BANGOR, Maine — Sunday was a day to honor a group of Maine Army National Guard soldiers who returned in June from the Middle East, as well as the businesses and families who supported them during their deployment.
But as Maj. Gen. John Libby reminded the audience during Sunday morning’s Freedom Salute Presentation Ceremony, some returning soldiers still have work ahead of them as they attempt to reintegrate into their home lives.
“Those people who are willing to raise their right hand and swear allegiance to our Constitution, to raise their right hand and to offer to get into a plane, [should] be willing to raise their right hand if they need support and ask for it,” said Libby, adjutant general of the Maine Army National Guard.
Then he turned to Chief Warrant Officer Ben Ayer of Newport, who headed up an Operational Support Airlift Command detachment that was in Iraq.
“Ben, I’m going to look you square in the eye, …” Libby told Ayer. “Make sure you stay in touch with us on behalf of the soldiers, but equally important are the families and the children.”
It was a command, Ayer said later, that he intends to take seriously.
Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, helped honor Ayer and six other detachment members, along with two members of an Embedded Training Team and two other individual mobilization members, in a ceremony at the Spectacular Event Center.
Sunday’s ceremony wrapped up a weekend of meetings with the returned troops to go over medical and counseling issues. The hope, Ayer said after the ceremony, is that any returning soldiers who are having trouble getting back into the flow of home life can receive counseling.
“[For anyone] to say that we don’t have those issues in the Guard, that’s not true,” Ayer said. “We do have those. And when [Libby] looked at me and said he was tasking me to pay attention and watch, he’s serious. The welfare of our guys is the most important thing.”
The honored soldiers were Embedded Training Team members Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wall of Rockland and Sgt. 1st Class Duane Rancourt of Fairfield Center. Other individuals were Lt. Col. Mark Wright of Fort Ann, N.Y., and Sgt. Francis LeBlanc Jr. of Acton, who was not at the ceremony.
Ayer’s honored OSACOM detachment included Sgt. 1st Class Peter Beloff of Hampden, Chief Warrant Officer Michael McGovern of Eddington, Sgt. 1st Class Bradley Merrill of Augusta, Chief Warrant Officer Benjamin Patrick of Stockton Springs, Chief Warrant Officer Dane Rasmussen of Winterport and Chief Warrant Officer Darrell Vigue of Glenburn.
Each soldier received an American flag in a wooden display case with a special issue National Guard coin embedded in the case, and a certificate. Other items handed out included lapel pins, rings and clocks to soldiers with different levels of service.
Bangor’s J.C. Penney Co. store and Bangor-based Telford Aviation received awards for their support of OSACOM while it was overseas, and Ayer’s wife, Sara Ayer, was recognized for heading up the family support program.
The OSACOM detachment performed aviation support with a C-12 fixed-wing airplane, flying into dangerous territory every night for a joint task force operating in Iraq. The other four soldiers honored also worked in perilous conditions, including training and supporting the Afghan National Army.
“The service they completed … included some of the most dangerous in that region,” Baldacci said. “They operated with distinction in a hostile environment. These 11 soldiers were constantly in harm’s way.”
Returning to a normal way of life after nightly flights over enemy territory isn’t an easy transition, Ayer said.
According to the Soldier’s Project, a nonprofit volunteer organization that offers free and confidential counseling to soldiers and their families, signs that a service member is struggling in some way include feelings of guilt or that people at home don’t understand what the soldier went through, irritability or jumpiness, difficulty sleeping or nightmares, or increased use of alcohol or drugs.
Ayer hasn’t had any members of his detachment approach him with difficulties reintegrating, but he said it can take awhile for soldiers to be comfortable again.
“We’ll deal with something as it comes up,” said Ayer, whose first deployment was to Afghanistan in 2003. “We have a lot of support from our command and professional services that are available. We try to encourage folks to talk about it, and we have several events where that’s what we do when we get back.”
In dealing with the transition, Ayer said, professional counselors hold meetings that soldiers attend along with families, and other meetings for soldiers alone. The meetings usually are held off-site from a military location.
Public support goes a long way, Ayer said. On Friday morning he took his detachment to breakfast at Dysart’s truck stop in Hermon when a man approached the table and told the group he wanted to pay their entire bill.
“It’s embarrassing half the time because that’s not why we do it,” Ayer said. “But we recognize what it is, and it blows us away when it happens. More than likely that guy was someone who had come back [from military service] and maybe we didn’t do it as well for them.”