FORT KENT, Maine — There can be plenty of obstacles between veterans and the services they have earned, but the newly unveiled mobile clinic in Aroostook County hopes to reduce at least two of them.
“This type of service is very important because there are a lot of veterans who can’t or don’t want to go to Togus,” Don Dare, outreach technician with the Caribou Vet Center’s Maine Mobile Vet Center, said as the clinic on wheels rolled into Fort Kent on Election Day. “Some of our veterans are a little wary of the VA system, and we provide a facility where they can feel at ease.”
The van set up first on the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus and later that day moved to the parking lot adjacent to the town’s American Legion hall.
One of two such mobile clinics in Maine, according to Dare, the 38-foot motor coach brings information on available benefits and access to mental health counseling to veterans throughout northern Maine.
“I’m the technician, so I focus on the benefits,” he said.
His partner, John Theriault, the center’s readjustment counselor, assists veterans looking for information on crisis intervention, counseling, substance abuse, employment, medical referrals and consultations.
“Think about it. Maine has one veterans hospital with Togus in Augusta and five outreach clinics around the state — that’s a lot to cover,” Theriault said. “It’s all about accessibility.” And privacy, he added.
Theriault and Dare said they have heard concerns from some veterans that information they share with the clinic staff would automatically be shared with officials within Veterans Affairs.
“That is not the case,” Dare said. “We have total access to veterans’ records and the VA database, but the VA can only see our records if that veteran gives permission.”
That security, he said, has allowed some veterans to open up about medical and mental health concerns and allows them to get them the help they need.
The northern Maine mobile clinic — which covers the northeast portion of the state from the St. John Valley to the Down East region — began seeing clients in late summer, but Dare and Theriault said it already has proved a success.
“This is really a great concept [and] it’s been well received across the state,” Dare said. “We were just parked on the other side of campus waiting around and noticed a vet following us.”
Highly visible with a large veterans logo, the van attracts attention wherever it is parked, and the two men look for high-traffic areas.
“Last week we were just sitting around the office and decided to take it over to Houlton,” Dare said. “We set up in the Marden’s parking lot and soon had five or six vets zooming around us like sharks.”
Next year Dare and Theriault hope to take the van to major public events such as the Northern Maine Fair for maximum exposure.
“It really sells itself,” Theriault said.
“This is just awesome,” Anne Daigle of Madawaska said. “It’s so convenient to have them here and not have to drive to Caribou.”
Daigle was hoping to speak with Dare about possible educational benefits for her sons who want to pursue a university education.
“I was talking to [UMFK registrar] Don [Raymond] and he suggested speaking to someone about some information on possible benefits,” Daigle said. “I was going to try to find [state Sen.] John Martin, and then I saw this van was coming.”
Raymond, a Vietnam-era veteran, was thrilled to have the van on campus.
“This is a great idea,” he said. “A lot of our veterans don’t really know of the services they are eligible for.”
The sight of a mobile center like the van offers a great point of contact, Raymond said.
“They can bring that Caribou office anywhere,” he said. “It helps promote services the veterans might not know about.”
In addition to acting as a clinic on wheels, the van also doubles as a mobile command center in times of emergencies or disasters and is outfitted with communications and medical equipment.
For more information on the mobile counseling center, veterans or their dependents may call 496-3900.