Orginally published Dec. 24, 2004.

MOSUL, Iraq — Sgt. Bruce Miller, a mental health specialist at Forward Operating Base Marez, sat in his Combat Stress Control office amid the barracks of the Maine Army National Guard. He was bracing himself.

“My day tomorrow is packed with appointments, ” Miller said late Wednesday, one day after an apparent suicide bomber struck at the very heart of Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.

The attack, at the height of Tuesday’s lunch hour in the base’s crowded dining facility, killed 22 people and wounded 69. Two of the dead and six of the wounded were from Maine. The injured also included seven New Yorkers attached to the 133rd.

“I have a motto that I tell everyone, ” Miller said. “It’s that everyone needs help sometime.”

For the comrades and friends of Sgt. Lynn R. Poulin Sr., 49, of Freedom and Spc. Thomas J. Dostie, 20, of Somerville that time is now.

Talk to anyone around the 133rd’s Alpha Company and they’ll say the same thing about Lynn Poulin.

“He had an unmatched work ethic, ” said Capt. Dean Preston of Pembroke, sitting in Alpha Company’s quiet recreation room Thursday afternoon. “You had to get up very early and stay on the job a long time if you were going to tell him when to show up and when to leave. Because he was always at work before anyone and you left before he did.”

Poulin, a welder with Alpha Company’s maintenance section, had a good reason for working so hard: He was one of the most ardent advocates for “up-armoring” the 133rd’s fleet of heavy construction and transport vehicles with protective steel plating purchased from local vendors.

“He felt good about that, knowing he was doing something that really made a difference, ” said Staff Sgt. Chad Steward of Athens, Poulin’s squad leader. “He knew what he was doing over here meant something and it was important. And I think he took a lot of pride in that.”

Steward had known Poulin for 20 years. So when Alpha Company conducted its “100 percent accountability” radio head count after Tuesday’s attack and one name – Poulin’s – kept coming up as missing, Steward felt the dread that comes with having a comrade, and a 23-year veteran guardsman at that, suddenly vanish from the ranks.

“Lynn was a fixture at the Belfast armory, ” Steward said. “I’m sure that once we get back to Maine and get back to the armory and everybody’s back together, it’s just going to bring it up again.”

Preston, the company commander, told his officers that Thursday was a work day. But he left it up to them to decide what that meant.

“If a kid wakes up and he’s pretty comfortable just staring at the sky, he’s not going to be much good to us, ” he said. “We need to give everybody enough room.”

Room, for starters, to grasp what happened.

“As a company, I don’t know if we’re really believing it yet, ” Preston said. “It hasn’t really settled in.”

Miller, the mental health specialist, called that a perfectly normal reaction. The soldiers, he said, are just beginning to embark on a painful five-step grieving process.

The first step?

“Denial, ” Miller said. “We’re still seeing a lot of that around here.”

Across the base at the 133rd’s Headquarters Support Company, 21-year-old Spc. Greg Raychard of Buxton looked from his bunk over to the one that two days earlier had been occupied by Spc. Thomas Dostie.

Ten months ago, they moved into the large concrete barracks because they thought its thick walls would keep them safe.

“The first couple of nights (after Tuesday’s attack), we just like went in and sat on his bunk, ” said Raychard, staring at the boxes into which Dostie’s personal belongings have now been carefully packed for shipment home to his family.

“It was just kind of good to remember him by having his stuff here, ” said Raychard, who worked in Headquarters Support Company’s Direct Support Maintenance section with Dostie before being appointed assistant to Chaplain David Sivret last summer.

Raychard smiled at the Chips Ahoy and Oreo cookie packets, the flip-top cans of peaches and the Starburst candies, all still stacked neatly on the makeshift shelf at the foot of Dostie’s bare mattress.

“He was really organized, ” Raychard said.

Dostie was also, by all accounts, a “people person.”

Spc. Sean Lawrence, 21, of Augusta, another roommate, had known Dostie since the day they happened to enroll at the same time in the Guard. In their 10 months at Marez, they’d become inseparable – to the point that Lt. Michael Flynn, their platoon leader, often addressed them dryly as “Dumb and Dumber.”

“People were always saying we bitched like an old married couple, ” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said he worries most about Dostie’s parents, Mike and Peggy, his older brother, Tim, and the many foster “brothers and sisters” who over the years have passed through the Dostie home.

“His dad was the one guy he looked up to – that was the guy he wanted to be like, ” Lawrence said.

Raychard nodded in agreement.

“He always said, ‘My dad is the man I respect most in the entire world, ‘ ” he recalled. “That’s what he’d always say.”

Raychard will long remember Dostie asking him just before noon Tuesday if he wanted to go to lunch.

“I said no, I was going to get some rest, ” Raychard said. “If I’d gone, I’d have been sitting right next to him.”

It is, according to Miller, a perfectly normal reaction – another part of the grieving process in which survivors wonder how, if only they had done something different, fate might have been altered.

It’s called “bargaining.”

Another stage is depression. It’s already stalking Spc. Ronald Cyr, 27, who lives in Lewiston but grew up three doors down from Dostie in Somerville and baby-sat him when Cyr was a teenager.

“When I found out about it, it hit me hard, ” Cyr said. “I felt like I’d lost my brother.”

Cyr’s brother, Sgt. Jason Cyr, is also a soldier with the 133rd here in Mosul. He was away from the base on a mission when the attack occurred Tuesday.

“You know, like, it’s one of those things that you don’t believe it – you don’t believe that it happened?” Cyr asked. “And then it finally kicks in that it did.”

It’s a sensation being felt all over Marez this Christmas week, one that can lead to another stage of the grieving process: anger.

After darkness fell on Marez Thursday, a firefight between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents erupted outside the base – close enough for soldiers to hear several loud explosions and see tracer bullets streaming through the night sky from a helicopter gunship.

Members of the 133rd gathered outside their barracks – some climbed on top of the concrete Jersey barriers for a better view – and cheered with a vengeance.

“How does that feel?” hollered one voice in the darkness.

Miller, who opened Marez’s Combat Stress Control office along with Lt. Col. Hodges Glenn last August, said it will take time for soldiers all over this base to negotiate their way through these emotional thickets to the final stage of the grieving process: acceptance.

“There’s not a set time limit, ” Miller said. “I mean this could happen from days to months – especially for people who saw what happened and for others who know the people who have passed on.”

Standing down by the battalion’s welding shed late Thursday, Staff Sgt. Mark Chadwick, 57, of Knox wondered aloud what it will be like to come out at 8 a.m. and not find his close friend, Sgt. Lynn Poulin, hard at work strengthening trucks with his welding torch.

“You wake up in the morning and all of a sudden, bang, the light goes on that they’re not here, ” he said. “And then the heartache sort of hits.”

Chadwick paused, looked down at his dusty combat boots and quietly began to weep.

“It passes . . . it’s sort of a . . . excuse me . . . a come-and-go thing, ” he said, his voice breaking. “I try not to think about it. I pretend it doesn’t bother me.”

Up in the concrete barracks that no longer feel so comfortably crowded, Lawrence struggled with the same feelings about Spc. Tommy Dostie, the friend who’s not coming back.

“It’s like there’s a piece of you that’s not supposed to be missing. But it’s missing – and it just feels wrong, ” Lawrence said. “I mean, a lot of people if they thought of Dostie, they thought, ‘Yup, Lawrence is probably there, ‘ or the other way around. And now it’s, ‘Dostie’s not there’ . . . you know? If that makes any sense, “

It makes perfect sense.

And then again, it doesn’t.

Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]