AUGUSTA — For the rest of this season, the Mount Blue High School varsity basketball team in Farmington will wear armbands bearing the initials of Maine Army National Guard Lt. Col. Michael J. Backus.

Backus, 44, of Wilton, died Monday while at Camp Keyes in Augusta. The cause of his death hasn’t been determined.

Two of Backus’ three sons, a freshman and a junior, play basketball for Coach Josh Bishop at Mount Blue High, where Backus graduated. Backus’ other son graduated from Mount Blue in 2010 and attends Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Bishop said other school tributes and support measures are being planned.

“Each and every soldier that had the opportunity to work with Mike is in a state of shock,” said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard. “His loss is so untimely and so unexpected that it causes us all to reflect how short life is.”

Backus was doing his typical duties at Camp Keyes at the time of his death, Steinbuchel said. He was the operations branch chief for the deputy chief of staff.

He graduated from Mount Blue High in 1986, and graduate four years later from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Backus then attended flight school, where he trained and served as an Apache helicopter pilot.

Backus joined the Maine Army National Guard in 2001 and qualified as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. He served with the 112th Medical Company air ambulance, which went to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said Tuesday that he got to know Backus when the men began corresponding as he served in Iraq. Their friendship grew when Backus returned and he and Saviello began working in veterans programs and with sports boosters. “This is a young man I felt some day would be the future of this community,” Saviello said. “He’s dedicated to his country, he’s dedicated to his community and he’s dedicated to his family.”

Saviello said Backus’ military background, including at West Point, hint at his brilliance but Backus preferred to blend into the background. Saviello said he never knew that Backus graduated from West Point until a couple of years ago, and learned of it only in passing conversation.

“He was just a common, dedicated individual,” Saviello said. “But he was a special man.”

Steinbuchel said Backus was picked in 2004 to help establish the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program in Maine, which was the beginning of the guard’s ongoing relationship with the country of Montenegro.

The partnership program forms alliances with nations aimed at supporting U.S. national interests while providing social and economic assistance to the partner nations.

Backus served in other high-profile positions in the Maine National Guard, including as public affairs officer, executive officer of the 52nd Troop Command in Bangor, and recruiting and retention battalion commander.

Brig. Gen. James D. Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said guardsmen were shocked and saddened by the unexpected loss.

“Mike was a longstanding career officer who served professionally in a number of key assignments and served the country and state well,” Campbell said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Craig Crosby can be contacted 621-5642 or at:
[email protected]