BANGOR, Maine — The best way to honor men and women who serve the country in uniform is make sure they have health benefits and can get a job when they come home, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said Friday afternoon.
“We owe it to those who fought for our county,” Snowe said in her keynote address at the 93rd annual convention of the American Legion’s Maine Department. “We must fight for them.”
Snowe said too many veterans are homeless and unemployed and resources must be allocated to help them.
“The unemployment rate is 11 percent for veterans returning” home, she told the group of American Legion veterans. “Our vets deserve the opportunity to have” access to resources to help them find a job after they leave the military.
There are some 75,000 homeless veterans in the United States, Snowe said, and “here in the state of Maine the homeless rate for veterans has increased by 32 percent” recently, jumping from about 500 to 650.
She commended the American Legion Auxiliary for “making homelessness their No. 1 priority.”
“We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of vets who defended our country to fend for themselves,” Snowe said.
The senator also gave the Legionnaires a bit of good news about the recent openings of several new Department of Veterans Affairs health clinics in Maine, including one in Bangor that serves military veterans in the Bangor area and the entire northern part of Maine.
“You should not have to travel long distances in order to get an appointment with a medical professional,” Snowe said.
She finished her speech by talking about a new piece of legislation she has proposed to protect military funerals from protesters. She said she got her inspiration for the bill from Searsport resident Zack Parker, whom she later invited to the podium.
“They deserve to bury their loved ones in peace,” she said.
The convention is an opportunity for Legionnaires from across the state, along with auxiliary members, to get together socially and conduct annual business, such as elect new officers, said State Adjutant Lloyd Woods, who helped organize this year’s convention.
“Our basic view, when we started in 1919, was to take care of the veterans, the spouses and the children, and that remains,” said the Navy veteran, who is a member of Post 147 in Madawaska. “How we do that has changed, but what we do hasn’t.”
The 93rd convention, held at the Bangor Civic Center, began Friday with members discussing resolutions and meeting with candidates running to fill offices. Voting is scheduled for 8-10 a.m. Saturday, and Rep. Mike Michaud is scheduled to speak at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
“The resolutions will be presented for final action before the close of the convention of Saturday,” State Commander Dan Ayotte of Augusta said in a statement.
The installment of new officers will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, followed by a dance. A memorial service is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and the convention will end with executive committee meetings of both the Legion and its auxiliary.