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Plan for key National Guard unit to leave Maine surprises governor

Gov. Paul LePage, commander in chief of the 2,100-person Maine Army National Guard, says he was unaware of a plan to reassign Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion to Pennsylvania in exchange for an infantry unit until details of the plan were published Wednesday in the Portland Press Herald.

LePage telephoned a Press Herald reporter Wednesday afternoon and asked for the source of information for the story, which outlined the impact of a reorganization in which Maine would lose equipment and expertise that it has called on repeatedly for emergency responses and community service projects.

The call, which lasted about a minute, started with the governor saying, “This is the commander in chief of the Maine National Guard.”

LePage then said he was surprised by the plan and asked for the source of the information. The reporter declined to give it.

“Well, it didn’t come from the Maine National Guard,” LePage said.

Then he hung up.

Under the plan, Maine would lose a battalion that handles vital engineering and construction duties during civil emergencies such as severe storms, flooding and other natural disasters. The unit also offers significant opportunities for women, and combines training for soldiers with community service to build school athletic facilities, youth camps, nature trails, municipal sand and salt sheds, rural fairgrounds and other projects.

A National Guard spokesman said Tuesday that the battalion’s engineering capabilities are rarely fully used at home, and that infantry would be a more agile, responsive force. He also said that a desire for more infantry was first expressed in a plan that the Maine Guard developed in 2008.

The call from LePage, who rarely initiates interviews with reporters, raises questions about when the Guard was planning to inform him about its reorganization plan. The top commander of the 133rd Engineer Battalion, Brig. Gen. John R. Campbell, reports to LePage and was appointed by him in 2012.

In a brief follow-up interview Wednesday night, LePage’s communications director, Peter Steele, said no decision would be made without LePage’s consent. But Steele said he could not answer questions about whether the final decision lies with LePage, or at higher levels of the National Guard. Steele also did not indicate whether LePage supports the plan.

“Nothing is going to happen until the governor meets with the general, that’s for sure,” Steele said.

Campbell is in Saudi Arabia and has been unavailable for comment. Steele said there is no timetable for the governor to meet with Campbell, and he did not know the general’s travel schedule.

GUARD CANCELS NEWS CONFERENCE

The Guard’s apparent failure to keep the governor informed may explain the battalion’s unusual steps Wednesday in releasing information.

Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Guard unit, sent an email to the media shortly after 1 p.m. announcing that a news conference would be held at 4 p.m. in Augusta to discuss the plan. Less than an hour later, Steinbuchel sent an email canceling the news conference, without an explanation.

Steinbuchel also offered a Press Herald reporter an exclusive interview Wednesday morning with the 133rd’s second-in-command, Col. John R. Mosher. The offer was rescinded after the news conference was canceled.

A call to the Army National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., seeking details about how such restructuring decisions are made, was not returned Wednesday.

Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins did not respond to several requests for interviews on whether they support the plan. They issued a joint statement Wednesday evening reiterating the National Guard’s importance to Maine.

“Should the Maine Army National Guard Bureau outline a plan to exchange the 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry battalion, we would carefully review the details,” the statement said.

Both of Maine’s U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, expressed preliminary concern about the plan Tuesday and said they would seek more information about it from the Guard.

BIG LOSS FOR COMMUNITY GROUPS

While the congressional delegation had little to say Wednesday, community organizations that have worked with the 133rd Engineer Battalion were more vocal.

Michael Katz, campus director for Camp Sunshine in Casco, said the battalion has been instrumental in the camp’s development over the years. He was surprised to hear about its possible move out of state.

In 1998, guardsmen and women helped clear the land of trees for the campus and built a footbridge, Katz said. The battalion also has done roofing and bridge maintenance projects. In 2012, it built a gazebo and helped install 1,200 feet of fencing, he said.

“Their work is second to none,” Katz said. “The way they work and their professionalism, it would be pretty tough to replace.”

In all, he said, the Guard has donated nearly $110,000 worth of labor to the camp, which serves children with life-threatening illnesses.

Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of Good Will-Hinckley, a school in Skowhegan for at-risk youths, said the battalion has spent two weeks at the 2,400-acre campus for at least the past five years. It has paid the school “several thousand dollars” to rent dorm rooms so it could do earth work, rebuild and patch roads and maintain trails, he said.

Cummings estimates the value of that labor at $20,000 to $30,000 over the past five years.

“It’s both a surprise and disappointing,” Cummings said of the possible move. “It was a very important part of our school year to be able to take care of some capital needs. It was a win-win, because it was good training for the battalion and it was absolutely essential work for us.”

Leo Rogers, director of the York County Emergency Management Agency, said the battalion helped clear roads of fallen trees during the ice storm of 1998. Without the Guard, future emergency response would likely come from private contractors, a costlier and slower alternative, he said.

“Yes, it’s a concern,” Rogers said. “We’ll just have to work around it.”

On Tuesday, Steinbuchel could not say exactly how much the reorganization would save the National Guard, or what a potential new force level would be. Currently, 2,100 people are enlisted in Maine units.

About 120 engineer-capable soldiers would remain after the reorganization, Steinbuchel said, enough to address the state’s needs during emergencies or natural disasters.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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