Wednesday, April 23, 2014
(Continued from page 2)
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.”
But Iraq, thankfully, this is not. Where most of the battalion spent the entire year in Mosul living in paper-thin “connex” barracks, all personnel with the rank of staff sergeant or lower moved last week from tents into new, hard-shell buildings that offer better shelter from the occasional incoming rocket. Higher-ranking officers, now assigned to flimsy, plywood B-huts whose peeling-paint exteriors betray their age, soon will follow into an adjacent concrete building.
“That’s how we roll,” said Lt. Col. Preston, explaining why the higher-ups take cover last.
Outside the wire, meanwhile, one of the 133rd’s convoys did come under small-arms fire not long after the battalion arrived. But the bullets bounced harmlessly off the MRAP – Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected – armored vehicles that are vastly safer than the thin-skinned Humvees of old.
Back when he was a line company commander in Iraq, Preston ran 166 convoys throughout Mosul and points north. Looking through his old journal the other night, he counted 23 times that he and his soldiers took direct fire, be it an improvised explosive device, a rocket-propelled grenade, small-arms fire or a coordinated attack involving all of the above. Injuries, some serious, happened.
“There was dust and all that stuff in your face,” Preston recalled. “But the faster we moved, the tougher a target we figured we were.”
Preston has yet to ride on a convoy here – a battalion commander’s duties keep him tied more closely than he’d prefer to his knock-on-wood desk. But when he now sends his men and women out into harm’s way – and yes, there still is a war going on out there – Preston at least knows they’ll be far better protected than they were when this decade-plus of war first began.
“They’re out there – there are big enough VBIDS (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) and IEDs to hurt us, to kill us, there’s no question,” he said. “But those small-arms fires and small IEDs, we can absorb and we can live through. It may give us a headache, but we come out alive.”
For those among the 133rd who have been there and done that – and now are here and doing it again – that’s huge.
“It’s amazing to experience in my lifetime,” Preston said. “Just to see that change in equipment and capability.”
And not a Christmas too soon.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:
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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.”