MONMOUTH — Scott Lewis has gone off to war. Again. He’ll be gone the better part of a year, which is a long time by any measure, but it seems especially glacial when counted in missed proms, morning chats and wrestling matches with Dad.

In just a few weeks, Lewis, a major in the Maine Army National Guard who has spent most of the past 14 years with the 133rd Engineer Battalion, will be overseeing hundreds of men and woman in Afghanistan; but last week Lewis was squeezing in the last few days of overseeing his family and making sure they were ready to go it alone.

“The last thing on my list was cleaning the chimney,” Lewis said last week, just days before Saturday’s send-off ceremony in Portland. “You can’t prepare for surprises, but you can prepare against absolute chaos.”

Lewis, 45, is one of about 200 men and women from the 133rd Engineer Battalion and 1035th Engineer Detachment who will leave this week for six weeks of mobilization training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

In October they’ll head to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. They’ll spend about nine months in the country retrofitting military sites for alternative uses by the Afghans or close them all together. The work is anticipation of the end of Operation Enduring Freedom. President Barack Obama’s administration has said it hopes to have between zero and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan by January 2015.

“It’s all about reducing the footprint,” Lewis said, That’s a big job, considering the war has been ongoing for about 12 years.

Lewis will serve as the executive officer of a battalion that within six months will include 700 people from Maine as well as Alabama, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Lewis was a company executive officer when the 133rd deployed to Mosul, Iraq, from February 2004 to March 2005. About one-third of the soldiers who deployed to Iraq remain with the 133rd, Lewis said.

“That’s one thing that’s strong about the National Guard that the active duty doesn’t have,” Lewis said. “When you’re in the active duty, you get moved around. We have relationships that we’ve developed over 10 or 15 years. When we go, it’s almost like the family’s going.”

That connection extends to Lewis’ civilian family, which includes his wife, Lynn Lewis, and their two children, 16-year-old Kimberlee and 6-year-old Nathan, who will remain behind. The families left behind help support each other, Lynn Lewis said.

“The spouses that I made really strong relationships with the last time they were gone are going to be the same,” Lynn Lewis said. “It’s family.”

Some of that support is formalized through the Family Readiness Group, which meets once a month to offer support to anyone who is related to or cares about a deployed soldier. The Guard also has a network of area tradesmen and other skilled volunteers who are ready to help families in times of an emergency, such as a broken boiler or a leaky roof.

Soldiers in the 133rd have known for about a year that they would deploy to Afghanistan this summer, which gave the unit and their families time to prepare for as many scenarios as possible. In addition to the newly swept chimney, the family has seen to a number of other preparations, such as stacking a winter’s worth of firewood. Lynn Lewis, who mirrors her husband’s determination and preparedness, got a tutorial on changing the shear pin of the snow blower.

“I have full confidence of my ability, and the kids’ ability, to handle everything here at home,” Lynn said. “If something comes up, if I can’t personally do it, I know who to call.”

With extra notice of the deployment, however, has come a lot more opportunity to think about the pending separation. When the unit deployed to Iraq nine years ago, there was only a few months’ notice. Lynn Lewis said she’s not sure which way is better.

“There’s good and bad,” she said. “When you have that notification, and it’s so far out, it’s easy to kind of brush it off and not think about it. It doesn’t become actual reality, really hit home, until you’re a few weeks out. I’m looking forward to getting it started so we can start the calendar.”

Scott Lewis’ previous position, director of the Maine State Partnership Program with Montenegro, which required regular travel, helped prepare the family for the separation, Lynn Lewis said.

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” Lynn Lewis said.

Scott Lewis chose that lifestyle after returning from Iraq. He left a civilian career to give the military his full focus.

“Your perspective on life changes when you deploy,” he said. “Things that used to be real important, or that you used to get stressed out over, are not longer important. I wanted to do it full time because I wanted to be all in. I wanted to have it all focused in one area.”

Most guardsmen have careers outside the military that are upset by deployment, Lewis said.

“My job every day is in the military. To me it is almost like expectation, that’s what you do,” Scott Lewis said. “But for a lot of these guys, the majority, it’s people who are pharmacists, lawyers, plumbers and electricians, they’re totally changing their lifestyles.”

The Lewises’ lives will change as well, of course. They will stay in touch through Skype — an internet-based program that will allow them regular videoconference sessions — which is a big improvement from Scott’s deployment to Iraq, when communication was limited to periodic emails and phone calls.

“I won’t make any major changes while he’s gone,” Lynn Lewis said. “If he’s in his room and he’s thinking about stuff here at home, I want it to be the way he’s picturing it.”

Part of the family’s preparation has been stockpiling pictures to send with Scott Lewis. He will carry them with him, along with one item each of his children has given to him as a memento. Kimberlee gave her father a miniature horse she hand-painted some years ago. Scott Lewis plans to take pictures of the horse set against the backdrop of wherever he travels in Afghanistan and send them back to his daughter.

“I’m just trying to spend as much time with him as I can,” Kimberlee Lewis said. “We’re just trying to make good memories.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
[email protected]

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