Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Bill Nemitz firstname.lastname@example.org
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The way Lt. Col. Dean Preston sees it, he has three types of soldiers serving here under his command with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Boubel of Durham takes a break at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Friday. He is with the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard, which is focused on the end of a military presence that dates back almost to 9/11.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
“Assignment: Afghanistan” marks the fifth time in almost a decade that the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has ventured into Iraq and Afghanistan to cover the men and women of the Maine Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve.
Columnist Bill Nemitz and photographer Gabe Souza are embedded with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion through New Year’s Day, reporting on the battalion as it celebrates the holidays and goes about its mission in support of the steady drawdown of the U.S. military’s 13-year presence in Afghanistan.
Souza is making his first trip to a war zone. For Nemitz, it’s his fifth.
“I keep going back for one very simple reason – this is Maine history in the making,” Nemitz says. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”
“We have the people who were with us in Iraq and are now joining us in Afghanistan, we have the people who have been to Afghanistan for a prior tour, and we have people that have never been to war,” Preston said Friday as Operation Enduring Freedom – or what’s left of it – hummed along outside his battalion headquarters office. “And challenges come with all three of those types.”
And which group faces the biggest adjustment?
“Us Iraq veterans,” replied Preston, 46, who as a captain commanded the 133rd’s Alpha Company during the battalion’s yearlong deployment to Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
The Iraq veterans? How so?
“This is not Iraq,” said Preston, of Pembroke. “It’s a different war and a different time.”
Nine years ago this weekend, the 133rd was a battalion in mourning. A suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi soldier had just self-detonated inside the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, killing 22 people and wounded 85 others.
Two members of the 133rd – Sgt. Thomas Dostie of Somerville and Staff Sgt. Lynn Poulin of Freedom – died that day.
More than a dozen other battalion members were wounded.
And in the days that followed, close to 500 Maine soldiers tried mightily to celebrate the Christmas holiday even as they wrestled with their grief and a sudden sense of vulnerability as palpable inside their base’s barbed-wire perimeter as it was on the outside.
Last week, to be sure, the danger inherent in any deployment to a war zone was but a loudspeaker away – witness Friday morning’s brief “Incoming, Incoming, Take Cover, Take Cover” alert that had everyone first hitting the ground and then scurrying to protective bunkers to await the “All Clear” that soon followed.
But the cause for alarm – small-arms fire directed at a distant gate on this massive 6,000-acre military compound – underscored the heightened security that has evolved from more than a decade of U.S. soldiers living in two war zones: Where once the only warning of imminent danger was the high-pitched whine of an incoming mortar or rocket seconds before impact, a phalanx of sophisticated electronic equipment now alerts all of Bagram Air Field the moment an IDF – Army-speak for indirect fire – launches from the mountainous terrain surrounding the base.
“We had no alarms back then,” Preston said. “Now, we know it’s coming.”
As dramatically as the force-protection capabilities have changed, so has the 133rd’s mission.
In Iraq, the battalion gained widespread respect and recognition for building things – hospitals, health clinics, roads, schools – designed to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis living throughout the country’s northern Kurdistan region.
Here, as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Centcom Materiel Retrograde Element, the Mainers’ mission involves virtually no contact with the local populace. Rather, the 133rd is focused myopically on the end of a military presence that dates back almost all the way to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Maine contingent is also smaller this time – 174 soldiers, 152 men and 22 women divided among the Headquarters & Headquarters Support Company, or HHC, Forward Support Company, or FSC, and a 15-soldier contingent from the Maine Guard’s 1035 Survey and Design Team.
Together, they provide administrative and logistical support throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan to other National Guard “line companies” from New Jersey, Delaware, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. Those units, all of which report to Preston, are fast dismantling forward operating bases, combat outposts and other military installations throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan as the U.S. presence countrywide steadily drops from 47,000 troops currently to a projected 10,000 by the end of 2014.
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Lt. Col. Dean Preston of Pembroke says, “It’s amazing to experience in my lifetime. Just to see that change in equipment and capability.”