State expects a changing of the Guard

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LEWISTON – Soldiers in the Maine Army National Guard may soon be changing jobs, units and drilling locations under a new plan aimed at transforming the nearly 2,000-member force.

Entire units – such as Lewiston and Norway-based Charlie Company of the 133rd Engineer Battalion – will soon disappear. New companies will take their place.

The aim is to create smaller, more versatile and self-contained groups, each capable of being activated for duty, said Maj. Michael Backus, spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard.

“It essentially will affect every unit in Maine,” Backus said Tuesday. “We’re taking a look at the entire scope of what we do.”

In Lewiston, where some part-time soldiers from the local community have drilled for more than two decades, it will be a tough change.

“We go where we’re told to go,” Platoon Sgt. Gary O’Connell said Tuesday. “But it saddens me a little bit.”

O’Connell has been part of the Lewiston group since his father, Frank, recruited him nearly 27 years ago. When the changes go into effect – sometime before the end of September – he’ll probably move to a Portland-area unit.

“I was born and raised in Lewiston,” he said. Drilling here has been a matter of convenience and identity.

“It’s a pride thing,” he said. “We’re a blue-collar unit up here.”

The restructuring plan has been in the works for more than a year.

Nationally, the Army has been trying to reduce the size of units, particularly in some specialties. The Maine change is merely an offshoot, Backus said.

For instance, one unit deemed less central to the changing mission was the 152nd Field Artillery Battalion, which works out of locations across northern Maine.

Under the current plan, it will be retired. But many of its people will be incorporated into a drastically changed 133rd Engineer Battalion.

Engineers, it seems, are more coveted by the active-duty Army.

Many of the artillery battalion’s vehicle drivers, surveyors and mechanics will become part of the newly created 185th Engineer Support Company, part of the revamped 133rd.

It’s less certain what will happen to the men and women in Lewiston and Norway units.

They are expected to fit into one of several new companies of the 133rd, some of whom will continue to drill here in Lewiston.

Lewiston will become home to the 136th Engineer Company – Vertical, a unit that includes carpenters and plumbers and masons: people who build buildings. Many of those jobs are specialties typical of the Charlie Company detachment from Norway.

Other new companies will include:

The 262nd Engineer Company – Horizontal, based in Westbrook and Belfast, will consist of road builders and other heavy machinery operators.

The 1035th Survey and Design Team will work in Gardiner.

The 1138th Asphalt Platoon will train at a still-undetermined location.

Portland will be home to the 1133rd Field Support Company.

Portland and Gardiner will co-host the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 133rd.

Transforming the 133rd Engineer Battalion – consisting of about 500 soldiers – has been delicate, Backus said.

Leaders know that people are nervous about change, he said. When possible, soldiers are being given choices about where they’ll move.

It lessens some of the sting of change, O’Connell said.

“Any time you give people a choice, it helps,” he said. He figures he’ll likely be in Westbrook when the shift ends.

But he doesn’t know what his job will be. He may not be a platoon sergeant again, nor will he feel the connection he has here in Lewiston.

It’s a connection most felt when the unit returned home in March 2005 after a year in Iraq.

They were greeted like the Beatles as they got off buses and walked into the packed gym at Lewiston High School.

There were handmade signs, a marching band and crying relatives.

“There was a lot of history and a lot of pride,” O’Connell said. “It will change.”

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