December 19, 2013

Nemitz: Chance to teach draws Maine vet back to war zone

COMBAT OUTPOST DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan — I first met Sgt. San Pao of Standish late one night six years ago in a dank, dingy laundry room at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

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After surviving a perilous tour in Iraq in 2004-05, Sgt. San Pao of Standish now serves as a squad leader in Afghanistan for the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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A self-portrait shows Bravo Company Sgt. San Pao standing in silhouette on a mountain peak, one of many paintings he’s created at his combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan.

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EDITOR’S NOTE

Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz is reporting from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Nemitz left Memorial Day weekend to join the 152 Maine men who make up Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry. Members of Bravo Company are among the 94,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.

We both found ourselves up to our necks in an unexpected challenge:

As an embedded journalist covering the Maine Army National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion, I was chronicling the aftermath of an attack on a convoy that killed one member of the unit and injured a number of others.

Pao, then a 22-year-old specialist with the 133rd, had it infinitely tougher: He'd been a driver in the convoy.

"I can totally see (the attack) right now," Pao said with a smile Tuesday evening in a quiet corner of the Maine Guard's Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry headquarters. "It's still right there."

Nobody would blame this veteran soldier if he were safely back home in Maine right now, doing his best to get on with life after a tour of duty in 2004-05 that left him damaged physically, mentally and emotionally.

Instead, lo and behold, Pao is here on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. One rank higher and six years older, he's doing it all over again and then some.

"This is my environment," Pao said, again smiling. "It's just my personality. I can't accept 'no.' I can't accept the phrase 'You can't.'"

He was born in 1981 in a refugee camp in Thailand, the son of a Cambodian professor who was driven from his homeland by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

The family resettled first to Augusta and then to Portland, where Pao graduated from Deering High School in 2001 and joined the Maine Guard.

He began basic training in October that year, one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

One rainy April morning less than three years later, Pao was riding through Mosul in one of four Humvees -- only the doors were armored back then -- when a powerful improvised explosive device detonated next to the lead truck, directly ahead of him.

The blast killed Spc. Christopher Gelineau, 23, a student at the University of Southern Maine and the first Maine Army National Guard soldier to die in combat since World War II.

Pao was at the wheel of the second Humvee, no more than 20 meters behind the lead truck, when the bomb went off. The blast crushed him back against his seat, burning part of his neck and causing extensive soft-tissue damage to his neck and back.

Following standard procedure, he drove on through the smoke and fire and kept the accelerator to the floor for about a mile, where any Humvee crews that could were supposed to regroup. But nobody came.

"So I told the guys I wanted to go back into the kill zone -- and they agreed," Pao said. "If it had been me back there, I'd have wanted to get some help."

Halfway back, a shrapnel-induced oil leak stopped Pao's Humvee in its tracks. He and his two comrades gathered their gear and ran the remaining half-mile, arriving to find a hostile crowd, a burning vehicle, one soldier dead and several others wounded.

Pao remembers firing shots into the air to keep the growing crowd back while the soldiers waited desperately for help to arrive.

"We were essentially being surrounded. It was pretty crazy," he recalled (repeating the exact words he said to me that night six years ago in the laundry room).

It doesn't end there.

Six months later, again while I was visiting FOB Marez, a suicide bomber struck the base's cavernous dining facility.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham surveys a distant ridge line before climbing to Bravo Company's observation post near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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A self-heating pasta-and-sausage dinner awaits soldiers from Bravo Company's Second Platoon at Observation Post 13 overlooking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Bullets and laundry share the same cramped space at Bravo Company's remote observation post overlooking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn, commander of Bravo Company, pays a visit to Spc. Christopher Chiasson of St. Agatha atop a guard tower at Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan in eastern Afghanistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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An Army patrol helicotper flies past Bravo Company's remote mountaintop observation post near the norder between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Soldiers from Bravo Company's Second Platoon watch as Sgt. Johnathan Weeks of Ellsworth and Spc. Jeffrey Holmes of Houlton coax a pack donkey up the mountain trail to their observation post high atop a mountain in eastern Afghanistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Spc. Peter Donovan of Lisbon and Spc. Matt Chaisson of Richmond relax outside their barracks at Bravo Company's Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Sgt. Harold Whitlock of Cornish stands watch at his gun emplacement as the sun rises on Bravo Company's Observation Post 13 in eastern Afghanistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Bravo Company's ramshackle Observation Post 13 overlooks the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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From left, Afghan interpreter Johnny Pockets, Spc. Peter Donovan of Lisbon and Staff Sgt.Joshua Homes of Lisbon Falls prepare to enter a cave near Bravo Comany's observation post in eastern Afghanistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Boots on the ground en route to Bravo Company's Observation Post 13 high atop a mountain in eastern Afghanistan.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Staff Sgt. Joshua Holmes of Lisbon Falls guides a Bravo Company vehicle up a "wadi," or dry riverbed, in a remote valley of eastern Afghanistan. In the foreground is Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist



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