Guard’s operations branch chief dies at Camp Keyes

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AUGUSTA — Veterans, state leaders and a community are mourning the death of a longtime Maine National Guard leader, Lt. Col. Michael J. Backus of Wilton.

Backus died unexpectedly Monday while performing duties at Camp Keyes in Augusta, said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine National Guard. “The cause of his death is still under investigation.”

Backus, 44, is survived by his wife and three sons. Steinbuchel said he and other co-workers are still in shock, especially because Backus was the “picture of health.”

“I don’t think there was a guy at Camp Keyes who didn’t go home (on Monday) and hug and kiss his wife,” the major said.

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“We are shocked and saddened by the unexpected loss of Lt. Col. Backus,” Brigadier Gen. James D. Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said Tuesday in a statement. “Mike was a long-standing career officer who served professionally in a number of key assignments and served the country and state well. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Backus graduated from Mt. Blue High School in 1986 and from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1990.

After West Point, he was selected to attend flight school, where he trained and served as an Apache helicopter pilot, Steinbuchel said. Backus joined the Maine Army National Guard in 2001, where he qualified as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot.

He flew medevac helicopters with the 112th Medical Company in 2003 while the unit was deployed to Iraq. Upon his return stateside, “Backus was handpicked to help establish the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program in Maine, beginning our ongoing relationship with the country of Montenegro,” Steinbuchel said.

Backus held several high-profile military roles over the years, including director of public affairs for the Maine National Guard before becoming executive officer of the Guard’s 52nd Troop Command in Bangor in 2008. In February 2009, he became the recruiting and retention battalion commander for the Guard and in May 2012 was promoted to operations branch chief.

“In my world, those are ‘you-made-it’-type jobs,” Steinbuchel said.

In November, Backus gave a speech in his hometown of Wilton about what Veterans Day means. He will be missed by all who knew him, Steinbuchel said.

“Mike was a top-notch guy,” the major said. “I never met a person who didn’t like him. He was always making you laugh and feel at ease.”

State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, expressed deep sadness for Backus’ death.

“This is not only a profound loss for the Guard, but for Col. Backus’ entire community,” Saviello said. “I first got to know him as one of my constituents in District 18, but over the years, he became a close friend. He accomplished extraordinary things at a young age in the military, and I am certain he would have gone on to serve in elected office at some point.”

Saviello said he often remarked that Backus was the “new generation” and that he always expected Backus to move up and take over as Saviello’s generation moved on.

“He was always there for anyone,” Saviello said, remembering Backus’ deep roots in the community. The senator spoke fondly of Backus’ sons, two of whom played football for Mt. Blue High School and one who currently plays soccer. His oldest son is attending Maine Maritime Academy, Saviello said.

“Mike always supported the sports programs,” Saviello said. “He organized tailgates, made sure the grills were all where they were supposed to be, cooked for the whole thing and made sure it was all packed up when it was over.”

Saviello remembered how he and Backus worked together to establish a veterans’ program in Wilton. The pair put on three veterans’ recognition programs at the local church where they officially “welcomed home” Vietnam vets.

“They hugged us and some of them were crying” Saviello said.

When Saviello notified his daughter of Backus’ death, she recalled how at the last Christmas service, Backus was a bell-ringer in the program. Afterward, she and Backus stood and looked at a remembrance tree together; that memory was made more vivid today, Saviello said.

Speaking of Backus’ career, Saviello said he was not aware of his West Point education until two years ago. As the senator put it, Backus didn’t “wear it on his sleeve.”

Saviello said Backus was not one to brag about his education, career or rank. His humility made him a team player among his enlisted ranks, as well.

“He was a Black Hawk pilot,” Saviello said. “He never bragged about it.”

He added, “We lost a person who cared about his family, his community and his country. My biggest concern is for his family.”

Saviello recalled that when he lost his wife 14 years ago, it was difficult to raise a young family. His thoughts and prayers are with the Backus family now.

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