Neither Pvt. Harold Smith nor Sgt. Kameel Farag knew they were going to war when then they joined the Westbrook branch of the Maine Army National Guard.

A Buxton native who is retired from the military, Smith joined in 1939, while Farag, of Oakland, joined in 1998. Both were times of peace for the United States. However, Smith found himself serving in the Pacific during War World II, and Farag found himself serving in Iraq during the liberation of that country.

Both men knew there was a chance they’d have to fight in a war, but neither Smith nor Farag was prepared for it when they joined. Although separated by more than a half-century, their stories are similar.

Farag and other members of Westbrook’s National Guard company are now wondering whether they’ll have to return to Iraq. President Bush has recently said he would send additional troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Following that announcement, the Westbrook-based 133rd Engineer Battalion is readying as one of the National Guard battalions identified as a candidate for additional service in the Middle East.

Farag, 28, is mentally preparing himself for another tour of duty in the Middle East. This time, however, is different from the first because he has a better idea of what he might be facing.

Farag’s life has also changed since his first tour. Since he returned in February 2005, he has gotten married. He now has three children to care for, one of his own and two of his wife’s from a previous relationship.

When Farag thinks about going back, it is now his children he worries about.

Prelude to war

When Farag joined the Maine Army National Guard in 1998, the United States was in a time of relative peace. He said he wanted to serve in the military but wanted to stay in Maine, so the National Guard was the option for him. At the time, going to war didn’t seem likely, although it was always possible.

“Even though it’s not right there in front of you, you know it’s a possibility,” he said. “They make that clear to you.”

After Sept. 11, however, possibility turned into reality. The country had been attacked, and when U.S. troops entered Afghanistan and then Iraq, Farag began to wonder whether the 133rd would be going, as well. Then, in the fall of 2003, the 133rd was placed on a list of battalions that might be chosen – a list similar to the one the 133rd is on now to return.

“In the preceding years, none of us had heard an announcement like that,” said Farag.

He said the announcement prompted some excitement and also some fear inside him. “You have this huge unknown looming over your head,” he said. “You don’t really know what to feel.”

A couple of months passed before the battalion was given its orders for active duty, in December 2003. After that, Farag and his fellow guard members spent three months at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., on final preparations – training, testing, medical checks, organizing finances. By the end of March, the battalion was in Iraq.

A similar beginning

Like Farag, Smith, 84, said he joined the National Guard in Westbrook to be in the military but stay in Maine. This was in 1939. At the time, the 133rd was known as the 103rd and was stationed out of what is now the Stephen W. Manchester Post 62 of the American Legion beside Riverbank Park. The United States was not at war with anyone, and although Smith had heard the stories of the German army’s movements in Europe, he didn’t think he would go to war when he joined.

“For us, that was just another history lesson,” he said.

Things changed dramatically for Smith, however, in the same way they changed for Farag, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they had attacked the United States,” said Smith. “We knew very well that we were going somewhere, and that was the logical place.”

Smith and the 103rd spent the next year and a half training, and then were sent to the Pacific.

At war

According to Smith, although he hadn’t planned on going to war when he joined the 103rd, if he’d known its history he would have been less surprised. The 103rd Infantry, originally formed just prior to the American Civil War, had served in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Smith’s personal experiences began on Feb. 24, 1941, when the 103rd, Company D, left Westbrook for training and, eventually, the Pacific. Smith said he would like that day remembered for all the men he served with.

Smith’s experiences began in earnest, however, February 1943 in the Pacific Islands, where Company D was assigned to protect engineering companies building runways on the islands for aircraft. Smith said the islands were bombed continually in air raids during the time he was there.

It wasn’t until December 1944 that Smith returned to the United States and was reassigned to upstate New York, his war ending.

“I didn’t have to go back overseas,” he said. “I lucked out.”

Farag’s experience with war was shorter than Smith’s, lasting from March 2004 to February 2005, but was similar in that both men were assigned to engineering activities.

As part of the 133rd Engineer Battalion, Farag said, his job was to help rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure – roads, schools, airport runways – and help educate the Iraqis on building those things themselves. Fluent in Arabic because of his Egyptian heritage, Farag spent much of his time translating. He said his base and the convoys in which he traveled were regularly subjected to mortar fire and bombings.

But while Farag’s time of duty in a war zone was shorter than Smith’s, he now faces the prospect of having to go again for another year.

The waiting game

Of the 2,100 Maine Army National Guard members, 1,800 have already served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to guard spokesman Capt. Shanon Cotta. Nationally, 270,000 of the 347,000 guard members have served in those countries, and, at the moment, 362 Maine guard members are stationed there.

While the 133rd Engineer Battalion waits to see if it will be redeployed to Iraq or to Afghanistan, Cotta said the battalion will undergo training and also reorganization. In April, the battalion has plans to go to Arizona to assist in controlling illegal immigration, building roads, fences and culverts to protect the border, as it did similarly in 2000 and 2001 in California.

For Farag, with the possibility of having to return looming over his head, he said he’s trying to keep his mind off it and go about his day-to-day business.

“I don’t spend every waking moment thinking about it,” he said.

Farag said too many unknowns exist for him to think about it too much. For one, the situations change so much in Iraq and Afghanistan, with former calm areas becoming embattled and vice versa.

“You can’t make assumptions until you’re there,” he said.

But with a family now, Farag said he views going to war differently than he did before. Now, he’s got other people who are counting on him in a more substantial way than he did when he was single.

“I definitely have more of an appreciation for soldiers who deployed and had children,” he said. “Before I knew my parents and my siblings were worried, but it’s hard to feel what someone else is feeling.”

Farag said he’s thankful for a recent change in military policy set forth by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about a month ago that limits deployment in a combat zone to one year at a time and a cumulative total of two years for anyone serving in the military.

“That’s a step for making life easier for all soldiers,” said Farag.

Joining in peace, serving in war Joining in peace, serving in war

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: