December 19, 2013

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

(Continued from page 2)

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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.

"No, sir."

"I'm going to give you the green light. Don't prove me wrong."

Not a chance, Pao promised.

Still, three months after he fell in on the most dangerous border in the world, the question looms over the young sergeant like the massive peaks above COP Dand wa Patan: Why, after all he's been through, would he want to go back into a war zone?

"It's the adrenaline rush that I missed. And the camaraderie," Pao replied. "And the fact that a lot of our guys are very young. Very young. And this is their first tour. So I thought I'd come in and give my two cents and give my experience and work with these guys."

Pao is a squad leader with Third Platoon, supervising six soldiers.

He's also a forward observer -- the guy out there on the distant ridge who calls in targets for mortars and other firepower.

Just last week, he played a pivotal role in an attack on a Taliban position across the valley from Bravo Company's mountaintop observation post.

It started with five mortar rounds from Third Platoon and ended with an Air Force-delivered 500-pound bomb that still has Bravo Company buzzing.

"San's done a great job as far as just mentoring the rest of the squad," said 1st Lt. Frederick Bondole of Portland, Third Platoon's leader. "He can pretty much get along with anybody."

Farther down the military hierarchy, Spc. Joseph Burke of South Portland wholeheartedly agrees.

Burke, 19, graduated just a year ago from South Portland High School. He and Pao constitute a two-man fire-support team -- and already Burke has learned enough from Pao to have single-handedly called in a recent mortar fusillade that repelled an ambush against Bravo Company's Second Platoon.

"He's a great man. I trust him totally," Burke said. "He's really calm when things are happening, you know, because he's been there. He's seen it before. He's seen worse than we've seen already."

And, between now and when Bravo Company comes home to Maine late this fall, Pao could well see it all over again.

Does he get scared?

Of course, he replied with a firm nod. Fear, even in this testosterone-charged environment, is a stranger to no one.

"You should be scared. You should be scared every day to keep yourself on your tiptoes," Pao said. "But the one thing you can't do is be fearful of the environment."

Meaning there's a difference between fear that makes you alert and fear that keeps you downing shots all night?

"Correct," Pao replied.

To be sure, Pao has developed his own coping mechanisms.

He calls one his "Triple A" philosophy: "Acknowledgement that you're having issues.

Assess the situation and come up with a plan. And the last 'A' is to act on it."

He also works out religiously, two or three times each day in Bravo Company's small gym. In more tranquil moments, he paints.

The acrylic-on-canvas works, stark and at times haunting, depict military scenes and themes.

"Freedom Is Not Free," cautions one over a pair of boots, dog tags, an M-4 rifle and a helmet -- the all-too-familiar centerpiece of a fallen soldier's in-theater memorial service.

Another shows the head and shoulders of a soldier under the word "Afghanistan," flanked by the numerals "2010."

Back in December 2004, as I headed out on a convoy a few nights after the dining hall attack, Pao ran out of his barracks and handed me a pair of fireproof gloves to protect my hands in the event of an attack.

This week, as we met again, he gave me one of his paintings.

It's a self-portrait, he said. He's standing in silhouette against a bright orange background, perched atop a mountain peak and surrounded by barbed wire.

The barbed wire can be interpreted one of two ways, Pao explained: It can constrict and hurt you, or it can protect you.

And the soldier on the mountaintop?

"It's like he's finally made it," Pao said. "And he's breathing a sigh of relief."

 

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

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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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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