The sketches, 10 in all, hang on a wall inside Camp Chamberlain, headquarters for the Maine National Guard in Augusta. Each honors a soldier who traveled halfway around the world to serve in a war zone and, tragically, is no longer with us.

The latest addition to the memorial is Staff Sgt. Harold Gray of Penobscot. He died at age 50 in February of 2020 from injuries he sustained 16 years earlier, when a roadside bomb tore into the convoy in which he was driving on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq.

At the other end of the wall is the smiling face of Sgt. Christopher Gelineau, 23, of Portland. Like Gray, he was a member of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion back in 2004. And like Gray, he too was killed by an improvised explosive device while riding in a convoy through Mosul.

For military historians, the past two decades will forever stand out as a time of seemingly endless war for the United States – first Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and then Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.

Closer to home, with both conflicts finally over, it will be forever remembered by the Maine National Guard as an era of protracted sacrifice. A time when serving in the guard went from a low-risk training and home-facing missions to quite literally a matter of life and death.

“It almost sounds cliché to say that 9/11 changed everything,” Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said during a recent interview in his office. “As far as the National Guard goes, it changed a lot of people’s personal lives and it changed a lot of people’s personal careers.”

It also changed the guard. Traditionally viewed as a there-if-needed “strategic reserve” Farnham said, Maine’s force of citizen soldiers morphed into an “operational reserve” to be rotated in and out of combat zones and other hotspots on a regular basis.

Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a total of 2,995 men and women from the Maine National Guard deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Some worked in critical support roles, such as running supply convoys up and down the world’s most dangerous highways. Others built much-needed schools, clinics and other infrastructure. Still others engaged in direct combat with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Taliban and other elusive enemies.

Which raises a fundamental question in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and, symbolically, the nation’s return to peacetime: What will be the Maine National Guard’s role going forward? And as many of the soldiers who served overseas now move on with their civilian lives, who will take their places?

“Recruiting wise, it’s going to be a challenge going forward – based on the economy and demographics and different things,” Farnham said.

What’s more, he added, “people join because they want to do something” beyond routine drills that rarely if ever take them outside of Maine. Rather than return to the days of perpetual standby, the challenge now is to maintain enough of that operational-reserve mentality to still attract those seeking a little adventure in their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of the guard’s shift from hostilities overseas to helping here at home. From the beginning, Farnham said, it’s provided multiple opportunities for engagement.

Farnham remembers preparing for his annual state-of-the-guard address to the Legislature in February of 2020.

With two decades of war mercifully behind us, Farnham worried that lawmakers might have lost sight of the Maine guard’s domestic role – not since the Ice Storm of 1998 had it demonstrated, in a big way, its value here at home. So, to remind them, he had displays set up throughout the State House Hall of Flags detailing the  guard’s many and varied capabilities should the need arise.

Then the pandemic hit.

The Maine guard’s initial response to the crisis focused on planning with local, state and federal agencies for field treatment centers to handle the overflow should the overflow exceed Maine hospitals’ capacity to care for all the sick. Fortunately, that never happened.

Then came the widespread need for personal protective equipment. Drawing on its logistics capabilities, the guard operated the state’s central PPE warehouse, helped the Maine Department of Transportation get the gowns, masks and gloves out to where they were desperately needed and even trained some 4,000 providers on how to wear the equipment properly.

COVID-19 testing sites? The Maine guard was there. Vaccination centers? Those too. Contact tracing and mapping for outbreaks at schools and other high-risk sites? The guard’s work continues to this day.

Domestically speaking, Farnham said, “I don’t think there’s any question now, for our soldiers and airmen, or for the citizens of Maine and the Legislature, what the Maine National Guard brings to the table.”

Beyond Maine, 125 members of the guard’s 488th Military Police Company out of Waterville recently left for the Texas border to assist U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents with the ongoing influx of immigrants seeking asylum there. At the same time, the Westbrook-based 262nd Engineer Company is wrapping up a similar year-long mission in Arizona.

Retired Master Sgt. Angie Blevins’ portrait of Staff Sgt. Gray of Penobscot was added to the memorial wall at Maine National Guard’s Camp Chamberlain on Sept. 13, 2020. Photo courtesy of Maine National Guard

In short, the Maine guard is no longer an organization where donning the uniform means you’re likely to spend up to a year in harm’s way thousands of miles from home.  Among the 1,900 or so now serving in the Maine Army National Guard and 1,100 airmen in the Maine Air National Guard, many of the younger recruits “don’t even remember 9/11,” Farnham said.

But they still have work to do. And lest they forget who preceded them, there’s that wall at Camp Chamberlain with those 10 portraits – all sketched in pencil by now-retired Master Sgt. Angie Blevins of Hallowell.

Blevins deployed to Saudi Arabia as an illustrator with the Maine guard’s 286th Supply and Service Battalion during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91. She went on to serve as a public affairs officer and as a member of Maine National Guard’s honor guard until her retirement in 2008.

The portraits, she said in a recent interview, grew out of her work with the honor guard, there whenever fallen Mainers came home to their final resting place.

“When you see a casket covered with a United States flag, there’s something that touches your heart,” Blevins said. “And it was the same moving experience with the portraits.”

Working on each sketch, switching pencils to get this hair or that smile just right, was as much an emotional challenge as an artistic one. Recalled Blevins, “I could almost feel their spirit.”

As should we all.


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