June 2, 2010

Bringing out their best, as soldiers and as men

— His father fought in Vietnam, his grandfather in World War II.

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Husson University President William Beardsley, seen in the Darling Atrium in the Beardsley Meeting House named after him, is retiring at the end of this month after overseeing more than two decades of changes and growth.

Jack Milton

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Capt. Paul Bosse will lead about 150 members of Bravo Company into what President Obama calls the “epicenter of the violent extremism of al-Qaida.”

BDN

He's served in the military full time all of his adult life.

But never in his 16 years in uniform has Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn faced a challenge quite like this.

''You get a lot of pleasure out of being a CO (commanding officer) a lot of the time,'' Bosse, 36, said Friday. ''You get to see your soldiers do great things.''

He paused for a moment, the wheels still turning.

''That being said, though, like any human being, you feel the weight,'' he said. ''At times it can seem like a burden.''

Especially when you're headed to what President Barack Obama, Bosse's commander in chief, last week referred to as the ''epicenter of the violent extremism of al-Qaida'' along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Early this week, the Maine Army National Guard's Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry will bid farewell to friends and families and depart Maine for Fort Atterbury in Indiana. From there, after four to six weeks of mobilization training, the 150 or so Maine soldiers will load their gear aboard a charter jet and head for the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.

It will be, as Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, commander of the Maine Army National Guard, put it last week, ''a very dangerous mission.''

But for Bosse, the company commander, it will also be a welcome change from Bravo Company's last deployment three years ago in Iraq, where they spent most of a year providing convoy security in heavily armored gun trucks in and around the Tallil Air Base south of Baghdad.

''We're an infantry company and this time we're going to do what we signed up to do,'' said Bosse, who served as a platoon leader in Iraq. ''Maybe I'm putting too much of an idealistic light on it, but I really think a lot of guys are interested in interacting with the local population, drinking some chai with them. And they really didn't get a chance to do a lot of that last time.''

Don't get him wrong. Bosse is well aware that where he and his men (women are not allowed in the infantry unit) are headed, bad things undoubtedly await.

In fact, when he hears talk of winning the ''hearts and minds'' of the local population in a war zone, Bosse cringes.

''If a foreign country was in our country, would you like that?'' he asked. ''I don't think you have to win their hearts and minds to be successful. I think if they eventually grow to like you because you treat them with decency and respect, that's great.''

But first and foremost, he said, the Afghan people need to feel safe. And that is where units like Bravo Company, which had Afghanistan on its radar long before Obama was elected, come in.

While many of the details are either classified or not yet determined, their mission undoubtedly will place them in harm's way. And at this delicate time -- with the holidays looming and ''boots on the ground'' soon to follow -- Bosse appreciates how difficult it can be to balance peace of mind with the stark reality of Afghanistan's anything-but-stable mountain region.

''Even myself, I tap-dance around it a little bit when I talk to the media or when I talk to my wife because you don't want to make people scared,'' he said. ''But the mission of the infantry is, by definition, to close with and destroy the enemy.''

Bosse is firm in his belief that his men's training has prepared them for combat. Earlier this fall, Bravo Company spent three weeks at the Army's state-of-the-art Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana. And their mobilization training in Indiana, he added, will further hone their skills.

But even as they work themselves into physical shape, sharpen their marksmanship and learn how to apply a battlefield tourniquet, Bosse finds himself prodding them to expand their minds as well. If his University of Maine bachelor's degree in history taught him one thing, it's that you don't succeed militarily in a faraway place without first taking the time to learn about it.

Above all, Bosse urges his soldiers to read about Afghanistan's rich and often traumatic history -- and not just from military tomes. He sees books like ''Three Cups of Tea'' by Greg Mortenson and David Relin and ''The Kite Runner'' by Khaled Hosseini as valuable windows into Bravo Company's immediate future.

''Quite frankly, in order to be a modern U.S. soldier, you have to have a bit of empathy for the people you're trying to help,'' Bosse said. ''That doesn't mean you let your guard down. That doesn't mean that you are naive to the fact that there are bad people in and around those decent people who are caught up in the middle of it.''

So what does it mean?

''A 25-year-old male in Afghanistan hasn't seen peace in his whole life,'' Bosse continued. ''So you have to understand that before you can go there and work with him. If you don't understand that, then you're coming at it from a skewed perspective. If you were born in 1975 and you were a few years old when the Russians invaded, all you've known is war or chaos.''

Monday evening, as they gather at the University of Maine's Collins Center for their official send-off, Bravo Company will inch one step closer toward that chaos. They'll hear speeches by Gen. Libby and Gov. John Baldacci, both of whom surely will bid them Godspeed and tell them how proud Maine is of them and their mission.

But a month or two from now, as they head out onto the cold tarmac with their duffel bags to the waiting charter jet, it will be Bosse's turn to speak. What will the new company commander, who laughingly admits that he sometimes communicates with bear hugs, tell his men at that now-or-never moment?

Bosse, again, paused to think for a few moments.

''I think my message will be similar to what I've been trying to say all along,'' he finally said. ''I know they're going to be good soldiers.''

And?

''I want my guys to be good men.''

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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