San Pao looked out at the all-too-familiar faces Friday at the University of Southern Maine’s Wishcamper Center in Portland, his chest tight, his eyes already welling up with the tears that have dogged him for a decade.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Pao said, clutching the lectern for dear life. “Every time I think about this young man, I just want to cry.”
Ten years ago today, in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, Operation Iraqi Freedom came crashing home to Maine.
Maine Army National Guard Spc. Christopher Gelineau, 23, one semester shy of a degree in information and communication technology at USM, was on a convoy to the distant city of Tal Afar when an improvised explosive device detonated only a few feet from his Humvee.
I was in Mosul that day, embedded with the Maine Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion along with Press Herald photographer Greg Rec. We were preparing to head out on another convoy when word came that all operations had been canceled due to an “incident” involving personnel from the 133rd.
A short time later, we learned there were casualties. Not long after that came confirmation that a Maine soldier had died – the first combat death for the Maine Guard since World War II.
And so began the ritual of honor – and the river of grief – that flows to this day.
Pao, a retired staff sergeant who will himself graduate from USM in May – he’s dedicating his degree to Gelineau – decided just over a month ago that the 10th anniversary of his buddy’s death should not pass unnoticed.
And so there Pao stood on Friday, dressed in a crisp, gray suit, looking out at one-time comrades who read about the memorial on Facebook and came not just because they wanted to, but because something inside told them they had to.
There was Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, now the public affairs officer for the Maine Guard, who was Gelineau’s company commander back in 2004.
Steinbuchel remembers with crystal clarity escorting Gelineau’s litter to a waiting helicopter for the trip to a military hospital in Baghdad. Gelineau was pronounced dead en route.
To this day, Steinbuchel said, he regularly visits the grave site at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland where Gelineau rests alongside his young wife, Lavinia. (She died in 2005, murdered in her Westbrook home by her estranged Romanian father, who then took his own life.)
“Mostly I tell him that I haven’t forgotten him, that he was a fine soldier, a husband and a friend,” said Steinbuchel, his voice breaking. “And I ask him to remember us and I tell him that I will see him again someday.”
Todd Crawford served as the company’s executive officer. He’s retired from the military now and works as an attorney.
But not a day goes by that Crawford doesn’t think about Gelineau and two other soldiers form the 133rd – Spc. Tom Dostie and Sgt. Lynn Poulin – who died just before Christmas in 2004 when a suicide bomber attacked the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez.
(As fate would have it, Rec and I were on a second visit with the 133rd when that tragedy struck.)
Crawford finally sought help with his demons last year “after the last time I held a gun to my head.” He spoke not just about Gelineau, but also about Pao, who was driving the gun truck directly behind Gelineau’s when the IED went off, and Spc. Craig Ardry, who was driving Gelineau’s Humvee and sustained serious burns and fractures to his leg.
“There’s others that lived – Craig, San,” said Crawford, nodding to his two fellow soldiers. “As much as I miss Chris, and as much as that happened – and it was awful – I thank God these guys are alive. I just thank God we made it and we got home.”
Alicia Wilkinson was Gelineau’s sergeant before he was transferred from FOB Marez to Task Force Olympia headquarters across Mosul.
But Gelineau was still one of “my babies,” Wilkinson said through her tears. Thus it was only natural that, only two days before his death, he called her on the phone and told her, “Sgt. Wilkinson, I don’t want to go out on the road. You promised me I wouldn’t have to.”
“The guilt that goes with that is just so hard,” said Wilkinson. “It’s so hard.”
And so it went. From the loss of Gelineau to the attack on the dining hall eight months later, what began as a simple memorial became a catharsis for all that happens in war – and all that endures long after the uniforms come off and normal life, whatever that is, resumes.
Jeanne Munger is an associate professor of marketing at USM. She knew both Chris and Lavinia Gelineau – she especially remembers Chris’ broad, toothy smile – and much as she misses them, her most poignant message was for the still living.
“You’ve seen things that you know will never go away. We’ll never know those,” Munger told the veterans in the hushed room. “We didn’t see what you saw. We carry burdens, but we don’t carry the same burdens you carry – and it’s a very heavy load.”
As someone who did see what these soldiers saw, I’ll second Munger’s insightful observation. And as I sat there Friday listening to these “citizen soldiers” all these years later, two things occurred to me.
The first is that with the Iraq War over and the Afghanistan War soon to follow, those who served now take their place with veterans of Vietnam, Korea and, in the fading distance, World War II. We think of them on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but most other days they’re on their own.
We owe them much, much more than that.
Secondly, as you read this, a new generation of the 133rd Engineer Battalion remains in harm’s way at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. It’s tempting to say that their return home in June will mark the final chapter in this decade of Mainers at war.
But it won’t.
For many who served with honor and heartbreak, the battle quietly goes on.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: