AUGUSTA — For the rest of the season, the Mt. Blue High School varsity basketball team in Farmington will be wearing armbands bearing the initials of Lt. Col. Michael J. Backus.
Backus, 44, of Wilton, of the Maine Army National Guard, died Monday while at Camp Keyes in Augusta. The cause of his death hasn’t been determined.
Two of Backus’ three sons, a freshman and a junior, play for varsity basketball Coach Josh Bishop at Mt. Blue High School, where Backus also graduated. Backus’ third son graduated from Mt. Blue in 2010 and attends Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Bishop said other school tributes and support measures are being planned.
“Each and every soldier that had the opportunity to work with Mike is in a state of shock,” said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard. “His loss is so untimely and so unexpected that it causes us all to reflect how short life is.”
Backus was performing his typical duties at Camp Keyes at the time of his death, Steinbuchel said. Backus was the current operations branch chief for the deputy chief of staff.
He graduated from Mt. Blue High School in 1986 and four years later from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Backus was selected after graduating to attend flight school, where he trained and served as an Apache helicopter pilot.
Backus joined the Maine Army National Guard in 2001 and qualified as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. He served with the 112th Medical Company air ambulance that went to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said Tuesday he got to know Backus when the men began corresponding as he served in Iraq. Their friendship grew when Backus returned and he and Saviello began working together in veterans programs and with sports boosters.
“This is a young man I felt some day would be the future of this community,” Saviello said. “He’s dedicated to his country, he dedicated to his community and he’s dedicated to his family.”
Saviello leaned on Backus when he needed someone to speak at veterans events and for other causes.
“He was a guy you could call up on the phone and say ‘I need some help’ and he’d be there for you,” Saviello said. “There wouldn’t be a hesitation.”
Saviello said Backus’ military background, including his West Point appointment, hint at his exceptionality and brilliance, but Backus preferred to blend into the background. Saviello said he never knew Backus graduated from West Point until a couple years ago and only learned of the achievement in passing conversation.
“He was just a common, dedicated individual,” Saviello said. “But he was a special man.”
Steinbuchel said Backus was handpicked in 2004 to help establish the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program in Maine, which was the beginning of the guard’s ongoing relationship with the country of Montenegro. The partnership program forms alliances with nations aimed at supporting U.S. national interests while providing social and economic assistance to the partner nations.
Backus also served in a number of other high-profile positions within the Maine National Guard, including as public affairs officer, executive officer of the 52nd Troop Command in Bangor, and recruiting and retention battalion commander.
“Backus served his country in a number of different capacities of increasing responsibility throughout his career,” Steinbuchel said.
Brig. Gen. James D. Campbell, the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said guardsmen were shocked and saddened by the unexpected loss.
“Mike was a long-standing career officer who served professionally in a number of key assignments and served the country and state well,” Campbell said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Saviello said the community has been rocked by the news of Backus’ death.
“He was my friend,” he said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642