Commander Mike McLean – Cold War

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After 21 years in the United States Army, Sergeant Mike Mclean found it easier to transition back to civilian life in the company of fellow veterans in the American Legion. In 2010, Mclean became Commander of the Calais branch. (Photo courtesy of Mike Mclean)

By Lura Jackson

The intensity and responsibility of being a soldier in the United States military can have a powerful effect in shaping an individual. After becoming a soldier and devoting part of a lifetime to military service, adjusting back to civilian life can be extremely difficult. Such was the case for Sergeant Mike McLean, who, after 21 years in the Army, devoted himself to the American Legion to conduct outreach and help build a bridge between veterans and the community.

McLean’s story begins in Calais, where he was born and raised. Upon graduating from Calais Memorial High School in 1970, he immediately enlisted in the Army. “I just wanted to get out of Calais and see the world,” McLean recalls.

After enlisting, he went to Fort Dix, New Jersey for basic training. “It was rough,” McLean said. “The sand, and the heat.” McLean had never been very far south before, and training in New Jersey from July to August proved to be an uncomfortable experience for the young man. From there, McLean went to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he attended school to become a communication specialist. “I wanted to get into something, I didn’t want to be an infantryman. I wanted to get some education.”

In 1971, McLean was on his way to Germany. He was stationed along the French border at a base called Zweibrucken. As a communication specialist, he worked at a Dial Telephone Office (DTO) monitoring communications that came through, particularly if they pertained to the Soviet Union or its satellite states. He also installed and repaired telephone equipment as needed. “It was beautiful, beautiful country,” McLean said. 

While stationed in Germany, McLean met his first wife. He returned to Calais in 1975 to marry her with his former geography teacher and retired Air Force colonel Charles F. Gillis officiating. The couple returned to Germany, staying there for another year.

In 1976, McLean was transferred to Fort Ritchie, Maryland. For the next fourteen months, he traveled around the breadth of the United States as part of a Quality Assurance inspection team evaluating communication centers. Of the many bases he visited, one stood out as particularly undesirable: Fort Polk, Louisiana. Summarizing what he disliked about it, McLean said, “Swamps! And training for Vietnam.”

McLean wouldn’t stay in the U.S. for long. In 1978, he again returned to Germany, this time to Worms. He continued his work as a Quality Assurance inspector until the following year when he received what he refers to as a “real good assignment.” McLean was transferred to Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps along the Austrian border, a town that remains renowned for its incredibly picturesque scenery.

At Berchtesgaden, McLean served as Dial Center Office Chief with a German technician assigned to him. “We supplied communications for VIPs and visitors at the Armed Forces Recreation Center,” McLean said. Troops would take a reprieve from duty to tour the area. “It’s a big resort, vacationland,” McLean explained. In 1980, McLean’s son, Michael Scott, was born at Berchtesgaden. 

McLean remained at Berchtesgaden until 1986, when he was transferred to Augsburg, Germany. By this time a Sergeant First Class, McLean was nominated to attend US Army First Sergeant School in Munich, Germany. While there, he studied communications, personnel management, safety and security.

In 1990, McLean was ready to retire from the Army, having spent 20 years in the service at that point. However, the outbreak of Desert Storm delayed his plans to retire. His term was extended by a year and he was appointed to Homeland Security and assigned to the command of 80 personnel.

Upon reaching military retirement in 1991, McLean returned to Calais. He began working at Georgia Pacific in utilities and maintenance, and remained there for 11 years. After that, he worked in maintenance at the Methodist Homes and then the Children’s Project, staying at each location for between five and six years. At the age of 62, he formally retired.

Adjusting to civilian life was not easy for McLean. It was “different, very different,” McLean expressed. “I was used to everything being ‘dress right, dress’. It’s not so, in the civilian world.” For a while, everyone knew him as “Sergeant Mac.” 

The most helpful factor in his adjustment to becoming a civilian was his interaction with the American Legion and other veterans. “You’ve got camaraderie,” McLean said of being with fellow veterans. “You can talk about things you’ve done and things you’ve experienced.” Having someone to speak with that has a similar background and perspective can be very beneficial, McLean explained. “Being in the military, they have so much responsibility. Even being a E5 in the United States Army, you’re responsible for so much health, welfare, and equipment, and the safety of individuals.”

In 2010, McLean was appointed as Commander of the Calais American Legion. The post now has 150 active members, though not all continue to live locally. As Commander, McLean has led numerous community initiatives, including lining the streets of Calais with 125 American flags, placing 900 flags on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day, and a project to distribute veterans placemats to local eateries with contact information for both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. An upcoming Veterans Meet and Greet is tentatively planned for October 23rd at Just South of the Border, and McLean welcomes all veterans to attend.

Being in the military was a life-changing experience for McLean. “I loved it,” he expressed. “I had good tours, met a lot of people from all walks of life.” McLean does recommend joining the service to those considering it, but he realizes that “with the combat going on right now, it’s a touch-and-go situation. That’s the downfall of what’s been going on in this timeframe.” McLean said that, except for Vietnam, soldiers today are facing many risks that soldiers in his era did not have to contend with. 

 

To learn more about joining the American Legion in Calais, contact Commander Mike at 454-3435.

 

Sergeant Mike Mclean served as Dial Center Office Chief at Berchtesgaden, Germany, along the Austrian border, for seven years during the Cold War. He is seen here with German civilian technician Richard Hirt.