in a refugee camp in Thailand, the son of a Cambodian professor who was driven from his homeland by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
The family resettled first to Augusta and then to Portland, where Pao graduated from Deering High School in 2001 and joined the Maine Guard.
He began basic training in October that year, one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
One rainy April morning less than three years later, Pao was riding through Mosul in one of four Humvees — only the doors were armored back then — when a powerful improvised explosive device detonated next to the lead truck, directly ahead of him.
The blast killed Spc. Christopher Gelineau, 23, a student at the University of Southern Maine and the first Maine Army National Guard soldier to die in combat since World War II.
Pao was at the wheel of the second Humvee, no more than 20 meters behind the lead truck, when the bomb went off. The blast crushed him back against his seat, burning part of his neck and causing extensive soft-tissue damage to his neck and back.
Following standard procedure, he drove on through the smoke and fire and kept the accelerator to the floor for about a mile, where any Humvee crews that could were supposed to regroup. But nobody came.
“So I told the guys I wanted to go back into the kill zone — and they agreed,” Pao said. “If it had been me back there, I’d have wanted to get some help.”
Halfway back, a shrapnel-induced oil leak stopped Pao’s Humvee in its tracks. He and his two comrades gathered their gear and ran the remaining half-mile, arriving to find a hostile crowd, a burning vehicle, one soldier dead and several others wounded.
Pao remembers firing shots into the air to keep the growing crowd back while the soldiers waited desperately for help to arrive.
“We were essentially being surrounded. It was pretty crazy,” he recalled (repeating the exact words he said to me that night six years ago in the laundry room).
It doesn’t end there.
Six months later, again while I was visiting FOB Marez, a suicide bomber struck the base’s cavernous dining facility.
Twenty-two people died that day, including the Maine Guard’s Spc. Thomas Dostie, 20, of Somerville and Sgt. Lyn Poulin, 47, of Freedom.
And once again, there was Pao, sprinting toward the carnage and eventually helping to carry the bodies of his fallen comrades to a nearby makeshift morgue.
Two months later, finally and mercifully, Pao came home to Maine.
“The first three months were definitely the toughest,” he recalled.
The telltale signs — the hair-trigger anger, the irrational fear of entering his own house because he didn’t know what might be awaiting him inside, the flashbacks — were all there.
“I would come home after going out to the bars or going out with friends and I’d just sit down by myself and drink,” Pao said. “Take shot after shot right into the night into the morning.”
He shook his head at the memory.
“It wasn’t me,” he said.
Some returning soldiers, when faced with post-traumatic stress disorder, retreat further into the false cover of dysfunctional behavior.
Not Pao. As physical therapists helped him with his lingering neck and back problems, he eventually allowed counselors to help him heal his wounded psyche.
“You’ve just got to release everything that you’ve got — the pain and so forth,” he said. “You just go get the help that you need.”
Over the next five years, Pao successfully completed three courses on PTSD.
He attended every-other-week counseling sessions right up until this deployment, often finding himself the youngest man and the only Iraq war veteran in group therapy sessions filled with veterans whose nightmares go back to Vietnam and beyond.
“They’ve got their stories and I listen to it and it’s heart-wrenching,” Pao said. “It reinforces my decision to seek the help.”
Pao, who is now married and has a stepson, works back home as a full-time diesel technician for the Maine Guard at the Stevens Avenue Armory in Portland.
Last June, he heard that Bravo Company needed volunteers to serve as war-games opposition forces, OPFORs, in western Maine’s mountains as the unit prepared for deployment to Afghanistan.
He jumped at the opportunity.
Reporting for duty the first day, Pao and a few other OPFORs began chatting it up with Bravo Company commander Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn.
“Hey captain,” Pao told Bosse, “if you’ve got room for another soldier, I’ll certainly go on deployment with you.”
Bosse had heard about Pao, about Mosul, about the Maine Silver Star Honorable Service Medal that Pao had received for his actions on the day the convoy got hit.
“Ten minutes later, they were throwing me all kinds of gear to go into training with Bravo, instead of just being an OPFOR,” Pao said. “It was game on.”
Well, not exactly.
