December 29, 2013

Maine’s 133rd battalion closing down the war

More than a dozen years of battle have cost thousands of lives. With America's longest war set to end in 2014, Maine's 133rd battalion is there to pick up the pieces.

By Bill Nemitz

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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

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About the series

“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.”

Put more simply, from mundane-but-crucial record-keeping to better-armored-but-still dangerous convoys, the 133rd is one-third of the way through a nine-month mission to help take apart a war.

Still, some things haven’t changed. As they demonstrated so poignantly during their last deployment almost a decade ago, these soldiers remain determined “to the last man,” as their battalion motto goes, to look after one another.

Take the cooks, for example. Not needed for food preparation – all meals are prepared at a nearby dining facility staffed by a private contracting firm – the 133rd’s six-member culinary detail now provides 24-hour staffing for the battalion’s newly completed cluster of MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) tents, also known as the Black Bear Lounge.

“It gives the soldiers a place to be with their friends,” Sgt. Nathan Fortier of Lewiston said as he showed off the computers with free Internet access, the bank of five telephones that will connect you with home for a mere 2 cents per minute, the pingpong table made out of rough plywood next to the pool table covered with camouflage felt, the 700 movie DVDs, the big-screen TV, the shelves stacked neatly with every toiletry a soldier could need.

A fellow cook, Staff Sgt. Heidi Darling of Waterville, said the packages from Maine pour in daily – such as the shipment of 174 fully stuffed Christmas stockings from Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook, each bearing the name and rank of a Maine soldier. The project was spearheaded by Teresa Pattle, wife of Headquarters & Headquarters Support Company 1st Sgt. Andrew Pattle of Harrison.

“When it comes from Maine, it’s like a piece of home,” said Darling, who’s serving here alongside her uncle, Staff Sgt. 1st Class Roderick Darling of Buckfield. “Because we know it came from people we know and are actually connected to us in some way shape or form.”

It’s but one of many signs that while the Afghanistan War itself is no longer front-and-center on many Mainers’ minds, the home-state soldiers serving in it still are.

Before the 133rd deployed, the battalion’s Family Readiness Group took full-length photos of each soldier and enlarged them to form cardboard-backed, life-sized “flat soldiers” for any family that requested one. Since the soldiers arrived here in early October, their lifelike images have popped up daily on Facebook pages all over Maine.

“All the families have been taking the flat soldiers everywhere and even dressing us up and doing all sorts of cool stuff,” said Sgt. Jessica Kurka of Durham, here with her husband, Sgt. Robert Kurka. “It looks like you’re really there, and we’re like, ‘Oh, look where I was!’ ”

Then there’s the Portland-based Elizabeth Wadsworth Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, which sent over 200 dozen cookies, dozens of brownies and boxes of hot chocolate, along with camouflage helmet liners “to help keep you warm in the cold Afghani winter,” as chapter Regent Leanne Lentz Spencer of Buxton put it in her accompanying letter.

She added plaintively, “As much as we enjoy being able to send a little holiday cheer and a message of support to you, we all look forward to the day when there will no longer be any American military personnel in war zones and no need for our gifts and good wishes.”

The cookies and brownies were set aside for Saturday evening’s battalion Christmas party in the Black Bear Lounge – not quite the same as the living room back home, but a family gathering nonetheless.

For many, of course, this will be like no Christmas they’ve ever experienced. No pine trees, no snow (or ice, for that matter), no crackling logs in the wood stove or fireplace. Just a dusty, chilly tundra where the 4,800-foot altitude can leave you longing for a deep breath of salty Maine air.

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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.”


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