BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The way Lt. Col. Dean Preston sees it, he has three types of soldiers serving here under his command with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.
“We have the people who were with us in Iraq and are now joining us in Afghanistan, we have the people who have been to Afghanistan for a prior tour, and we have people that have never been to war,” Preston said Friday as Operation Enduring Freedom – or what’s left of it – hummed along outside his battalion headquarters office. “And challenges come with all three of those types.”
And which group faces the biggest adjustment?
“Us Iraq veterans,” replied Preston, 46, who as a captain commanded the 133rd’s Alpha Company during the battalion’s yearlong deployment to Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
The Iraq veterans? How so?
“This is not Iraq,” said Preston, of Pembroke. “It’s a different war and a different time.”
Nine years ago this weekend, the 133rd was a battalion in mourning. A suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi soldier had just self-detonated inside the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, killing 22 people and wounded 85 others.
Two members of the 133rd – Sgt. Thomas Dostie of Somerville and Staff Sgt. Lynn Poulin of Freedom – died that day.
More than a dozen other battalion members were wounded.
And in the days that followed, close to 500 Maine soldiers tried mightily to celebrate the Christmas holiday even as they wrestled with their grief and a sudden sense of vulnerability as palpable inside their base’s barbed-wire perimeter as it was on the outside.
Last week, to be sure, the danger inherent in any deployment to a war zone was but a loudspeaker away – witness Friday morning’s brief “Incoming, Incoming, Take Cover, Take Cover” alert that had everyone first hitting the ground and then scurrying to protective bunkers to await the “All Clear” that soon followed.
But the cause for alarm – small-arms fire directed at a distant gate on this massive 6,000-acre military compound – underscored the heightened security that has evolved from more than a decade of U.S. soldiers living in two war zones: Where once the only warning of imminent danger was the high-pitched whine of an incoming mortar or rocket seconds before impact, a phalanx of sophisticated electronic equipment now alerts all of Bagram Air Field the moment an IDF – Army-speak for indirect fire – launches from the mountainous terrain surrounding the base.
“We had no alarms back then,” Preston said. “Now, we know it’s coming.”
As dramatically as the force-protection capabilities have changed, so has the 133rd’s mission.
In Iraq, the battalion gained widespread respect and recognition for building things – hospitals, health clinics, roads, schools – designed to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis living throughout the country’s northern Kurdistan region.
Here, as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Centcom Materiel Retrograde Element, the Mainers’ mission involves virtually no contact with the local populace. Rather, the 133rd is focused myopically on the end of a military presence that dates back almost all the way to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Maine contingent is also smaller this time – 174 soldiers, 152 men and 22 women divided among the Headquarters & Headquarters Support Company, or HHC, Forward Support Company, or FSC, and a 15-soldier contingent from the Maine Guard’s 1035 Survey and Design Team.
Together, they provide administrative and logistical support throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan to other National Guard “line companies” from New Jersey, Delaware, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. Those units, all of which report to Preston, are fast dismantling forward operating bases, combat outposts and other military installations throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan as the U.S. presence countrywide steadily drops from 47,000 troops currently to a projected 10,000 by the end of 2014.
Put more simply, from mundane-but-crucial record-keeping to better-armored-but-still dangerous convoys, the 133rd is one-third of the way through a nine-month mission to help take apart a war.
Still, some things haven’t changed. As they demonstrated so poignantly during their last deployment almost a decade ago, these soldiers remain determined “to the last man,” as their battalion motto goes, to look after one another.
Take the cooks, for example. Not needed for food preparation – all meals are prepared at a nearby dining facility staffed by a private contracting firm – the 133rd’s six-member culinary detail now provides 24-hour staffing for the battalion’s newly completed cluster of MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) tents, also known as the Black Bear Lounge.
“It gives the soldiers a place to be with their friends,” Sgt. Nathan Fortier of Lewiston said as he showed off the computers with free Internet access, the bank of five telephones that will connect you with home for a mere 2 cents per minute, the pingpong table made out of rough plywood next to the pool table covered with camouflage felt, the 700 movie DVDs, the big-screen TV, the shelves stacked neatly with every toiletry a soldier could need.
A fellow cook, Staff Sgt. Heidi Darling of Waterville, said the packages from Maine pour in daily – such as the shipment of 174 fully stuffed Christmas stockings from Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook, each bearing the name and rank of a Maine soldier. The project was spearheaded by Teresa Pattle, wife of Headquarters & Headquarters Support Company 1st Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison.
“When it comes from Maine, it’s like a piece of home,” said Darling, who’s serving here alongside her uncle, Staff Sgt. 1st Class Roderick Darling of Buckfield. “Because we know it came from people we know and are actually connected to us in some way shape or form.”
It’s but one of many signs that while the Afghanistan War itself is no longer front-and-center on many Mainers’ minds, the home-state soldiers serving in it still are.
Before the 133rd deployed, the battalion’s Family Readiness Group took full-length photos of each soldier and enlarged them to form cardboard-backed, life-sized “flat soldiers” for any family that requested one. Since the soldiers arrived here in early October, their lifelike images have popped up daily on Facebook pages all over Maine.
“All the families have been taking the flat soldiers everywhere and even dressing us up and doing all sorts of cool stuff,” said Sgt. Jessica Kurka of Durham, here with her husband, Sgt. Robert Kurka. “It looks like you’re really there, and we’re like, ‘Oh, look where I was!’ ”
Then there’s the Portland-based Elizabeth Wadsworth Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, which sent over 200 dozen cookies, dozens of brownies and boxes of hot chocolate, along with camouflage helmet liners “to help keep you warm in the cold Afghani winter,” as chapter Regent Leanne Lentz Spencer of Buxton put it in her accompanying letter.
She added plaintively, “As much as we enjoy being able to send a little holiday cheer and a message of support to you, we all look forward to the day when there will no longer be any American military personnel in war zones and no need for our gifts and good wishes.”
The cookies and brownies were set aside for Saturday evening’s battalion Christmas party in the Black Bear Lounge – not quite the same as the living room back home, but a family gathering nonetheless.
For many, of course, this will be like no Christmas they’ve ever experienced. No pine trees, no snow (or ice, for that matter), no crackling logs in the wood stove or fireplace. Just a dusty, chilly tundra where the 4,800-foot altitude can leave you longing for a deep breath of salty Maine air.
But Iraq, thankfully, this is not. Where most of the battalion spent the entire year in Mosul living in paper-thin “connex” barracks, all personnel with the rank of staff sergeant or lower moved last week from tents into new, hard-shell buildings that offer better shelter from the occasional incoming rocket. Higher-ranking officers, now assigned to flimsy, plywood B-huts whose peeling-paint exteriors betray their age, soon will follow into an adjacent concrete building.
“That’s how we roll,” said Lt. Col. Preston, explaining why the higher-ups take cover last.
Outside the wire, meanwhile, one of the 133rd’s convoys did come under small-arms fire not long after the battalion arrived. But the bullets bounced harmlessly off the MRAP – Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected – armored vehicles that are vastly safer than the thin-skinned Humvees of old.
Back when he was a line company commander in Iraq, Preston ran 166 convoys throughout Mosul and points north. Looking through his old journal the other night, he counted 23 times that he and his soldiers took direct fire, be it an improvised explosive device, a rocket-propelled grenade, small-arms fire or a coordinated attack involving all of the above. Injuries, some serious, happened.
“There was dust and all that stuff in your face,” Preston recalled. “But the faster we moved, the tougher a target we figured we were.”
Preston has yet to ride on a convoy here – a battalion commander’s duties keep him tied more closely than he’d prefer to his knock-on-wood desk. But when he now sends his men and women out into harm’s way – and yes, there still is a war going on out there – Preston at least knows they’ll be far better protected than they were when this decade-plus of war first began.
“They’re out there – there are big enough VBIDS (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) and IEDs to hurt us, to kill us, there’s no question,” he said. “But those small-arms fires and small IEDs, we can absorb and we can live through. It may give us a headache, but we come out alive.”
For those among the 133rd who have been there and done that – and now are here and doing it again – that’s huge.
“It’s amazing to experience in my lifetime,” Preston said. “Just to see that change in equipment and capability.”
And not a Christmas too soon.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: