CALAIS, Maine — A Vietnam war veteran stepped unannounced to the front of a press conference Wednesday at the Calais Motor Inn, and, with a trembling chin, said he wanted to thank his Veterans Health Administration counselor.
“I served in Vietnam,” the man said, leaning on his cane. “I did some nasty things. My counselor has gotten me through day by day and moment by moment. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
With a new program announced Wednesday at that conference — Operation Outreach — the services that the aging veteran receives will now be provided a lot closer to his home. It is the first program of its kind in the country, and is designed to save veterans from costly and time-consuming trips to Togus VA Medical Center at Augusta.
Operation Outreach is a pilot program, funded with $2.2 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health. It links Togus VA Medical Center and a private firm, Atlantic Mental Health Center, which will deliver the services. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, Togus doctors and representatives from AMHC praised the effort.
According to Joseph Owens, VA liaison with AMHC, there are 11,708 veterans in Washington and Aroostook counties and 60 to 80 percent of them will need services in their lifetimes. Owens said his function is to ensure that veterans, family members, significant others and referral sources are aware of the new program and how to access its services.
Owen explained that treatment will be delivered by specially trained providers and will be coordinated with VA medical providers. Veterans eligible for the services will receive them for free.
AMHC will provide crisis evaluation, stabilization, drug and alcohol detoxification, 28-day residential treatment, opiate replacement therapy, mental health and readjustment counseling, peer support, case management and support groups. Substance abuse counseling is now available to any veteran, and mental health services will be provided to veterans of Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The services will be offered from AMHC’s clinics in Calais and Caribou.
AMHC has 11 other clinic sites across the state of Maine.
Michaud, in his role as the ranking member of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, said he advocated for the past several years to provide funding to improve access to service for rural veterans.
“Although this is a pilot project,” Michaud said Wednesday, “my goal is to make this funding permanent. These are services our veterans have earned.”
Dr. Mary Tibbetts, director of mental health services at Togus, said the first of its kind program will be invaluable to those living in “rural, rural” areas. “This is part of the VA’s desire to serve veterans closer to home. In these economic times it makes sense to pool resources and join hands to provide better accessibility to our vets.”
Letters of support also were read Wednesday from U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Maine Senate President Kevin Raye.
Veterans may access the service by calling Owens at 207-493-3361, or Kristy Rowe at 207-623-8411,ext. 4935.