Another fight for veterans

Some 40 years ago I was privileged to work beside some of the most dedicated people I have ever met: Aroostook County veterans.  I will not name them here but these were combat veterans, Vietnam-era veterans, Korean veterans, former prisoners of war, very diversified. 

They represented multiple veterans services organizations, or VSOs.  These veterans had come together for a sole purpose — to create a veterans outpatient clinic in Aroostook County.

Month after month and year after year they persevered.  Even when told that the chances for a Veterans Administration clinic in Caribou were, according to the then-administrator of the VA Hospital at Togus, “zero,” they just would not give up.  

I admired their courage and steadfastness, which made me so proud.  Ultimately their clinic did come to be, the first VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in the nation.  These men did not stop there. Once the VA Clinic was established, they moved on to establish a 40-bed Maine Veterans Home in Caribou attached to Cary Medical Center, then a 30-bed residential care facility.  What a legacy.

All of the original veterans I worked with have since passed, save for one.  Their legacy lives on.  But today, the long-term care facilities that they fought for are threatened with closure.  Now a new generation of veterans have stepped up to the frontlines, primarily Vietnam-era veterans, again representing multiple veterans service organizations.  Like those before them, they speak in one voice as veterans.  I was so proud of them as they gave their testimony at the public hearing on a bill sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson to save the Caribou Maine Veterans Home.  This is not something they are used to doing, but they stood strong and united.  

While the future of the Caribou Maine Veterans Home may be in doubt, there is no doubt that these veterans will not go down without a fight.

I know and understand the realities of financial issues and staffing issues, and yes, the population of Aroostook County has declined in recent years, but it is not all about that.  It is about thinking out of the box, looking at all the options, collaboration, partnering, anything we can do to save this nursing home and protect 57 residents from the trauma of a transition far away from their loved ones, families and friends.  This cannot and must not stand.  

I urge all of our County residents, veterans and non-veterans alike, to contact their legislators, congressional delegation, Gov. Mills’ administration, and let them all know that this is a step too far.  

What the men and women of our armed services have done for this country and may have to do again cannot be measured in profits.  These men and women were promised by our government that they and their families would be taken care of.  Now at their most vulnerable moment are we to abandon that promise?

The prospects might seem dim, like America after Pearl Harbor, but with resilience, the American spirit and unquestionable valor from both our veterans and those who stayed at home to build our war effort, mostly women, we were ultimately victorious and I would not bet against veterans in Aroostook County. Godspeed.

Bill Flagg is the director of community relations and development at Cary Medical Center in Caribou.

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