Bill Libby reflects on 44-year military career

Posted Feb. 28, 2012, at 4:18 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 29, 2012, at 6:09 a.m.

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During a 2011 interview in Bangor, Major General John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, reflects on Maine's response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
During a 2011 interview in Bangor, Major General John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, reflects on Maine's response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maj. Gen. John W. Libby will retire from state service in March after a 44-year military career that ranged from service in Vietnam to leading Maine’s National Guard through eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to working as commissioner of the Department of Defense and Veterans Services.

“I told Gov. LePage I would stay on for two years,” he said in a wide-ranging interview this week. “So I am leaving a little earlier than I said, but not much earlier.”

Libby, who prefers Bill as his first name, said his wife has had difficult hip replacement surgery and he decided to retire a little earlier than he and his wife had originally planned and is looking forward to using his renovated camp.

“My place is with her,” he said.

Libby said throughout his career, stretching from his time as a young officer after graduating from the University of Maine through his duty with combat units in Vietnam to helping soldiers and their families during the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the recent war in Iraq, his wife has been supportive of his work.

“It was a lot different back then, during the Vietnam War,“ he said. “It was my wife taking me to the airport and seeing me off and she was the only one there to welcome me back.”

Libby said during the first Gulf War, when returning guardsmen were given a huge public reception and cheered by Mainers, that he felt pain from the lack of public support for the troops that served in Vietnam. He said he resolved then to do all he could to make sure those who served in the military got the respect and welcome they deserved for putting themselves in harm’s way for their country.

“They told us to take off our uniforms when we got back and I did,“ he said. “I regret doing that to this day.”

Libby said serving as the leader of the Maine National Guard has been personally rewarding, but it also has been challenging as he dealt with the deaths of both active-duty military from Maine and the first loss of Guard members in war since World War II.

“I remember vividly the first soldier we lost,” he said. “My wife and I were on an April vacation at Hilton Head [South Carolina] when the phone rang at 4 o’clock in the morning. There are no good phone calls at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

The news was that Spc. Christopher Gelineau of Portland, a member of 133rd Engineer Battalion, had been killed in an ambush of a military convoy.

“It took me hours to comprehend what had happened,” he said. Libby and his wife cut short their vacation to return to Maine.

Unfortunately, it was the first of several such calls for Libby. Just before Christmas 2004, a suicide bomber blew up part of a military dining hall in Mosul, killing 22 soldiers, two from the Maine National Guard, Sgt. Lynn Poulin of Freedom and Spc. Thomas Dostie of Somerville.

“I have read the reports, aware of the details that most people are not aware of in regard to how that happened, and it is being replicated as we speak in Afghanistan,“ he said. “It really troubles me and it really forces me to think introspectively about our mission and what the future looks like in Afghanistan.”

Libby was referring to the growing number of instances of Afghan police or soldiers attacking coalition troops. It has been the subject of concern among members of Congress as Americans, often serving as trainers of Afghan forces, have been killed by those they are training.

“The Guard has changed tremendously since I joined up,“ he said. “Today it’s likely you are going to be deployed in a combat area and that is changing the way people are looking at service and the way employers are looking at those that serve.”

Libby said he has no immediate plans after helping his wife recover from her surgery, but he expects he will stay involved in some fashion with helping veterans and their families.

He will address a joint session of the Legislature March 7, an address that was postponed when his wife was hospitalized in early February.

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