January 1, 2014

Unit with proud Maine pedigree in very capable hands

John Bratten is Ohio born but steeped in the history of the 133rd and its predecessors.

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — As a teenager, 1st Lt. John Bratten spent his days poring over every book, every photo, every story he could find about Maine’s venerable Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain.

click image to enlarge

Lt. Jonathan Bratten, company historian of the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard, plans to produce a unit yearbook for each soldier that captures the human side of their deployment.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Now, much to his constant amazement, Bratten, of Portland, shares his all-time hero’s military DNA.

“My mom would say I didn’t have normal teenage years – my teenage years were the 1860s,” said Bratten, 27, in an interview this week in the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion headquarters. “I went to Gettysburg seven times. Completely obsessed.”

Bratten is the executive officer for the 133rd’s Headquarters & Headquarters Company. At the same time – and this is by far his favorite part of this deployment that began in October and will end in June – he’s the battalion’s historian.

The job comes naturally.

He earned his master’s degree in history from the University of Southern Maine in 2011, the year he joined the Maine Guard after a stint as an infantry guardsman in his home state of Ohio.

Without so much as an outline, he can trace the 133rd’s lineage, decade by decade, war by war, all the way back to June 6, 1803 – the day a band of militiamen formed the Portland Light Infantry and went on to stare down a planned (and subsequently aborted) British attack on Portland in the War of 1812.

Now, Bratten meticulously chronicles the daily comings and goings of the 133rd – part of the Army’s 82nd Sustainment Brigade – as it goes about the tedious-but-still-dangerous work of dismantling Operation Enduring Freedom.

If all goes according to plan, the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan will effectively be over at this time next year – although, under a proposed agreement yet to be signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 10,000 U.S. troops would remain after that to assist and train Afghan security forces.

Looking back over past campaigns by the 133rd and its ancestral units (the 133rd, Maine’s largest Guard unit, came into being in 1970), Bratten sees “a fairly seamless line from 1803 to 2013 where you have Mainers at the tip of the spear.”

There was the Battle of Gettysburg and Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment – Chamberlain’s pivotal order to defend Little Round Top “to the last man” remains the 133rd’s motto to this day.

Then came the World War I battles of Champagne, Marne, Aisne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in France, followed by Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Luzon in the South Pacific during World War II.

More recently, there was Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, during which the 133rd built health clinics, schools, roads and bridges all over northern Iraq and, in the process, lost three soldiers to combat-related injuries and had many more wounded in action.


Reading the file that supported the battalion’s Army Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2004, Bratten was awestruck by all the 133rd accomplished in Iraq, and crushed to see how little of it had been compiled into a military historical narrative.

“I’m reading through this going, ‘Holy cow! These guys did so much. This is unbelievable!’ ” Bratten said. “I said, ‘You know what? This can’t happen again. We’re going to have concrete evidence, something that somebody can put their hands on: What did the 133rd do in Afghanistan?’ ”

So far, it’s done a lot – managing a battalion of almost 1,000 soldiers when you include the four attached “line companies” from other states.

For some, that has meant many a dangerous day and night on the restive roads of eastern and northern Afghanistan.

On one protracted mission, the 133rd’s Convoy Escort Team and other elements shepherded personnel and equipment to and from an array of forward operating bases that were downsizing. The trip consumed almost the entire month of November.


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