Back when I began covering Maine Army National Guard troops in war zones almost 17 years ago, I immediately noticed the many measures they took to protect themselves from incoming mortars and other enemy attacks.

But one stood out: the “OTV,” military speak for an outer tactical vest. Also known as body armor.

The rule for its use was straightforward and deadly serious. Whenever you ventured anywhere outside a forward operating base or combat outpost, you wore it. And whenever the risk level rose inside the protective barbed-wire perimeter, you wore it then, too.

There were no exceptions. And while the average OTV, with its ballistic plates and attached pads, weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 pounds, nobody complained. Wearing it quickly became second nature – even for a visitor like me – for one painfully obvious reason: With your torso protected, you greatly reduced your chances of being killed by shrapnel or small arms fire. Without it, you were a dead person walking.

Which brings us to the resurging COVID-19 pandemic and a smaller, lighter line of defense against a coronavirus that’s killed a quarter of a million Americans and counting: The Mask.

The same principle applies – and then some. Wear one, and you not only protect yourself from incoming airborne droplets containing the virus, you also protect those around you, should you be infected and not know it. Don’t wear a mask and you’re at the mercy of a pandemic that shows none.

I chatted this week with a guy I know who told me he was having a bad day because of heightened enforcement at his workplace of Gov. Janet Mills’ order that everyone in Maine wear a face covering in any public setting, indoors or out.

I won’t name him here, because I don’t want to make his life more miserable, but he told me that over the course of a few hours, as he informed members of the public entering the premises that masks were now mandatory, two people swore at him. A third made an obscene gesture and claimed that there is no COVID-19, that it’s all a hoax.

“And then another called me a Nazi,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

To his credit, my friend stood his ground. To all our detriment, the battle goes on.

The latest organized opposition to mask wearing in these parts comes in the form of Mainers Against Mask Mandates, a Facebook-based group that maintains – even as COVID-19 cases rise exponentially before our eyes – that donning a mask is, ahem, bad for your health.

“We see forced mask-wearing as unhealthy on all levels – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially,” the group states on its Facebook page. “We see a mask mandate as symbolic of the growing suppression of free speech and individual rights that has resulted from the Covid-19 crisis, and we are focusing on this one issue as a way to fight back against government overreach.”

A way to fight back against government overreach? What ever happened to fighting back against the pandemic?

And when it comes to calling masks “unhealthy on all levels,” what about the simple, undeniable fact that it inhibits the spread of the coronavirus from one person to another?

Beyond the flak vests worn in war zones – admittedly an experience few Americans will ever share – our daily lives abound with examples where widespread use of external protection mitigates the risk of personal injury.

This month, hunters (and hikers, bird watchers and dog walkers, for that matter) don’t enter the Maine woods without putting on blaze orange. For hunters, it’s required by state law. It greatly reduces the chances of not only getting shot but also of accidentally shooting someone else.

It’s rare these days to stop at a light and see someone not wearing a seatbelt. That’s a government mandate too, so why isn’t the anti-mandate crowd up in arms about being forced to buckle up?

Are all of these precautions 100 percent foolproof? Of course not.

We still have occasional hunting accidents in Maine, although far fewer than before the blaze orange law took effect almost a half-century ago.

Seat-belted people still perish in car accidents, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that their use in passenger vehicles saved 15,000 lives in this country in 2017.

And yes, soldiers still died in Iraq and Afghanistan – even with their OTVs securely tightened. But without them, the death tolls from each war would undoubtedly be far higher.

Yet the anti-maskers insist that face coverings aren’t necessary because they provide no absolute guarantee against COVID-19 transmission. That’s akin to scrapping child-protective prescription bottles because every once in a while a kid manages to wrestle a cap off.

Then there’s the argument that the safeguard outweighs the risk. Anti-maskers, particularly in rural areas, argue that all those COVID-19 warnings are overblown, that the likelihood of a microbe containing the coronavirus floating into their nose is basically nil.

I had the same cavalier attitude when I first landed in Iraq. Me? Get hurt? Not a chance. Until the day a suicide bomber blew up the chow hall and I suddenly grasped the difference between abstract probability and mind-searing reality.

Wednesday afternoon, during the state’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Gov. Mills minced no words in urging continued precautions against a pandemic that on some days is infecting Mainers at the rate of one every six minutes.

She noted that the virus is now everywhere in Maine, thanks in large part to the changing season and the increased community spread that comes with more people spending more time indoors.

“If you love this country, if you love this state, I ask you, wear a mask,” Mills said. “It’s what true patriots do. It’s what Maine people do.”

The howls against Mills and her “tyrannical” assault on our God-given liberties will sadly continue – residual embers of a waning presidency that chose to stoke the hysteria rather than soothe it.

But as I listen to all the bellyaching, as I see unmasked people still strutting their stuff as if they were some kind of freedom fighters, I can’t help remembering those soldiers who gave nary a thought to strapping on a heavy vest before hiking up a mountain or climbing into a hot, dusty Humvee.

That, I assure you, was never easy.

Wearing a mask is.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.