FARMINGTON — Hundreds gathered Sunday to remember a man who was awarded numerous medals and honors over his 22 years of military service to the United States and Maine.
But Lt. Col. Michael J. Backus was also remembered as a loving husband and father, a coach and fan of youth sports, a community leader and a friend.
Backus, 44, of Wilton died unexpectedly on Jan. 7 of natural causes while at work at the Maine Army National Guard's Camp Keyes.
Backus, a West Point Cadet, served in the U.S. Army and flew medevac helicopters with the 112th Medical Co. while deployed to Iraq.
He was handpicked to help establish the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program in Maine, working to develop a relationship with the country of Montenegro.
He was a diplomat, Maj. Michael R. Steinbuchel, public affairs officer for the National Guard, said prior to the service. Backus previously served as the public affairs officer.
"Michael joined the Guard in 2001. We are a family, and we are here today to grieve Mike's death as a family," he said of the many uniformed service members who filled the Olsen Student Center at the University of Maine at Farmington where the service was held.
"He was a natural leader. Soldiers followed Mike. They wanted to perform well for him," Steinbuchel said.
Conversations at work often turned to Mike's family, his wife, Kristie, his three sons, Ryan, Nathan and Evan, and his coaching in area youth sports teams, he said.
"In the short time he was here, he left an impression on me and this organization. I'll miss him."
More than 500 people, including military members, Gov. Paul LePage and many families, gathered in the college dining hall turned sanctuary with an overflow in the student center hallway.
The Rev. Dr. Douglas Dunlap said many young people have gathered at the Backus' home this week just as they've done over the years. The home was the "go to" house in Wilton for friends, a place where there was joy and a lot of wrestling.
"He (Backus) had a playfulness about him. He was serious when seriousness was called for and playful when it was time for play," he said. "One is only that playful when they are at peace with themselves."
Dunlap, chaplain at Franklin Memorial Hospital, was joined by the Rev. David Smith, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Wilton, and Chaplain Col. Andrew Gibson in leading the service.
"Mike was a lieutenant colonel, a West Point Cadet, a helicopter pilot, but that wasn't who I knew. I knew the regular guy Mike who coached many Wilton Youth Sports teams," Michael Doiron of Wilton said while remembering Backus. "We all wanted to be like Mike. He was a born leader, a role model. He cared for us and our families."
He liked sports, especially baseball. When Doiron asked who had been lucky enough to be coached by Backus, many hands rose, including those of National Guardsmen.
Maine Sen. Tom Saviello remembered the coach, the community leader, the man who helped barbecue chickens for the Wilton Blueberry Festival, but mostly the man who helped him with programs honoring veterans for their service.
"He was always ready to help," Saviello said.
Backus, Saviello and Dunlap together restarted a Veterans Day service in Wilton a few years ago.
"I always called on him to speak because he spoke from the heart," Saviello said.
When Backus joined the Maine National Guard just three days before 9/11, Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said he was impressed with Backus' confidence and bearing when he met him.
When Libby retired last year, Backus said Libby was a mentor to him. Sunday Libby said mentorship is a two-way street.
"I didn't express how much I relied on his judgement," Libby said. "In discussions, when Mike asked if he could be frank, his words were always worth hearing."
Noting some common experiences the two shared, discussions often turned to his family and sports. Libby jokingly said he knew a lot about Mt. Blue High School football.
"He brought his family and community to our workplace," Libby said. "Mike may be gone, but his values live on in his sons. He will be missed by all."