It was hardly a ringing endorsement from the commander in chief of the Maine Army National Guard.
On Thursday, as the controversy continued to swirl around Brig. Gen. James Campbell’s plans to send Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion to another state in exchange for a less useful infantry unit, Gov. Paul LePage told Maine Public Radio, “Unfortunately, the general is pretty naive about politics.”
How true. And unfortunately, the governor is pretty naive about the general.
According to the narrative now being spun by LePage and Campbell, the Portland Press Herald had it all wrong when it broke the news on April 30 that Campbell’s engineers-for-infantry swap was imminent – even as the 133rd’s Headquarters & Headquarters Support Company serves in harm’s way in Afghanistan.
“Let me be absolutely clear,” Campbell wrote in a letter to Maine Guard soldiers and their families last week. “There has been no decision to move the 133rd Engineer Battalion from Maine.”
Rather, he wrote, the 133rd’s departure is but “one possibility” as the Maine Guard adjusts to contemplated reductions in the entire National Guard in the 2015 federal fiscal year, which starts this October.
Echoed LePage after a lengthy sit-down Thursday with Campbell: “Once again, no decision has been made, nor will it be for years.”
That’s not what reliable sources within the Maine Guard are telling me:
At the center of this brouhaha is a PowerPoint presentation put on by Col. Jack Mosher, Campbell’s chief of staff, to the Maine Guard’s senior staff at Camp Keyes in Augusta on or about April 22.
Titled “Force Reduction Analysis and Impacts,” the presentation laid out three scenarios for the future of the Maine Army National Guard:
The first is based on a reduction in National Guard forces nationwide from 350,000 to 335,000 total troops, as proposed by the Pentagon starting Oct. 1.
The second reflects a further reduction to 315,000 troops if the federal government’s so-called “sequestration” budget cuts, many of which are on hold, kick back in for fiscal year 2016.
Under both plans, the 133rd and associated engineer companies – a force of 565 combat engineers – is “transitioned” to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. In exchange, Maine receives six infantry units totaling 734 soldiers.
The first two scenarios also contain identical timelines, both of which fly in the face of claims by LePage and Campbell that any troop movements are still years away.
Under both timelines, a “TAG decision” (Army speak for “the adjutant general,” meaning Campbell) was to be made by early this month. That was to be followed by “transition planning” through the end of this summer, followed by “transition execution” to be completed by September 2015.
Put more simply, regardless of what the Pentagon and Congress decide on National Guard troop levels in the next year or two, Maine’s 133rd and other engineer units would already be long gone.
Then there’s the third scenario, which makes no reference whatsoever to a reduction in the National Guard’s future troop strength. Rather, it references a memorandum of agreement between the Maine Guard and the New Mexico Guard (in last week’s column, I mistakenly identified Arizona as the other state).
Like the other two, the third plan has the 133rd and associated engineer units all leaving Maine. In exchange for the high-value engineer assets, New Mexico sends five infantry units to Maine.
(According to sources within the Maine Guard, the New Mexico swap is essentially a “Plan B” should the deal with Pennsylvania fall through. High-level, face-to-face talks on the fallback arrangement have already commenced between the Maine and New Mexico Guards.)
All of which brings us back to Campbell, who claimed in his recent letter to the troops that the Press Herald “falsely reported” the engineers-for-infantry swap was a “done deal.”
First, for the record, we never used those words. Campbell did.
Second, there’s an obvious reason “no decision has been made” on shipping the 133rd elsewhere: Just days before Campbell’s timeline called for him to make that very decision, the Press Herald broke the story and the entire process came to a screeching halt.
Little wonder that Campbell, rather than stand tall and answer legitimate questions from the media camped outside LePage’s door on Thursday, chose instead to flee via an elevator door adjacent to the governor’s Cabinet room.
Nor does it come as any surprise that repeated media requests for an interview with Campbell have run into the brick wall that is now Camp Keyes.
But retreat as he might now that his grand plan has been prematurely hatched, Campbell cannot escape his own words before he headed for the nearest bunker and left LePage to try to clean up this out-of-nowhere mess.
In an email hastily dispatched to Maine’s congressional delegation as the story first broke last month, Campbell wrote: “It is highly likely at this point that we will seek to make a change with another state, regardless of whether or not the cuts we are fighting against actually happen – again, we have been looking for an infantry unit for some years now.”
So how does that jibe with LePage’s claim last week that this is all being driven by President Obama’s plan to reduce National Guard troop levels?
And with Campbell actively working to give the 133rd and other engineer units the heave-ho sooner rather than later, how could LePage tell Maine Public Radio with a straight face last week that he and Campbell “believe we need the force we have now”?
One strong possibility is that even now, LePage has yet to see that PowerPoint presentation that leaves no doubt Maine’s combat engineers are on the trading block. If he hasn’t, it’s high time the governor ordered his general to come back down from Camp Keyes – and this time bring the laptop and projector.
Conversely, if Campbell has in fact shown LePage the same timetable Mosher laid out for the Maine Guard’s top brass, then it’s not just the general who’s now speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Either way, the swapping of the engineers for infantry, a long-held dream of Campbell’s, is not “one possibility” under a “worst-case scenario,” as he put it in his letter to the soldiers and their families last week.
In fact, under any and all scenarios, it’s the only possibility – not years from now, but right now. And if Campbell were half the leader he wants his troops to think he is, he’d step forward and admit it before this charade goes any further.
Or, as he did last week, the general can go on hiding behind his clueless commander in chief.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: