Back in 2009, as he bestowed the Meritorious Unit Commendation on the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, Gen. Carter Ham had nothing but good to say about Maine’s oldest and largest military unit.
“I was unbelievably pleased with the 133rd’s performance,” said Ham, who commanded the brigade under which the 133rd served in Mosul, Iraq, in 2004-05. “They threw themselves into every mission, completely selfless. They worked in some very dangerous areas and were able to accomplish a great deal while they were there. I was impressed five years ago and I remain impressed today.”
High praise indeed for a battalion that will come home in June from yet another war zone in Afghanistan.
So why, as the 133rd prepares to redirect its many talents to peacetime pursuits, is the top brass in the Maine Guard now trying to get rid of it?
Because the unit is made up of engineers, that’s why. And the Maine Guard, for reasons that seem heavy on testosterone and light on logic, has developed a man crush on all things infantry.
It’s now clear that the Maine Guard’s senior command, from Brig. Gen. James Campbell on down, was caught flat-footed by this week’s stories in the Portland Press Herald about its plan to swap the 133rd for an infantry unit from Pennsylvania sometime in the next three to five years.
Still, in an email dispatched hastily Tuesday to Maine’s congressional delegation, Campbell (who’s now in Saudi Arabia) confirmed that it’s “highly likely” the Maine Guard will “make a change with another state” to beef up its infantry at the expense of its engineers.
Added Campbell, “There will be some in the state who will have an understandably emotional reaction to such a change if it occurs.”
He’s got that right.
Over the past decade, I’ve embedded with both the 133rd in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Maine Guard’s Bravo Company, Third Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, in Afghanistan. Their missions, at the risk of understatement, couldn’t be more different.
Engineers build things (see: roads, health clinics and other community projects all over northern Iraq) and take them apart (see: combat outposts, forward operating bases and other disappearing military infrastructure all over central and eastern Afghanistan).
Infantrymen, on the other hand, fight. Or, as the mission statement on Bravo Company’s home page puts it, they “close with and destroy enemy forces using fire, maneuver, and shock effect, or to repel his assault by fire and counterattack.”
Now ask yourselves, fellow Mainers, which you would rather have at your disposal the next time an ice storm, a hurricane, a blizzard or some other natural disaster leaves us with impassable roads, washed out bridges and downed power lines?
I vote engineers.
Sure, they don’t walk with quite the same swagger as their infantry counterparts. And truth be told, many engineers hold a deep-down resentment of the perception among the bang-bang-shoot’em-up crowd that engineers aren’t “real warriors” – even though they carry much the same weaponry and face the same risks in theater as any infantry unit.
Here at home, however, engineers are pure gold.
Need a temporary bridge installed yesterday? Done.
Need a small-town ball field for the local kids? No problem – to the 133rd, it’s a hand-in-glove training exercise.
Need an upgrade to a nonprofit summer camp for kids with cancer? As Michael Katz, campus director for Camp Sunshine in Casco, told Press Herald staffer Randy Billings on Wednesday, the 133rd’s “work is second to none.”
Which brings us back to that “why” question.
Campbell, who took over as Maine’s adjutant general in 2012, is an infantry guy to the core.
He received a regular Army commission as an infantry officer in 1986 and went on to become the Officer Distinguished Honor Graduate of his class at Army Ranger school.
Upon joining the Maine Guard, he commanded the 172nd Mountain Infantry’s Bravo company. More recently, he served as deputy chief of the Operations Plans Division at U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
Thus it’s only natural that Campbell, while assuring Maine’s congressional delegation that this plan was in the works long before he took over the Maine Guard, would see swapping the 133rd for an infantry battalion as a natural realignment of Maine’s military backbone.
Noting that the 133rd’s ancestral units served as infantry as far back as the Civil War, Campbell wrote, “Changing the unit back to Infantry is a good fit and returns it to its historic heritage.”
A good fit for whom? Military historians?
Campbell went on to claim that Maine Guard engineering assets are “rarely used extensively in state emergencies” and that “more flexible, general purpose units like infantry are more generally valuable in that they provide masses of trained soldiers with organic transport, communications and leadership.”
But can the infantry move a mountain of mud? Can it operate a grader? Can it deftly and efficiently dissect a collapsed building with a heavy excavator to reach victims trapped in the rubble?
Not without all that heavy equipment (and the know-how to run it), they can’t.
Campbell also informed the congressional delegation that he prefers infantry over engineers because engineering is “more complex and difficult … to recruit for, train and maintain.”
Maybe so, although in all my dealings with the Maine Guard in recent years, that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone complain about having trouble finding recruits for any unit.
And while it might indeed be tougher to train the average combat engineer, might it not be worth it if that man or woman goes back to civilian life with an easily transferable job skill?
The simple reality here is that the National Guard essentially serves two masters: the federal government in times of war, and the state in which each Guard resides in times of peace.
Infantry operations, from training through deployment, tilt heavily toward the fast-diminishing federal mission. The Iraq war is over and the Afghanistan war, the longest in the nation’s history, soon will be too.
Engineer operations, on the other hand, are as useful (if not more so) here at home as they are in a war zone. Call it a training exercise if you must, but a new municipal salt-and-sand shed is still a new municipal salt-and-sand shed.
Two years ago this summer, well after Gen. Ham attached yet another hard-earned streamer to the 133rd’s colors, a news release appeared on the Maine Guard’s website extolling the work being done by the engineers at Camp Sunshine and several other locations around the state.
“One of the ways the Maine Army National Guard, 133rd Engineer Battalion, stays up on their training is by giving back to Maine communities,” the release said. “Along with Camp Sunshine, there are many additional sites where Maine Army National Guard soldiers are using valuable training time to practice their job and contribute to their friends and neighbors.”
So why stop now?
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: