Originally published June 20, 2010

COMBAT OUTPOST DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan – First and foremost, let me tell you about the picture attached to this column.

One recent afternoon, as I walked down to the makeshift latrine here on this military installation overlooking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, I heard someone call my name.

It was Spc. Joshua Hager of Corinth. He and a few other soldiers from the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, were hard at work filling sandbags for a mortar pit.

“Want to try it? It can be that kind of reporting where you do the whole, full experience — you know, what’s it called?” Hager said.

“You mean full-immersion reporting?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s it!” he replied. “Want to give it a try?”

Fortunately, deadlines beckoned. I begged off as graciously as I could.

But Hager was just getting warmed up.

“Hey, sir, I’ve got this picture of myself,” he said. “It’s really nice. Think you could put it in the paper? I mean it’s good! Really good! It’s … it’s … it’s majestic!”

With that, his fellow soldiers went to pieces.

“Hager, man, are you kidding me?” one said between belly laughs.

“Majestic? Did he just say ‘majestic?’” chortled another.

“Hager? In the newspaper? That’ll be the day!” guffawed still another.

Well, gentlemen, live and learn.

The truth is they’re right. Spc. Hager is no different from any of the other 150 or so GIs serving on this rocky, dusty combat outpost 7,000 miles from postcard-perfect Maine.

The truth is every last one of them, from the company commander to the greenest private first class, deserves to have his photo on Page 1 of this newspaper — and then some.

The truth is, most Mainers — as they head for the lake or the beach this Father’s Day or open a cold one by the backyard barbecue — can’t begin to grasp the sacrifices these sons, husbands and, yes, fathers are making halfway around the world.

You want something cold over here?

Try the enlisted men’s shower.

You want a scenic vista?

Look through the coils of concertina wire at the mountains — home not to the deer and the moose, but rather the Taliban and al-Qaida.

You want the way life should be?

In this tortured part of the world, you’d best set your sights on simply staying alive.

Watching these soldiers go about their duties these past two weeks, I’ve been struck how, to a man, they accept each day not just with stoicism, but also with a spirit of camaraderie more powerful than any I’ve ever seen.

It starts, as it must, at the top.

In Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn, Bravo Company boasts a commander with the essential mix of empathy and toughness that defines strong leadership.

One day over lunch, Bosse and I chuckled while a trio of young soldiers recalled — with ever-escalating superlatives — a recent mortar attack on a Taliban position from Bravo Company’s Observation Post 13.

“Not too much testosterone in this bunch, huh?” Bosse said, beaming at his men.

A day or two later, I spotted a soldier wearing a black eye patch as he went about his duties.

Wounded in action?

Thankfully, no.

The young GI had forgotten to wear his eye protection while traveling inside an armored vehicle. Bosse, wise man, figured a couple days seeing the world through one eye was an appropriate punishment.

(The soldier’s two higher-ups also paid — they had to write fictitious letters to a mother back home explaining why her son had lost his eyesight.)

The same quiet-but-firm leadership can be found in 1st Sgt. John Brooks of Glenburn, the company’s top enlisted soldier.

Never will I forget watching the Second Platoon prepare for a possible Taliban attack (it never materialized) as darkness fell one night on Bravo Company’s mountaintop Observation Post 13.

“Go with your gut,” Brooks told the platoon leaders as they briefed him on their plans for securing the perimeter. “If your instincts are telling you that’s what to do, then that’s what you should do.”

With a long, anxious night ahead, it was precisely what they needed to hear.

Bravo Company, to be frank, is being asked to do the impossible.

More than one officer has told me privately that it would take at least a battalion — three or four times bigger than Bravo Company — to truly control this sprawling “battle area” of rugged mountains and narrow valleys.

Truth be told, there are many places in Paktya province’s Dand wa Patan District into which the Maine soldiers have yet to venture. Places where the Taliban and other insurgents come and go without fear of the Americans and their vastly superior firepower.

Yet these hardy Mainers push on, from ridge to valley to the next ridge to the next valley, determined to bring security to as much of the area as possible before they finally come home sometime in December.

So focused are they on that mission, and that mission alone, that the rest of the world tends to leave them behind.

One night, sitting outside the officers’ quarters, one lieutenant asked me, “So did I hear there was some kind of big oil spill back home?”

“Ah, yes,” I said, wondering at first if he was pulling my leg. “It’s a bad one.”

He had no idea.

Even the recent news that Afghanistan, lo and behold, sits atop a trillion dollars or more worth of gold, copper, lithium and other precious minerals generated little more than a yawn from this bunch.

“Great,” I heard one soldier say one evening from my small room in the rear of the chow hall. “Now they’ll all really have something to fight about.”

It was the closest thing to the politics of this war that I heard during my entire stay with these soldiers.

Back home in Maine, you see, we have the luxury of spouting off about this policy or dissecting that tactic.

Many of us, judging from our 24/7 discourse, think we know all there is to know about Afghanistan, its often-mystifying culture, its ultimate fate with or without U.S. military support.

These soldiers, on the other hand, know but one thing: They have a job to do. And to a man, they’re doing it with honor.

I’ve watched them move out before dawn in search of weapons and explosives, not knowing what might be waiting for them out there in the darkness.

I’ve watched them march through the middle of a not-so-friendly marketplace in the nearby town of Chamkani, unsure who among the all-male audience glaring back at them would be talking to (or maneuvering with) the Taliban that night.

“If looks could kill, we’d all be dead right now,” Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham, a member of Bravo’s intelligence unit, later observed with a chuckle.

I’ve watched them jockey for sleeping-bag space on the bare ground atop OP-13, hoping a recent outbreak of fleas wouldn’t disturb their precious few hours of shut-eye.

In short, I’ve watched them do Maine proud.

Now, as I board the last of the 11 fixed-wing and rotary aircraft it took to get me to and from this godforsaken place, I find myself at a loss for that one word that best describes this rock-solid, mountain infantry unit from Maine.

So I guess I’ll just defer to Spc. Hager, sitting up there atop the world on OP-13. You, brave young man, had it right all along.

These guys are majestic. 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]