BANGOR, Maine — Dr. Richard Hines, a family practitioner with an office at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, is a colonel with the Maine Army National Guard who has deployed three times to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 25-year Army Guard veteran returned this week from a three-month deployment in Afghanistan and while at a stopover in Kuwait met soldiers leaving Iraq just after the U.S. military officially declared an end to its mission in that war-torn country.
President Barack Obama announced in October that U.S. troops would be home by the end of the year, and the last convoy left Iraq on Sunday.
“I did talk to some of the last people coming out of there,” Hines said Wednesday, just after he landed at the Maine Army National Guard’s aviation support facility near Bangor International Airport. “They felt it went quite well. It was quiet.”
At the height of the nearly nine-year war, more than 170,000 American troops were stationed in Iraq and almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers, airmen and Marines came home in body bags. Tens of thousands of Iraqis also lost their lives in the war, which started in March 2003 and ousted President Saddam Hussein, who was executed in December 2006.
The longtime family physician from Blue Hill, who served in Iraq in 2008 and who just returned from his second deployment to Afghanistan, said he believes it was time the Iraqi people took over leadership of their own country.
“It’s up to the Iraqis to decide what happens next — as it should be,” Hines said. “They’ll figure out what’s best for them.”
Hines, 58, was wearing desert camouflage on Wednesday afternoon when he poked his head out of a twin-engine C-12 Huron aircraft — a white plane with the words “United States of America” printed across the top — that carried him on the last leg of his trip home.
He was greeted with a round of applause from a group of fellow service members from five different military units who gathered to welcome him home, and one retired military doctor, Dr. P.J. Tangney, who drove up from southern Maine in the freezing rain to see him arrive.
Hines returned just in time for Christmas, and his wife, Daune Lord, and son Nate Hines, 20, were first in line for hugs and kisses.
“They warn you not to expect anything when you return [but] the people who teach that are not from Down East Maine,” said Hines, with a huge smile spread across his face. “With the Maine Troop Greeters and greetings like this — this is a nice state to come home to.”
Most of the soldiers gathered got handshakes, but that was not good enough for Sgt. Robin Dubois, a member of Maine Army National Guard’s medical command, who got a hug.
“It’s a long 90 days for us when he’s gone,” she said.
The Blue Hill resident, who move to Maine from New Jersey, was following in his father’s footsteps when he joined the military.
“It seemed like an honorable thing to do,” Hines said by phone from Fort Benning, Ga., the day before he arrived in Maine.
His father also was a doctor and his mother still works as a nurse, as does his wife and daughter, he said.
While in Afghanistan, he was stationed with the the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, code name “Thunderbird,” made up of soldiers from the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
The group was stationed at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in the eastern province of Laghman, where Hines helped to train Afghanistan army doctors — many of whom went to Pakistan for their training — about hypertension, stomach ulcers and rheumatoid arthritis.
“It was really fun to interact with them,” he said. “They cooked us a couple meals and they served us tea. That’s a tradition over there.”
Hines, who knew he’d be home by the end of the year, said it was a surprise that he made it home for the holidays.
“It’s good he’s home,” his wife said just before his plane landed in Bangor. “We thought he’d be home a week or so afterward.”
“The Guard is very good to him and to us,” said his son, who is one of three siblings.
Hines and his wife kept in touch mostly by phone and through letters the first time he deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, but over the years technology has changed and this time around the couple used Skype and email.
They spoke to each other over the Internet on the day the U.S. officially ended the war in Iraq, she said.
“We talked a little bit about it on Skype,” Hines’ wife said, referring to the end of the war. “But mostly we talked about our 16-year-old golden retriever, Dexter.”