After satisfying Bosse that he was physically and mentally fit for deployment, Pao still faced a gantlet of skeptical military medical officers from Maine to Newport, R.I., and finally to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Dutifully and doggedly, he jumped through each hoop until finally, in December, he found himself at Fort Drum in upstate New York, teleconferencing with a doctor at Walter Reed.
“What are you doing to get yourself better?” the doctor asked bluntly.
“Counseling,” replied Sgt. Pao without hesitation.
“How often do you do that?”
“Every other week.”
The questioning went on for three hours. Finally, the doctor leveled with Pao.
“All right, you have PTSD. You know that, I know that,” he said. “You have anxiety. You know that. I know that. You have some pain issues. You know that. I know that.”
“Are you going to do anything stupid when you’re over there?” the doctor asked.
“I’m going to give you the green light. Don’t prove me wrong.”
Not a chance, Pao promised.
Still, three months after he fell in on the most dangerous border in the world, the question looms over the young sergeant like the massive peaks above COP Dand wa Patan: Why, after all he’s been through, would he want to go back into a war zone?
“It’s the adrenaline rush that I missed. And the camaraderie,” Pao replied. “And the fact that a lot of our guys are very young. Very young. And this is their first tour. So I thought I’d come in and give my two cents and give my experience and work with these guys.”
Pao is a squad leader with Third Platoon, supervising six soldiers.
He’s also a forward observer — the guy out there on the distant ridge who calls in targets for mortars and other firepower.
Just last week, he played a pivotal role in an attack on a Taliban position across the valley from Bravo Company’s mountaintop observation post.
It started with five mortar rounds from Third Platoon and ended with an Air Force-delivered 500-pound bomb that still has Bravo Company buzzing.
“San’s done a great job as far as just mentoring the rest of the squad,” said 1st Lt. Frederick Bondole of Portland, Third Platoon’s leader. “He can pretty much get along with anybody.”
Farther down the military hierarchy, Spc. Joseph Burke of South Portland wholeheartedly agrees.
Burke, 19, graduated just a year ago from South Portland High School. He and Pao constitute a two-man fire-support team — and already Burke has learned enough from Pao to have single-handedly called in a recent mortar fusillade that repelled an ambush against Bravo Company’s Second Platoon.
“He’s a great man. I trust him totally,” Burke said. “He’s really calm when things are happening, you know, because he’s been there. He’s seen it before. He’s seen worse than we’ve seen already.”
And, between now and when Bravo Company comes home to Maine late this fall, Pao could well see it all over again.
Does he get scared?
Of course, he replied with a firm nod. Fear, even in this testosterone-charged environment, is a stranger to no one.
“You should be scared. You should be scared every day to keep yourself on your tiptoes,” Pao said. “But the one thing you can’t do is be fearful of the environment.”
Meaning there’s a difference between fear that makes you alert and fear that keeps you downing shots all night?
“Correct,” Pao replied.
To be sure, Pao has developed his own coping mechanisms.
He calls one his “Triple A” philosophy: “Acknowledgement that you’re having issues.
Assess the situation and come up with a plan. And the last ‘A’ is to act on it.”
He also works out religiously, two or three times each day in Bravo Company’s small gym. In more tranquil moments, he paints.
The acrylic-on-canvas works, stark and at times haunting, depict military scenes and themes.
“Freedom Is Not Free,” cautions one over a pair of boots, dog tags, an M-4 rifle and a helmet — the all-too-familiar centerpiece of a fallen soldier’s in-theater memorial service.
Another shows the head and shoulders of a soldier under the word “Afghanistan,” flanked by the numerals “2010.”
Back in December 2004, as I headed out on a convoy a few nights after the dining hall attack, Pao ran out of his barracks and handed me a pair of fireproof gloves to protect my hands in the event of an attack.
This week, as we met again, he gave me one of his paintings.
It’s a self-portrait, he said. He’s standing in silhouette against a bright orange background, perched atop a mountain peak and surrounded by barbed wire.
The barbed wire can be interpreted one of two ways, Pao explained: It can constrict and hurt you, or it can protect you.
And the soldier on the mountaintop?
“It’s like he’s finally made it,” Pao said. “And he’s breathing a sigh of relief.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: