BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — As a teenager, 1st Lt. John Bratten spent his days poring over every book, every photo, every story he could find about Maine’s venerable Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain.

Now, much to his constant amazement, Bratten, of Portland, shares his all-time hero’s military DNA.

“My mom would say I didn’t have normal teenage years – my teenage years were the 1860s,” said Bratten, 27, in an interview this week in the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion headquarters. “I went to Gettysburg seven times. Completely obsessed.”

Bratten is the executive officer for the 133rd’s Headquarters & Headquarters Company. At the same time – and this is by far his favorite part of this deployment that began in October and will end in June – he’s the battalion’s historian.

The job comes naturally.

He earned his master’s degree in history from the University of Southern Maine in 2011, the year he joined the Maine Guard after a stint as an infantry guardsman in his home state of Ohio.

Without so much as an outline, he can trace the 133rd’s lineage, decade by decade, war by war, all the way back to June 6, 1803 – the day a band of militiamen formed the Portland Light Infantry and went on to stare down a planned (and subsequently aborted) British attack on Portland in the War of 1812.

Now, Bratten meticulously chronicles the daily comings and goings of the 133rd – part of the Army’s 82nd Sustainment Brigade – as it goes about the tedious-but-still-dangerous work of dismantling Operation Enduring Freedom.

If all goes according to plan, the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan will effectively be over at this time next year – although, under a proposed agreement yet to be signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 10,000 U.S. troops would remain after that to assist and train Afghan security forces.

Looking back over past campaigns by the 133rd and its ancestral units (the 133rd, Maine’s largest Guard unit, came into being in 1970), Bratten sees “a fairly seamless line from 1803 to 2013 where you have Mainers at the tip of the spear.”

There was the Battle of Gettysburg and Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment – Chamberlain’s pivotal order to defend Little Round Top “to the last man” remains the 133rd’s motto to this day.

Then came the World War I battles of Champagne, Marne, Aisne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in France, followed by Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Luzon in the South Pacific during World War II.

More recently, there was Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, during which the 133rd built health clinics, schools, roads and bridges all over northern Iraq and, in the process, lost three soldiers to combat-related injuries and had many more wounded in action.

MISS A LITTLE, MISS A LOT

Reading the file that supported the battalion’s Army Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2004, Bratten was awestruck by all the 133rd accomplished in Iraq, and crushed to see how little of it had been compiled into a military historical narrative.

“I’m reading through this going, ‘Holy cow! These guys did so much. This is unbelievable!’ ” Bratten said. “I said, ‘You know what? This can’t happen again. We’re going to have concrete evidence, something that somebody can put their hands on: What did the 133rd do in Afghanistan?’ ”

So far, it’s done a lot – managing a battalion of almost 1,000 soldiers when you include the four attached “line companies” from other states.

For some, that has meant many a dangerous day and night on the restive roads of eastern and northern Afghanistan.

On one protracted mission, the 133rd’s Convoy Escort Team and other elements shepherded personnel and equipment to and from an array of forward operating bases that were downsizing. The trip consumed almost the entire month of November.

 

At the same time, other soldiers in the 133rd have yet to set foot outside Bagram Air Field.

They’ve had plenty of paperwork to keep them busy. Yet more than once they’ve hit the floor and then hurried to the protective concrete bunkers as the Taliban has lobbed rockets at them from outside Bagram’s 13-mile perimeter.

Equally important, beyond their individual duties and responsibilities, these Mainers take care of one another. As the 133rd did in Mosul, Iraq, back in 2004, this battalion stands apart from many a National Guard unit not only in its work ethic, but also in its cohesiveness.

(An example of the opposite: One day just before Christmas, I was chatting with a few soldiers from the 133rd outside their tactical operations center when, not far away, two soldiers from one of the out-of-state units got into a fistfight. Their half-dozen comrades simply stood and watched as the two rolled in the dirt and pummeled each other. Only after an officer from the 133rd hollered to knock it off did the fisticuffs come to a grudging halt.)

From its senior officers down to its youngest enlisted men and women, this is a battalion that day in and day out endeavors, as Chamberlain once put it, “to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.”

Soldiers from other units may line up for haircuts at the privately run barbershop inside Bagram’s Camp Warrior. But next to his work station inside HHC headquarters, Sgt. 1st Class Kameel Farag of Oakland so far has given 134 buzz cuts, at no charge, to any 133rd soldier who has asked for one.

(Farag’s tiger-print smock and other supplies came via Sgt. 1st Class Michael Mowry of Greene, whose wife, Linda, runs the Urban Edge hair salon in Auburn.)

“It’s a good break for me from doing this,” Farag said, pointing to his desktop. “By the end of this deployment, nine months over here, I can probably save a lot of people a lot of time.”

COHESIVENESS HAS ITS REWARDS

While other units blow off steam with their fists, the 133rd’s HHC tactical operations center has become notorious for its impromptu Nerf-gun battles.

The first “weapons,” a half-dozen six-shooters, were a gift to 1st Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison from his wife, Teresa. Things escalated from there: Lt. Bratten’s brother-in-law sent him a semi-automatic Nerf-dart rifle after Bratten implored his wife, Margaret, “I need something for self-defense!”

The 133rd has even seen fit to build its own hardscrabble golf course – the brainchild of Staff Sgt. Justin Poirier of Waterville.

Poirier emailed Harris Golf in Bath recently to ask where he could get hold of a batch of cheap golf balls. The company responded this week by shipping to Bagram, at no charge, golf bags, full sets of clubs, cases of golf balls, two full-size hitting mats, tees, and a set of nine flags and pins.

“Whenever you get something like that, it makes it worthwhile being here,” said Poirier between practice swings in the snow with his well-worn seven-iron Tuesday afternoon. “You know what I mean? It’s kind of refreshing. It’s impressive.”

It’s also fodder for Lt. Bratten, the military historian who back home works as an auto claims adjuster for Progressive Corp.

PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL RECORD

Bratten’s objectives are twofold.

The first is to produce, every 90 days, a detailed historical report on everything the 133rd has done operationally – all to be filed with the Department of the Army, the Center for Army Lessons Learned and the Army Center of Military History.

“It talks about what we did, how we can do it better, what are any lessons learned for people coming after us,” said Bratten.

His second task will be to produce a battalion yearbook, for each of the soldiers deployed here, to capture the human side of nine months in what is still very much a war zone. Maybe it was destiny that led Bratten, a kid from Ohio who grew up eating, breathing and dreaming all things 20th Maine, to become the chief storyteller for Chamberlain’s direct military descendants. Or maybe it was just his and the 133rd’s good luck.

All he knows is that he’s here, documenting yet another war for a battalion that has long made Maine proud.

“War may change, but Mainers stay the same,” said Bratten as Operation Enduring Freedom, the longest war in U.S. history, entered its final year.

And when there are no more wars? What then?

Bratten leaned back and smiled.

“That’s the soldiers’ dream,” he said. “Right there.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]