An insurrection is underway within the Maine Army National Guard.
Recently, in the wake of my previous columns about a quiet effort to swap Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry unit in another state, I’ve received signed comments from more than two dozen soldiers at all levels within the Maine Guard. To a man and woman, they say they feel betrayed not only by the plan, but by the two senior officers who hatched it – Brig. Gen. James Campbell and his chief of staff, Col. Jack Mosher.
Fearing reprisals, all asked that their names not be used. As one high-ranking officer put it, “The environment at Camp Keyes (the Maine Guard’s Augusta headquarters) right now is absolutely toxic. There is a poor command climate, lack of transparency and general intimidation from senior leaders. I haven’t seen anything like it in the 20-plus years I’ve been in the Guard.”
At the same time, the soldiers are imploring Gov. Paul LePage, at whose pleasure Campbell serves, to do something about it.
“I have the utmost respect for Governor LePage,” wrote a noncommissioned officer currently serving with the 133rd in Afghanistan. “And I trust that if (Campbell and Mosher) are trying to blindside the State of Maine with a bitter pill to suit their own personal desires, that the Governor will do what is right and relieve them with quickness.”
Take it from someone who has embedded with the Maine Guard five times in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade: This is serious business.
Rarely do soldiers speak ill of their higher-ups even in private, let alone in emails to the state’s largest newspaper. And never have they been so unified in their message that Maine’s proud military tradition is coming apart at the seams.
The problem, based on the soldiers’ messages, appears to be threefold:
First and foremost is Campbell’s vision of a Maine Guard that gives up its longstanding focus on engineer units in favor of the infantry world upon which he’s built his career.
“At the 1st leadership conference under his command, General Campbell stated, ‘WE KILL PEOPLE, THAT’S WHAT WE DO!!” wrote one chief warrant officer now serving in Afghanistan, “Just how much ‘Killing’ do the citizens of Maine need?”
Rather, he and many others argue, the 133rd is more valuable to Maine, particularly in peacetime, than an infantry unit ever could be.
“In 1998, I spent 2 weeks working with line crews during the ice storm,” recalled a senior noncom also in Afghanistan. “Myself and numerous other soldiers of the 133rd have been called upon or volunteered numerous times through the years to not just serve our country in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to serve our state and others during the floods in the southern part of Maine, Hurricane Katrina (and) the floods in Vermont, to name a few.”
Added another senior NCO: “What will the infantry do when they come upon a collapsed bridge or washed out road? Grab their entrenching tool (miniature shovel) and rebuild?”
Next on the soldiers’ list of grievances is the impact a switch to infantry would have on female soldiers, who currently are not allowed to serve in infantry units.
Seven female soldiers in all voiced their alarm that swapping out the 133rd could mean the end of their military careers.
“The leaders of my organization – i.e. BG Campbell and COL Mosher – are basically telling me that I bring nothing to the fight. My contributions do not mean anything,” wrote one female officer. “I have never felt so undervalued and unappreciated in my entire life.”
She continued: “What are we telling young women – maybe that same girl who remembers that Engineers fixed the Girl Scout Camp Pondicherry in Bridgton – and wanted to join to help her community? We are saying join the Active Duty, join the Army Reserve or even the Marines or Navy, but sure as hell do not join the Maine Army National Guard, we have nothing for you.”
Another female soldier wrote that she deployed with the 133rd to Mosul, Iraq, in 2004-05 and is now with the battalion’s Headquarters & Headquarters Company at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
“After dedicating so much time to this organization and putting its needs before my own, it concerns me that my service is unappreciated by the MEARNG leaders at the highest levels,” she wrote. “I feel disposable.”
Finally, there’s widespread disenchantment with Campbell himself. He’s been in Saudi Arabia, reportedly on a fellowship, since the story first broke on April 30 and is expected to return to Maine sometime this week to a headquarters that sounds anything but welcoming.
“It’s a very paranoid environment right now,” reported an officer who is assigned to Camp Keyes. “There need to be wholesale changes in the senior leadership of the Maine Guard very soon or morale will continue to plummet. This is an assessment shared by many senior leaders in the organization.”
A senior noncommissioned officer in Afghanistan, speaking of both Campbell and Chief of Staff Mosher, wrote: “They have both spoken in public about how the National Guard needs to have more killers and managers of violence, rather than domestic response and community involvement. The fact that they would attempt to do this while a healthy portion of the Battalion is overseas is deplorable.”
Several soldiers noted that the mission of the engineers benefits Maine economically in two ways: the three dozen or so full-time maintenance positions needed to keep the 133rd’s equipment in good working order at armories around the state, and the easily transferred skills that many of these “citizen soldiers” bring to their civilian occupations.
Noted one female enlisted soldier: “The Governor has done some amazing work when it comes to painting Maine as ‘business friendly.’ To replace the skill sets brought to the state by Engineers with those of Infantry is counterproductive. The skills of Engineers are much more beneficial and relevant to the civilian job market than those of Infantry.”
A male commissioned officer wrote that Campbell’s and Mosher’s plan reflects “their dream of having a gunslinger boys club fill the state.”
“It will set us backwards, reduce or eliminate our capacity to perform anything beyond directing traffic during natural disasters, displace women veterans, and disenchant troops who are enamored with learning a job skill that serves them in their civilian careers,” he predicted.
Added a senior noncommissioned officer in Afghanistan: “Whatever integrity we had in our Command is lost. Many of my Soldiers question whether our own Governor was in this plan as well.”
In an email Friday, LePage Communications Director Peter Steele wrote that the governor received “a very brief overview of this scenario” from Campbell in early April.
“No decision had been made – nor will it be for some time,” Steele wrote. “And any proposal is still in the exploratory stage.”
That view contradicts several reports out of the Maine Guard that Mosher gave the senior staff at Camp Keyes a PowerPoint presentation last month, including a timetable that had the 133rd’s assets leaving the state by next summer.
Also at that meeting, according to one highly placed source, Mosher directed a senior officer to travel to Arizona and meet with Guard leaders there to discuss an engineer-for-infantry swap. Previous reports also had the Maine Guard leadership discussing such a deal with its counterparts in Pennsylvania.
Steele also repeated LePage’s contention that “this issue is being pushed by his political opponents, who are trying to stir up a controversy and pin the blame on him for something that hasn’t happened yet.”
Yet in an email to Maine’s congressional delegation late last month, Campbell wrote, “I have spoken about this issue with the Governor and he agrees with it.”
Still, a veteran officer at Camp Keyes expressed doubt that LePage knows the whole story.
“It is not a surprise that BG Campbell would keep this attempt from the Governor, as surely Gov. LePage realizes what an asset the Engineers are to the State of Maine, and the skill sets the training provides to its citizen soldiers,” he wrote.
As for the loss of confidence in Campbell’s leadership, the officer added, “BG Campbell tolerates only ‘yes men’ in his senior staff. Those who try to candidly tell him facts, or offer advice contrary to his own arrogant views are brushed aside, and learn quickly it is better for their careers to remain silent. The command climate on Camp Keyes is currently one of fear.”
The 133rd’s Headquarters & Headquarters Company, a force of about 175 soldiers, is scheduled to return home to Maine next month after a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. Their homecoming, several soldiers noted, will not be the one they expected when they shipped out last fall.
“So my Soldiers and I are expected to return to Maine, look General Campbell and Colonel Mosher in the eyes and shake their hand?” asked one senior noncommissioned officer.
Added another: “The deal (Campbell) is trying to pull behind the Governor’s back is bad. If you lie to your boss, can you be trusted? If I lied to my boss or commander in chief I’d be replaced.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: