Editor’s note: Ten years ago today, a suicide bomber killed 22 people, including two members of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, in an attack on a military base in Mosul, Iraq. Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Columnist Bill Nemitz and Photographer Greg Rec, who were embedded with the 133rd at the time, recently reconnected with some of the soldiers who survived to talk about the attack and how, a decade later, it continues to affect their lives.

The Rev. David Sivret, who runs a food pantry in Calais, was knocked out by the blast. When he came to, he ministered to the wounded all around him.

The Rev. David Sivret, who runs a food pantry in Calais, was knocked out by the blast. When he came to, he ministered to the wounded all around him. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Rev. David Sivret sat inside a food pantry he operates in Calais on a recent raw December afternoon, the silence broken only by the ticking of a nearby clock.

“I try to keep as busy as I can – with not as many people around,” said Sivret, the former chaplain for the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion. “If I keep busy, then I don’t have to think about it.”

But today, the shortest day followed by the longest night of the year, will be different.

On this day, Dec. 21, Sivret and hundreds like him will stop, close their eyes and travel back to Mosul, Iraq, back to the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez, back to the suicide bomber who in a single instant turned the week before Christmas into a living hell for anyone who bore witness to the attack and its grisly aftermath.

The bomber, dispatched by the terrorist Army of Ansar al-Islam and disguised as an Iraqi National Guard soldier, killed 14 U.S. soldiers, four American civilians and four Iraqi soldiers. Shrapnel from his explosive vest wounded 72 others, including six soldiers from Maine.

The massive explosion would go down as the deadliest single suicide attack on U.S. forces throughout the entire Iraq war. Its aftershocks, both physical and psychological, reverberate to this day.

It was a Tuesday, just four days before Christmas. Holiday decorations and cheery music filled the DFAC, or dining facility, at FOB Marez as soldiers streamed in for lunch, lined up at the food stations manned by civilian contractors and then fanned out among the plastic chairs and tables that could accommodate up to 600 personnel at a time.

Chaplain Sivret, accompanied by Maj. John Nelson, the 133rd’s chief medical officer, hungrily filled his plate with roast beef. Nelson opted for a chili cheese dog. Taking their seats about 20 feet from the food stations, Nelson dug in while Sivret lowered his head to say grace. He looked up just in time to see a bright flash directly behind his buddy.

“This isn’t the white light they talk about, when you die,” Sivret thought to himself as he and Nelson catapulted through the air. Then everything went black.

Harold “Butch” Freeman was seriously wounded in the dining hall bombing. Freeman now mentors young soldiers through the Wounded Warrior Project.

Harold “Butch” Freeman was seriously wounded in the dining hall bombing. Freeman now mentors young soldiers through the Wounded Warrior Project. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Staff Sgt. Harold “Butch” Freeman of Gorham had just filled his tray, grabbed his silverware and was turning to make a wisecrack to a soldier from West Virginia he recognized from lifting weights at the base gym. The next thing Freeman knew, he was flying backward as a wall of smoke and debris, seemingly in slow motion, came directly at him.

Landing on his back, Freeman quickly did a digital inventory: One, two, three … nine, 10 fingers. One, two, three … nine, 10 toes.

“Whew … that was close,” he told himself.

Nearby, Freeman saw a young soldier, gravely wounded, writhing in silence on the cement floor.

“Don’t give up,” Freeman implored the kid. “Hang on! Help is coming!”

But it was too late. Within seconds, the young man lay still.

Freeman tried to get up. Only then did he realize that he was awash in his own blood – the blast had shattered his right femur, ripped through his pelvis and severed an artery. He, too, was well on his way to bleeding out.

Suddenly, Freeman’s entire squad from the 133rd’s Bravo Company – they proudly called themselves the “Black Sheep” – surrounded him. One soldier grabbed a napkin dispenser, emptied it and stuffed the napkins into the gaping hole in Freeman’s thigh. The others got hold of a litter – only weeks earlier, “Doc” Nelson had placed them strategically throughout the DFAC along with emergency first-aid kits – and carried their stricken squad leader to a triage area just outside the mess hall.

“Mother (expletive)! You rotten bastards!” screamed Freeman at whoever had done this to him. “I’m not dying in this (expletive) hole! No way! It’s just not going to happen!”

Back inside, Sivret regained consciousness. The blast had thrown both him and Nelson more than 20 feet through the air. Nelson, who’d already come to, had quickly checked Sivret to see that he was breathing and then moved on to help others.

At Sivret’s side lay a soldier from another unit who, just seconds earlier, had sat quietly eating his lunch next to the chaplain. Now the soldier’s head and shoulders were covered by the tablecloth and his legs were twitching with uncontrolled spasms.

“Oh, my God,” thought Sivret, quickly reaching over to remove the tablecloth. “We’ve got to get this guy some help.”

But one look at the soldier’s upper torso and Sivret knew there was nothing anyone could do.

Slowly, the spasms subsided and Sivret performed the first of what would be many last rites. He couldn’t hear his own prayers – the explosion had ruptured one of his eardrums and seriously damaged the other.

RACING TO HELP

Spc. Kevin Korenkiewicz, a 23-year-old medic, had just finished an early lunch and was walking back to the 133rd’s medical station when the blast shook the earth under his feet. The boom far exceeded that of the mortars and rockets that frequently rained down on the base, prompting Korenkiewicz and two fellow medics to grab all the first-aid bags they could find and sprint back up the hill toward the now-smoking mess hall.

Kevin Korenkiewicz treated wounded soldiers and civilians after the attack. He recently earned his master’s degree as a nurse anesthetist.

Kevin Korenkiewicz treated wounded soldiers and civilians after the attack. He recently earned his master’s degree as a nurse anesthetist. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rushing inside, they found the place almost pitch dark, the floor slick with blood, food and residue from the plastic explosive, the air thick with cries for help. Near what was left of the chow line, Korenkiewicz spotted a familiar face – Sgt. Lynn Poulin, 47, a member of the 133rd’s welding unit, lying on the floor with a massive head wound.

Someone claimed they’d detected a pulse, but there was nothing Korenkiewicz could do. He swallowed his emotions and moved on to the next victim, a civilian fry line worker with multiple chest wounds.

Just outside the serving area sat large rolls of plastic wrap, normally used by soldiers to seal meals to go. Korenkiewicz grabbed a roll and wrapped it around and around the man’s torso, sealing his wounds while a physician assistant from another unit performed a needle decompression on the man’s chest.

Quickly, they rushed the civilian out to the triage area, where Korenkiewicz heard someone holler for a medic. Another civilian, also near death, needed a breathing tube. Korenkiewicz ran to help and, after helping load that patient aboard an ambulance, performed CPR on him all the way to a combat support hospital at nearby FOB Diamondback, a military airfield little more than a stone’s throw from FOB Marez.

By now, Diamondback, too, was in chaos. Casualties had no sooner begun arriving when the insurgents began shelling the hospital with mortars – at least one landed directly on the fortified roof. Korenkiewicz and other rescuers shielded the wounded the best they could with their own bodies and, between incoming rounds, rushed them into a facility fast surpassing even its mass-casualty capacity.

Butch Freeman, his leg still bleeding, was among them. One of the first wounded to be dispatched from FOB Marez, he now lay on his gurney, warily watching as a soldier approached with an intravenous kit. The young man’s hands were shaking.

Much to Freeman’s relief, a voice nearby said, “Here, let me do that.”

It was Korenkiewicz, whose pine tree shoulder patch matched Freeman’s. He took the needle and gently, skillfully inserted it into Freeman’s forearm.

“We take care of our own,” Korenkiewicz assured his fellow Mainer.

Chaplain Sivret, having done what he could at the mess hall, had also come down to the hospital on two missions: Continue ministering to the wounded and deceased and, when it came to the Maine soldiers, look for those still missing.

Back at FOB Marez, Sgt. 1st Class John Keene, the 133rd’s ranking noncommissioned personnel officer, was hard at work completing the battalion’s “100 percent accountability” – the upward-reporting process by which every soldier’s whereabouts is confirmed as soon as possible following any attack.

John Keene of Auburn works with rare firearms at James D. Julia auctioneers in Fairfield. He is proud of the work he and his 133rd comrades did in Iraq.

John Keene of Auburn works with rare firearms at James D. Julia auctioneers in Fairfield. He is proud of the work he and his 133rd comrades did in Iraq. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Thankfully, the number of missing 133rd soldiers had decreased steadily in the hour or two after the bombing. Still, two names on Keene’s list remained unchecked – Sgt. Poulin and Spc. Tom Dostie, 20, of Somerville.

Keene, following his own training, had driven a deuce-and-a-half (2.5-ton truck) to the dining facility seconds after the explosion for use as a makeshift ambulance. He’d seen the people coming out – some walking, some carried on litters and still others, when the litters ran out, on lunch tables. He’d watched a soldier die right there on the gravel even as his comrades tried desperately to save him.

Now back at his work station, awaiting word from FOB Diamondback on Dostie and Poulin, Keene braced himself for bad news.

For Sivret, this could not have been more personal. Back in Maine, he’d presided over the marriage of Lynn and Jeanne Poulin. He’d gone to Cony High School in Augusta with Mike and Peggy Dostie, Spc. Dostie’s parents.

Now here he was looking for his soldiers, starting with the scores of wounded who by now had overflowed from the hospital’s emergency room into the administrative offices and even the hallways.

Nothing.

Then Sivret made his way from body bag to body bag in the makeshift morgue, Finally, agonizingly, he found one … then the other.

His ears still ringing, his chest aching from two cracked ribs, his knee throbbing from a wayward piece of shrapnel, Sivret closed his eyes, bowed his head and prayed.

TERRIBLE AWAKENING

Spc. Ron Cyr, a 26-year-old medic, slept right through the attack. He’d completed a 24-hour shift that morning after a sleepless night watching over a patient at the medical station. By noon, following a late breakfast, he was fast asleep in his barracks, just a few hundred yards from the DFAC.

Ron Cyr of Lewiston lost his close friend, Spc. Tom Dostie, in the attack on the base in Mosul. He still struggles with his emotions about the bombing.

Ron Cyr of Lewiston lost his close friend, Spc. Tom Dostie, in the attack on the base in Mosul. He still struggles with his emotions about the bombing. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The blast blew out one of his windows, knocked a portable heater off its shelf, even moved Cyr’s bunk a few inches across the floor. He remembers none of it.

What he does remember is his “battle buddy,” another medic, bursting in a full hour after the blast, rousting him and yelling, “Ronnie, what are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” Cyr yelled back, shaking away the cobwebs enough to notice his buddy’s uniform was saturated with blood.

“The DFAC got hit,” his buddy said. “And I saw Tommy.”

“What do you mean you saw Tommy?”

“He was … lying down.”

Cyr, still in his physical-training shorts and T-shirt, looked out the doorway and saw the walking wounded – there must have been 40 or 50 of them – scattered inside and outside the 133rd’s aid station. Without donning his fatigues and outer tactical vest, without even grabbing his weapon, he took off to help.

“Tommy?” Cyr thought the whole way. “Tommy … lying down?”

Tommy Dostie might as well have been Ronnie Cyr’s kid brother. They grew up three houses apart on Long Lake in Somerville. Their parents were all close friends, not just from Cony High School but from grade school in Augusta. Tommy? Lying down?

Korenkiewicz, finally back from the hospital at FOB Diamondback, was well aware of the connection. Upon seeing Cyr treating the wounded at the aid station, Korenkiewicz came toward his fellow medic and, without a word, wrapped Cyr in a bear hug.

Hours later, as soldiers gathered in the Olive Branch Chapel for confirmation of their worst fears, Cyr heard the official announcement: Sgt. Lynn Poulin. Killed in action. Spc. Thomas Dostie. Also gone.

Cyr, seated in the rear of the packed chapel, all but blacked out.

He’d been there the day they brought Tommy home from the hospital. He’d babysat Tommy when he was too young to stay home by himself. They’d spent summers fishing together, water-skiing together, training for war together.

The chapel quietly emptied. Cyr, once again exhausted, picked himself out of his chair and stumbled the short distance to his barracks. As darkness fell on FOB Marez, he cried himself back to sleep.

KEEPING TOMMY CLOSE

Ron Cyr, now 37, left the military four months after the 133rd returned to Maine in March 2005. He lives in Lewiston with his wife and two sons, works for Maine Properties in Scarborough and, like so many Maine combat veterans, has his good days and his not-so-good days.

Last Veterans Day, Cyr called a country music radio station in Portland – he and the DJ have gotten to know each other – and asked that they play “American Soldier” in memory of Tommy. Walking into work a short time later, he hoped his co-workers wouldn’t notice he’d been crying.

He often has trouble sleeping, struggles with his anger and has sought counseling off and on – more off lately than on. To this day, he can’t get his head around not just Tommy’s death, but an incident that occurred a few days later.

A superior officer in the 133rd had taken it upon himself to investigate the bombing – even as a full-scale Pentagon probe was underway. Noting that Cyr had the same approximate height and build as the bomber, the officer ordered him to play the part: Sit in a plastic chair, directly under the hole in the DFAC, and go into a crouch. Just like the terrorist did seconds before he self-detonated.

Cyr refused, even swore at the officer, and then reported the whole thing to his company commander. Two days later, he was on a plane to Kuwait, where he spent the rest of his deployment washing the outgoing 133rd’s trucks in preparation for their shipment home.

When Dec. 21 rolls around, Cyr is always the first to post on Facebook about Tommy, Lynn Poulin, Spc. Christopher Gelineau of Portland and Sgt. Michael Jones of Unity – the four members of the 133rd who didn’t make it home from Iraq.

Then he heads for Tommy’s grave in Somerville.

“I just sit there and talk to him for a little bit, just wish that he was here,” said Cyr. “I talk to him about fishing – it’s all we used to do, fishing and water-skiing. I sit there for a couple of minutes and say a couple prayers … and that’s about it.”

HELPING YOUNG SOLDIERS

Butch Freeman, 53, ended his 27-year military career in 2007. His leg wounds have pretty much healed, but he still wages daily battles with post-traumatic stress disorder, his traumatic brain injury, his aversion to crowded places.

When he does find himself in a crowd, he pays no attention whatsoever to people’s faces.

“I’m looking at where their hands are,” Freeman said. “I just want to know what their hands are doing.”

Most importantly, after years of isolating himself in his living room with a bottle of Jack Daniels, Freeman bowed to an ultimatum from his wife, Ora, and sought help through the Wounded Warrior Project. He’s a mentor now to younger soldiers struggling with their return to civilian life.

“I was carried off the battlefield,” Freeman said. “Now it’s my turn to carry someone else.”

He still beats himself up for not “finishing what I started,” for hopscotching from the hospital in Mosul to Army treatment facilities in Balad, Iraq; Germany; and finally the Walter Reed Army Medical Center before arriving back home in Maine almost two months ahead of his men.

Of course, none of them would hold that against him. He knows that, right?

“I know they wouldn’t,” said Freeman. “We’re harder on ourselves than anyone else ever will be.”

Each night, before he tries to sleep, Freeman “secures the perimeter” once, twice, sometimes three times inside his modest home. He’s learned not to fight it – otherwise, he’ll be awake all night.

Upon entering a building, any building, “bang – I do the exits. I always know where the exits are. Some people say, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ Well, yeah, it’s easier for me to do it, get it over with – and you won’t even know I’m doing it.”

Yet for all his demons, he will not surrender.

“I don’t want the 21st of December to define me as a person,” Freeman said. “Yeah, it was a (expletive)-up day. We all know that, man. We know that’s what it was. And will I ever forget it? No. Will I dance with the devil? I dance with him all the time. But you know what? I want to lead. I want to lead a couple times. I don’t want that to define my day, my life, that one thing.”

‘IT’S ALL BEEN UNDONE’

John Keene retired last summer at the age of 50 as a master sergeant with the Maine Army National Guard. He now lives in Auburn and works as an appraiser of rare weapons for James D. Julia Inc., an auction house in Fairfield.

“I don’t mark the calendar,” Keene said. “I don’t need to. I know when the day is and I always feel it and I always remember. It’s going to be with me for my whole life.”

As proud as he remains to this day of his comrades in the 133rd, so is Keene “exceedingly disappointed in our leadership in Washington.”

Mosul, after all, is now in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. With the exception of a few infrastructure projects the 133rd’s engineers completed in still-secure Kurdistan, much of the battalion’s footprint in Iraq has been erased.

“It’s all been undone,” said Keene. “The very stuff we built up and helped them with, the bad guys now have. The weapons we put over there, the bad guys have.”

Much of it he blames on the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root, and Blackwater, the notorious private security company, and other corporations that profited immensely from the war. Keene, a by-the-book soldier if ever there was one, now calls them the “merchants of death.”

A longtime student of military history, Keene will spend this Sunday reflecting on how a decade ago military history left its mark – no, its scar – on the entire state of Maine.

“You realize how fragile life is,” said Keene, who’s married with two teenage children. “It’s all about luck. I’d rather be lucky than good. Because you can be good, be the best at what you do, and your luck can be bad and you’re gone.”

ABLE TO MOVE FORWARD

Kevin Korenkiewicz, 33, is now a captain with the Maine Army National Guard. At the same time, he’s on the cusp of becoming a nurse anesthetist – he recently earned his master’s degree at the University of New England and, after weeks of intensive study, sat down to take his licensing exam on Friday.

He still recalls leaving the DFAC early that day, forgoing his afternoon to-go snack because he had to use the latrine. Had he lingered just a few minutes, he’d have been standing in the middle of the kill zone.

“It’s a game of inches,” Korenkiewicz said. “Decisions can put you in one place or another and get you hurt … or not.”

He doesn’t struggle with survivor’s guilt, although he thinks “all the time” about Poulin, Dostie and the others who didn’t make it home. Not to mention those who, to varying degrees, brought the war home with them.

“For some people, it’s really damaged their lives,” said Korenkiewicz. “Marriages have been lost. They’re really depressed and they can’t hold jobs, just having difficulty working their way back into society. … While other people take it and look at it as a new lease on life, an opportunity for you to do the best you can. Some people have really done well because of the experience they had. It makes them stronger people. And other people have gone in the other direction.”

How about Korenkiewicz? Is he doing well?

“I am,” he said with a smile.

A NEW MINISTRY

David Sivret, still a priest but no longer an Army chaplain, retired in 2010 as pastor of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Calais. He increasingly had trouble facing large congregations – a direct offshoot of what was long ago diagnosed as PTSD.

So these days, Sivret, 59, devotes his time, along with three other local veterans, to running the Irene Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry on Main Street in Calais. Last year, they served the equivalent of 34,000 meals. So far this year, their tally exceeds 104,000.

Sivret lives with his wife, Sherry, in nearby Alexander. It’s pin-drop quiet there this time of year and in recent years, when Dec. 21 rolls around, Sivret has climbed aboard his snowmobile and headed deep into the woods, as far away from anyone as he can get.

But today, he just might go to church and pray, not just for those who are gone but also for those still here, “that they get a sense of peace in their life as I pray to get a sense of peace in my life.”

He’ll remember Lynn Poulin’s quiet sense of humor and Tommy Dostie’s passion for small engines.

He’ll remember that soldier sitting next to him who died while he was somehow spared. “I call it a God-cident,” Sivret said. “It wasn’t luck. I was blessed.”

He’ll remember how Christmas came that year after all, as it always does. How his soldiers, many smiling through their tears, went caroling all over FOB Marez that Christmas Eve. How young so many of them looked as they filled the Olive Garden Chapel, candles in hand, for midnight Mass.

His only request now is that the rest of Maine continue to support them. Ten years may seem like enough time to “get over it,” but the good chaplain begs to differ.

“Unless you’ve walked in that person’s boots, don’t judge them,” Sivret said. “Don’t make assumptions. Because you don’t know.”

Again, the food pantry fell silent, but for the clock, tick by tick, marking the passage of time.

“I’ll take it to my grave with me,” Sivret finally said. “It will never be gone.”