AUGUSTA — Retired Army National Guard Maj. M.D. “Mitch” Mitchell said he cannot help but wonder “What the hell was that all for?” as he watches U.S.-Iranian tensions spill over into Iraq.

Retired Maj. M.D. “Mitch” Mitchell did two tours in Iraq and was a combat engineer in the Army for over 20 years. After seeing the recent hostilities in the Mideast, he says, “We are in a position where we could have made better choices all along.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think of the expression, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme,'” said Mitchell, who deployed to Iraq once with the Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion and then volunteered for a second deployment with another unit. “We are in a position where we could have made better choices all along, and when we don’t, we are left with fewer and fewer good choices.”

For some former members of Maine’s Army and Air National Guard units, it’s impossible not to view the recent hostilities and rhetoric between Washington, D.C., and Tehran through the lens of their own experiences in the Middle East. Well over a decade after U.S. forces began deploying to places like Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the “war on terror,” American troops are still on the ground and under fire in some of the same locations.

Adam Cote, a 20-year veteran of the Maine Army National Guard who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, said he began getting text messages and calls from other unit veterans as soon as news reports came out Tuesday evening that missiles were landing on bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. At the time, it was unclear how much damage the Iranian missiles had caused, which Cote knew would likely dictate the intensity of the American military response.

“It’s very concerning and makes you wonder when and how it is going to end?” said Cote, an attorney who retired from the National Guard in 2018 before finishing second in the Democratic primary for governor that year.

Maine Army and Air National Guard units have deployed multiple times to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and other military hotspots in recent decades. And multiple Maine service members died during those deployments to Iraq. During one rocket attack on a dining facility near Mosul in December 2004, two members of the 133rd Engineer Battalion were among the 22 people killed. A dozen other unit members were injured that day.

Cote, who deployed to Afghanistan and Bosnia in addition to Iraq, noted that these are now “cross-generational conflicts” because many of today’s young service members weren’t even born when terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Adam Cote, photographed in 2015, is a Maine Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq. He said today’s situation in the region is “very concerning and makes you wonder when and how it is going to end.” Press Herald file photo by Gordon Chibroski

Cote said the region is culturally diverse and complicated, creating a “hornet’s nest” for the U.S. and other nations involved in the conflicts. He said it is “tough to see” news of ongoing attacks and conflicts in places he remembers from his tour more than a decade ago.

“To hear that there weren’t any casualties, or that it was more of a statement by Iran … that was a relief, and I hope that it de-escalates from here,” Cote said.

Retired Maine Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Bradlee Farrin said he vividly recalls his first experiences of being at an base in Iraq when it came under mortar fire in 2008. Farrin, who now represents part of Somerset County in the Maine Senate, said seeing news of Tuesday night’s missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq was disturbing, but he also has faith in the training that military personnel receive.

“You think about it and you think about the reactions” to attacks, Farrin said. “We have the best-trained, best-equipped military in the world, and I have faith that our warriors won’t be caught off-guard.”

Yet Farrin, a Republican, said he hopes any military response from the Trump administration would be “measured” and “appropriate.”

“Sometimes being conscientious and calculated is not a weakness,” Farrin said.

Mitchell, the retired Army National Guard major, said he openly expressed his disapproval of the U.S. war in Iraq even when he was serving there but deployed twice – the second time voluntarily – because he wanted to serve his country. And more than a decade later, he still spars with other veterans and active members of his unit as he criticizes current U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Mitchell said he believes the Obama administration was on the right path by working with allies to negotiate diplomatic solutions to the longstanding tensions with Iran. But he blames the Trump administration for tossing out those diplomatic efforts and believes the recent killing of Iranian Gen. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is only putting the lives of American service members at risk.

Mitchell suggested that it is not possible to “uncook an egg,” but said he hopes the two sides can de-escalate the situation through candid conversation that acknowledges U.S. involvement in Iran and the region for decades.

“It’s complex, and there’s no easy or pithy solution,” Mitchell said.

 

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