A former commander of the Maine Army National Guard said Thursday that he opposes a plan to reassign Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion to Pennsylvania in exchange for an infantry unit because the state would lose a critical resource for emergency and community services.
Maj. Gen. Earl Adams, now retired, said state officials typically fight to keep engineer units because of their ability to respond to natural disasters and the transferable skills they teach, compared with the relatively limited training of the infantry.
“Carpenters, electricians, plumbers … there’s all kinds of equipment and all kinds of skills that we’ve used,” Adams said. “To put it bluntly, the skills required of an infantry unit is to kill. We changed from infantry to engineers because we wanted those skill sets available in Maine.”
Gov. Paul LePage, commander in chief of the Maine Army National Guard, has not indicated whether he supports the plan. On Thursday, his communications director, Peter Steele, sent a terse email to the Portland Press Herald disputing the newspaper’s report that the governor was unaware of the transfer plan.
Steele did not respond to multiple requests for clarification and additional information.
On Tuesday, the newspaper revealed that plans are under way to send the 133rd Engineer Battalion to Pennsylvania in exchange for an infantry unit, apparently to the surprise of LePage and members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
LePage called a Press Herald reporter Wednesday, and in a phone call that lasted about a minute, said he was surprised, then requested the reporter’s original source for the information.
The reporter declined to identify the source, at which point the governor said, “Well, it didn’t come from the Maine National Guard,” then hung up.
Steele said afterward that nothing would happen until LePage met with the present commander of the Guard, Brig. Gen. James Campbell.
Campbell is in the Mideast and cannot be reached for comment. But in an email Tuesday to Maine’s congressional delegation, Campbell said it’s “highly likely” the Maine Guard will “make a change with another state” to swap the 133rd for an infantry unit.
The battalion’s spokesman, Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, has said the idea of reintroducing an infantry unit to Maine was part of a statewide plan for the Guard produced in 2008. He said an infantry unit would be a more flexible, agile force than an engineering battalion.
The Press Herald has made multiple requests for a copy of the 2008 plan, but Steinbuchel has not produced it.
The proposed exchange of Guard units would likely occur in the period from 2017 to 2019 as part of a larger process to downsize the military after costly, decade-long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The drawdown, also a response to wide-ranging military spending cuts, has pitted portions of the military against one another. By and large, the National Guard has avoided some of the painful concessions made by other service branches.
COMPLEX STATE-GUARD RELATIONS
Joan Nissley, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania National Guard, said the state’s National Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, was not aware of the proposed swap until it emerged in media reports.
Nissley would not comment on the plan, but said Craig opposes the Army’s overall effort to cut its ranks and rebalance force levels.
She said each state will be asked to cut about 10 percent of its ranks, which would downsize the Guard nationally from about 350,000 soldiers to about 315,000.
“We have actively worked to fight those cuts because the Guard is very cost-effective,” Nissley said.
If the plan is carried out, the 133rd Engineer Battalion’s reassignment will ship out of Maine a highly trained force that has responded to natural disasters and other emergencies, and carried out construction projects for schools, summer camps and numerous other organizations during its annual training sessions.
Adams, who retired in 2000 after leading the Maine Guard for five years and serving in its second-ranking position for 13 years before that, said he has heard a groundswell since Tuesday from current and former members of the 133rd.
Several representatives of community and civic groups that have benefited from the Guard’s projects have also raised concerns.
Adams said he doesn’t know the impetus for the swap. He said some changes in the Guard have been handed down from above without much chance for local influence, while others have been closer to the control of the governor or Guard leaders in Maine.
The relationship between each state’s Guard commander – its adjutant general – and the National Guard Bureau, which orchestrates strategy nationwide, is more complex, Adams said. In the past, governors have either called the chief of the National Guard Bureau directly or allowed their adjutant generals to communicate their position.
At no time are relationships more complex than during budget cuts and the current drawdown of forces, said Daniel Goure, vice president at the Lexington Institute, a think tank that examines military policy. Military officials must weigh strategic priorities against the desires of individual branches of the military and the elected officials who represent the states where those units are stationed.
Military leaders have been examining the drawdown for at least 18 months, including discussions with Congress and governors. After military leaders, from the president to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sign off on a restructuring plan, it goes to Congress for approval.
Goure said the media reports on the elements of the plan signal that the swap could be imminent for Maine.
LEPAGE: REPORTS A ‘POLITICAL PLOY’
In Augusta on Thursday, at an interfaith prayer breakfast attended by elements of the Maine Army National Guard, LePage lashed out at his Democratic opponent for governor, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
LePage, a Republican, blamed Press Herald reports on the Guard’s plan on Michaud and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, calling it a “political ploy.”
“There is no story,” LePage told Portland’s WCSH-TV.
In a written statement, Michaud said it was irresponsible for the governor to politicize the Guard members, “particularly at a time when so many of them are deployed abroad.”
Currently, 166 Guard members are in Afghanistan, where they are dismantling the U.S. military presence.
Michaud said he learned of the unit swap from officials in the Maine Guard who report to LePage.
Pingree’s office is seeking feedback on the plan from current and former members of the 133rd who would be affected by the proposal, and from groups or people who have been helped by the engineers.
“I’ve already heard from a number of constituents who are opposed to sending the 133rd to Pennsylvania,” Pingree said in a prepared statement. “There are a bunch of different opinions and I want to make sure I listen to all of them.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: