BANGOR, Maine — As a U.S. Army officer with 28 years of service, Col. David Sutherland recognizes potential when he sees it.
Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has visited 318 U.S. cities and towns over the last 20 months to talk about opportunities and support for returning veterans and their families.
In a speech at Husson University on Wednesday, he said Maine is an ideal place for veterans to thrive.
“There’s a desire to want to assist our returning service members, military families and families of the fallen throughout the nation, and Maine’s unique in that it’s taking action and turning those words into action to do that,” said Sutherland, addressing 48 business and civic leaders at Husson’s Beardsley Meeting House.
“The foundation for our quality of life, long term, is based on education, and I think what they’re doing with 140 veterans going to school here is great,” he said, referring to Husson.
Those in attendance Wednesday included Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage; Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers, one of about a dozen veterans present; Bangor City Councilor and retired Gen. Nelson Durgin; and Husson President Robert Clark.
“We’re seeing great opportunities here,” said Sutherland. “I believe Maine as a state can do for our veterans what the NFL has done for breast cancer.”
During the last three seasons, the NFL has elevated awareness of breast cancer and the organizations fighting it and raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society during the 2010 season alone.
LePage and Summers teamed up to organize the forum on veterans in the workplace, which was sponsored by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. Another forum will be held from 6:30 to 9 a.m. Thursday at the Portland Regional Chamber at 443 Congress St.
“I really wanted to do something, not to just do something,” the governor’s wife said in an interview. “I wanted to do something I was passionate about, and Paul and I have always supported the military, so I called General Libby and told him I wanted to do this. It’s been great.”
She was referring to John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard.
Sutherland, a veteran of four major combat operations, talked about several individual acts of valor and heroism he has witnessed in soldiers, including his own friend Staff Sgt. Donnie Dixon, who provided security for Sutherland five years ago in Iraq. As they traveled to and from provinces, Dixon at one point took Sutherland’s place in a formation as a precaution against snipers looking for high-ranking officers to kill. A short time later, Dixon was killed by a sniper.
Sutherland stressed that returning service members are not victims, they are veterans, and that they don’t need pity, they need understanding.
“We’ve seen them achieve phenomenal things under harsh conditions. Think what they can do for an organization in this town,” Sutherland said.
“There are just some things that government can’t do. This generation of veterans, as Maine’s first lady has recognized, is wired to serve, and they’re phenomenal. Just give them some assistance with transitioning and integration and they’ll soar,” he said.
A key to successful reintegration for returning veterans is helping them more efficiently use their credentials and experience, according to Sutherland. He noted how veteran battlefield medics who have saved countless lives in dangerous situations overseas still are required to be medically trained and certified alongside 18-year-old high school graduates with no medic experience just to be able to do the same thing in nonhostile environments stateside.
“Part of it is translating our skill sets into civilian language and getting civilians to hire military into HR departments to translate those skills for your businesses,” he said.
Sutherland said he sees Maine as a leader in providing support for returning veterans.
“Vietnam veterans migrated to the Southeast because those states were more welcoming,” he said. “Now you see them going to the West and Northeast, and you are going to see a migration of veterans to Maine. I can see it.”