December 19, 2013

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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Twenty-two people died that day, including the Maine Guard's Spc. Thomas Dostie, 20, of Somerville and Sgt. Lyn Poulin, 47, of Freedom.

And once again, there was Pao, sprinting toward the carnage and eventually helping to carry the bodies of his fallen comrades to a nearby makeshift morgue.

Two months later, finally and mercifully, Pao came home to Maine.

"The first three months were definitely the toughest," he recalled.

The telltale signs -- the hair-trigger anger, the irrational fear of entering his own house because he didn't know what might be awaiting him inside, the flashbacks -- were all there.

"I would come home after going out to the bars or going out with friends and I'd just sit down by myself and drink," Pao said. "Take shot after shot right into the night into the morning."

He shook his head at the memory.

"It wasn't me," he said.

Some returning soldiers, when faced with post-traumatic stress disorder, retreat further into the false cover of dysfunctional behavior.

Not Pao. As physical therapists helped him with his lingering neck and back problems, he eventually allowed counselors to help him heal his wounded psyche.

"You've just got to release everything that you've got -- the pain and so forth," he said. "You just go get the help that you need."

Over the next five years, Pao successfully completed three courses on PTSD.

He attended every-other-week counseling sessions right up until this deployment, often finding himself the youngest man and the only Iraq war veteran in group therapy sessions filled with veterans whose nightmares go back to Vietnam and beyond.

"They've got their stories and I listen to it and it's heart-wrenching," Pao said. "It reinforces my decision to seek the help."

Pao, who is now married and has a stepson, works back home as a full-time diesel technician for the Maine Guard at the Stevens Avenue Armory in Portland.

Last June, he heard that Bravo Company needed volunteers to serve as war-games opposition forces, OPFORs, in western Maine's mountains as the unit prepared for deployment to Afghanistan.

He jumped at the opportunity.

Reporting for duty the first day, Pao and a few other OPFORs began chatting it up with Bravo Company commander Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn.

"Hey captain," Pao told Bosse, "if you've got room for another soldier, I'll certainly go on deployment with you."

Bosse had heard about Pao, about Mosul, about the Maine Silver Star Honorable Service Medal that Pao had received for his actions on the day the convoy got hit.

"Ten minutes later, they were throwing me all kinds of gear to go into training with Bravo, instead of just being an OPFOR," Pao said. "It was game on."

Well, not exactly.

After satisfying Bosse that he was physically and mentally fit for deployment, Pao still faced a gantlet of skeptical military medical officers from Maine to Newport, R.I., and finally to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Dutifully and doggedly, he jumped through each hoop until finally, in December, he found himself at Fort Drum in upstate New York, teleconferencing with a doctor at Walter Reed.

"What are you doing to get yourself better?" the doctor asked bluntly.

"Counseling," replied Sgt. Pao without hesitation.

"How often do you do that?"

"Every other week."

The questioning went on for three hours. Finally, the doctor leveled with Pao.

"All right, you have PTSD. You know that, I know that," he said. "You have anxiety. You know that. I know that. You have some pain issues. You know that. I know that."

Long pause.

"Are you going to do anything stupid when you're over there?" the doctor asked.

(Continued on page 3)

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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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