Orginally published March 21, 2004.

Thirty-five years later, Brig. Gen. John W. “Bill” Libby still remembers vividly how it felt going to and coming from Vietnam. The scenes aren’t exactly scrapbook material.

“I got on a plane in Portland – and then I got off a plane in Portland,” Libby said last week. “I was all alone both times. That was my experience.”

It’s a far cry from what is happening this month under his new command as head of the Maine Army National Guard: Some 910 guardsmen and women, spread out over four units, are either on their way to Iraq for up to 18 months or on their way home after a year in the world’s most volatile hot spot. But unlike he did, Libby noted, they’re doing it together.

“They’re serving alongside people they know – and when the going gets tough, that makes it a whole different experience for them,” Libby said. “But there’s also a downside that we don’t like to talk about.”

And what would that be?

“If something happens to one of this units,” he said, “it happens to a community.”

Such is the new military culture – or perhaps a return to the old military culture – over which Libby, 60, has presided since replacing retired Maj. Gen. Joseph Tinkham two months ago. It’s a culture that reminds him far more of the World War II exploits shared by his father and uncles than of his own solitary experience as a captain with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

Truth be told, Libby joined the army because he’d spent countless summer evenings at the family’s camp on Sabattus Pond listening to his elders reminisce about the war. What they had, he wanted.

But it was not meant to be. While his father counted his old war buddies by the dozens – 25 of them showed up at Libby’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary – Libby’s band of brothers is painfully smaller.

“There’s one guy I still keep in touch with,” Libby said. “One.”

Like many Vietnam vets, Libby carried his baggage well into middle age. To this day, he admits, he keeps much of the world at arm’s length emotionally – the result of too many strangers becoming friends one day and disappearing the next. He also concedes that for years he felt bitter at a nation that viewed his war – and, by extension, his service – so differently from those that came before.

“I was particularly bitter during Desert Storm” in 1991, he said, recalling the hero worship heaped upon anyone in a uniform at the time. “But I got over it.”

And not a moment too soon. He takes over at a time when almost 65 percent of the Maine Guard’s personnel – second only to New Hampshire – are attached to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Like Tinkham, a fellow Vietnam veteran for whom he served as second-in-command, Libby approaches his new job with a down-to-earth demeanor – a style that was on full display two weeks ago when he went to Fort Drum, N.Y., to visit with the outbound 133rd Engineer Battalion.

“I told (the Fort Drum brass) that I didn’t want the PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “I just went to the mess hall, took a chair at the table nearest the door, poured a cup of  coffee, put my feet up and waited for (his troops) to come through the door. I wanted to hear what’s on their minds.”

Back in his office overlooking Camp Keyes, it’s easy to see what’s on Libby’s mind.

He keeps his computer linked to CNN, dropping everything when the “bink” announces a news bulletin from Iraq.

He spends many a weekend hour presiding over a skating party for the Guard’s spouses and children, or tamping down rumors spawned by e-mails and cell-phone calls from half a world away.

He marvels at how times have changed – and not just technologically.

“We may disagree over whether we should be there,” Libby said. “But there’s tremendous support for the troops. We didn’t have that in Vietnam.”

More than anything, though, the general now feels something only a commander can feel.

“So far,” he said, “nobody (in the Maine Guard) has been injured . . . and nobody has been killed.”

As he spoke, Libby reflexively reached over and rapped his knuckles on the shiny top of his new desk.

“Knock on wood,” he said quietly.

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

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