It was 1975. The young teacher from Fryeburg Academy, fresh out of the regular Army after a combat tour in Vietnam, had just completed his first-ever two-week training stint as a new member of the Maine Army National Guard.

And he wasn’t impressed.

“The Guard back then had no money, no real equipment, no focus, lousy training — and I’m just off active duty,” recalled Maj. Gen. Bill Libby over a morning cup of coffee last week. “And I remember saying to my wife, ‘This is a different kind of organization. I’m not sure that Bill Libby and the National Guard are a good marriage.”‘

Thirty-five years later, Maine’s highest-ranking soldier couldn’t leave his troops if he tried. Less than six months after he announced that he’d retire from his post at year’s end, Libby turned many a head recently by accepting Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s invitation to keep his desert camouflage uniform on awhile longer.

Why the change of heart?

Part of it was personal. Libby and his wife, Cindy, live but a few miles from her 95-year-old mother and the thought of leaving her behind and heading south for the winter left them both uneasy.

But there was also the professional side: The more-than-ever-energetic Libby (who turns 67 on Christmas Day) revisited his decision to step down as commissioner of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management and adjutant general of the 3,200-strong Maine Army National Guard, the more antsy he got.

“I struggled with how I go from what I’m doing today to waking up tomorrow with nothing on the agenda,” he said. “Cindy hit the nail right on the head. She said, ‘In some sense, you’re afraid of retirement.’ And I was.”

Make no mistake about it, this is in no way the same National Guard Libby encountered back when he was a young father of three looking to supplement the family income with a weekend of training each month and a two-week drill each summer.

Back then, the Guard was a fallback for everything from natural disaster to, in states more restive than Maine, keeping the peace here at home. Actual war was the stuff of the regular Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — not the part-time soldiers with civilian day jobs.

Libby strongly agrees, in fact, with those who long have attributed the widespread vilification of Vietnam veterans — of whom he was one — to the disconnect between everyday America and the troops who came and went from massive military bases rather than local armories.

“(Lt. Gen.) Steve Blum, when he was the chief of the National Guard Bureau (from 2003 to 2008) used it say, and it’s absolutely true, ‘When you mobilize the Guard, you mobilize America.”‘ Libby said. “Because you’re taking kids off every damn street in the country — and it becomes personal.”

Which it has been since Libby took over the Maine Guard in early 2004. Of the 42 Mainers lost to date in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, seven served in the Guard.

Libby, whose Blackberry goes off whenever any Maine soldier dies in action, has lost count of how many military funerals he’s attended. It is “without question” the hardest part of his job, he said.

“The only thing you can do at that point is ensure that their final journey home is done with respect and honor; and that’s what we do,” he said. “And you take pride in that, because in the final analysis, if that was you, that’s what you’d want for your family.”

The next-of-kin notification teams, the honor guards and the flag-draped caskets serve as stark reminders that to be in the Maine Guard these days is to be, sooner or later, in harm’s way. And Libby, for one, sees no sign of that changing anytime soon.

“We are now an operational reserve, not a strategic reserve,” he said. “And the ground rules have changed significantly. My organization is populated by an overwhelming number of people who have joined since 9/11 — and they know, expect and, frankly, demand that they go somewhere and do something.”

That leaves Libby to worry not only about his soldiers as they come and go from faraway war zones — the 140-member 1136th Transportation Co. is currently on a military policing mission in Kabul, while two aviation units are slated to go to Iraq next year — but also “the kid who goes to, say, Georges Valley High School and is the only kid in the school with a mother or father who’s deployed. It’s an entirely different situation than the kid who’s going to high school at Fort Bragg, where everybody’s in the same situation.”

Not to mention the employer who must adjust to the once-every-five-years deployment rotation for any worker who’s a member of the Guard.

“We’re a state of small businesses,” Libby said. “I have a real concern for those employers who still have a bottom line or a responsibility to shareholders when I grab a kid off the floor once every five years and take him away.”

In short, from the general’s perspective, we’re all in this together this time around — if not in unanimous support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then at least for the people being called upon to fight them.

“We know them now. They aren’t these faceless people you see in an airport,” Libby said. “People in the state of Maine every couple of months see something in the paper that reminds them there are Maine kids over there.”

Libby’s decision to stick around, applauded as it was by Mainers of all political stripes, is by no means open-ended. His commitment, he stressed, goes no further than the four-year term that LePage will begin next month.

And while he’s well aware of the growing political pressure to pull the military plug on both Iraq and Afghanistan, Libby fully expects the Maine Guard’s current “operational tempo” to continue long after he moves on. Truth be told, he worries about pulling the troops out too soon.

“I’ve always said this nation suffers from strategic attention disorder. We can’t stay focused on anything,” Libby said. “And frankly — I saw it in Vietnam and I think we’re seeing it now — our enemies understand clearly that we’re an impatient society that is looking for instant gratification and they can out-wait us. They did it in Vietnam and they may in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Still, one thing clearly has changed since Libby took off his regular Army uniform and put on the insignia of the then-ragtag Maine Army National Guard: When he walked into Panera Bread in Westbrook and ordered a cup of coffee Wednesday morning, the sales clerk took one look at his desert camouflage and waved away his money.

“It happens everywhere I go — and it gives me tingles every time,” Libby said with a smile. “I can’t buy a cup of coffee anymore!”

A far cry from, say, 30 or 40 years ago?

“Forty years ago,” he replied, “I wouldn’t have walked in with my uniform on.”

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

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