PORTLAND – Adam Gaulin signed his name to his enlistment papers, shook hands with the men in the Maine National Guard office and went home. That night he spoke to his family.

“Dad, what did I just do?”

The next day Gaulin walked into the office of his swimming coach at St. Joseph’s College and gave Rick Horr the news. Coach, I just signed up for the National Guard.

Horr looked at the swimmer who holds so many school breast stroke records. He remembers saying two words: Excuse me?

That was in October 2011. Then, neither knew Gaulin’s life as a student-athlete would be interrupted by a deployment. Within the next two weeks, PFC Adam Gaulin of the Belfast-area community of Northport and St. Joseph’s College will leave with units of the 133rd Engineer Battalion for Afghanistan. Their mission is to help the American military continue its disengagement from combat in that far-away country. Someone must dismantle the bases. Someone must still try to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Everyone wants their unit and every other unit to be safe and come back alive.

“I’m absolutely as nervous as any kid,” said Gaulin. “But I’ll worry more about the people back home. I don’t want them to be worrying about me. When I got the orders, it felt like a pit in my stomach dropped all the way out. But through this training, I know I’m ready to go.”

We spoke outside the Stevens Avenue Armory in Portland a few weeks ago. Gaulin had just finished the day’s pre-deployment training. In his camouflage fatigues, his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame looked more like a small college football tight end than a swimmer. He smiled easily.

He joined the Maine National Guard because he bought into the recruiting pitch: Go to college for free and serve your country. Ultimately, Gaulin wants to get his doctorate in physical education. That’s more years of tuition and room and board.

“I was looking for a way to pay for school; I admit it. At basic training the drill instructor pounded it into our heads: Oh, you’re here for the money. You’re not here for the patriotism.”

Gaulin soon realized that wasn’t true. “You know (enlisting) is going to change your life, change how you look at life. I want to serve. I want to be part of the bigger solution.”

He sees the looks from strangers when he’s dressed in his military fatigues. Americans tire quickly of the military actions their country undertakes. Another deployment? Why?

“You get some very weird looks (when the deployment is mentioned.) But you just can’t pull all the troops out at once.”

He’s not looking for glory. He’ll drive a truck. “We’re not even called a platoon. We’re called a truck.” He sees honor in what he’s doing. That’s all that matters.

Earlier this summer Gaulin flew to the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. His girlfriend, Jamie Wojtkiewicz, a St. Joseph’s graduate and a former swimmer, is attending veterinary school there. Yes, she’s definitely nervous about his deployment.

“I love her to pieces and I don’t want to see her worry, but she understands my need to do this.”

Gaulin expected to graduate next spring, but the deployment has changed that. He transferred to St. Joseph’s from the University of Maine, where his younger brother, Eric, is a strong, competitive swimmer.

“I’m 24 years old. I’m on the tail end of what I can do as a swimmer. I don’t have the same pop. I’ve been waiting for a couple of years now to be called grandpa.” Maybe they’ll call him Sarge when he returns.

“We’re a small, close-knit team,” said Horr. The St. Joseph’s program is less than 10 years old. “When Adam came, we had four men on the swimming team. He was very excited about doing his part to build the program. There’s a lot of mutual admiration on this team. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best one in the pool or not.

“Sometimes at our open houses he’d talk to 10 (prospective) swimmers. Sometimes there would be no one. It didn’t matter to Adam. Someone would come next time.”

Horr coached swimming at Deering High before coming to St. Joseph’s. Some of his high school swimmers graduated and enlisted, but Gaulin is the first while at St. Joseph’s.

This week, Horr and assistant coach Ashton Piers took Gaulin to dinner. They hugged before they parted. The coaches told Gaulin how proud they were.

The citizen-soldier thanked them. 

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway