PORTLAND, Maine — The man who inspired the Portland Regional Chamber’s effort to mentor recent veterans and help their careers spoke to a crowd of more than 400 people on Wednesday, delivering a moving appeal that those returning from war don’t slip through society’s cracks.
Col. David Sutherland recently retired from a 29-year military career that saw him in two wars, most recently in Iraq. He retired as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and has been visiting communities around the country, telling veterans’ stories in stirring detail — and using his own experiences as a plea for vets everywhere.
“I’m a veteran, not a victim,” said Sutherland at the Chamber’s last Eggs and Issues breakfast of the season, speaking for vets in general. “I don’t need a handout, I’m looking for a hand up.”
In February, Sutherland visited Maine and met with first lady Anne LePage and state officials as well as members of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. That visit was the impetus for the Chamber to launch the Portland Veterans Network, a program that focuses on jobs, education, wellness and opportunities. It works with partner organizations to help unemployed vets access and navigate health care programs and further their educations.
Sutherland used some of his own postdeployment experiences to illustrate the feelings vets commonly experience. Having just returned from Iraq, Sutherland was driving through a Texas town with his wife and sons when he remarked on how all the telephone poles were standing up. His family didn’t understand why he’d make that sort of comment, Sutherland said, but he knew if he had mentioned that fact to any of the members of his military team, they’d reply with, “Yes, sir. And the streetlights are working, too.”
It’s that feeling of not connecting with others in a nonmilitary environment that’s often the challenge for vets, Sutherland said.
In the military, soldiers are working with people whom they trust, he said. He told the story of two men who were under his command, Spc. Steven Cornford and 1st Lt. Philip Neel. Cornford was an 18-year-old assigned to Neel’s platoon in Iraq. On a mission, Cornford was wounded by AK-47 fire. Neel went to help him but was shot. Cornford made his way to his commanding officer, helped him and held off the enemy, eventually carrying Neel 300 meters to medical aid. Neel was pronounced dead in the field.
Cornford returned home to Idaho, ran into trouble with the law and couldn’t find steady employment, said Sutherland.
“With his Silver Star, he could not get a job,” Sutherland said.
Local groups working together — the Boise Police Department, the local Chamber and an Easter Seal affiliate — helped Cornford, finding him a mentor and people with whom to connect. He was looking for a leader, said Sutherland.
“This generation, like all generations of veterans, are wired to serve,” said Sutherland.
He told the story of Sgt. Jeffrey Wray, who was injured in an explosion in Iraq and in surgery was opened up from neck to groin. When Sutherland went to visit him in recovery, Wray wrote a note: “Can I stay in the Army?”
Wray spent a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and was medically discharged. In Virginia, he had difficulty finding work, with relationships and in school. In a phone conversation with Sutherland, Wray told him, “Nobody gets me.” Sutherland worked to get Wray set up with Easter Seals, a veterans’ group at a local community college and a mentor through the local Chamber.
“He will thrive,” said Sutherland.
There has to be recognition that the government can’t do everything, said Sutherland. The Veterans Administration hospitals and the G.I. Bill are both excellent, he said, but government moves slowly and local groups and leaders need to fill in the gaps.
“That’s where the solutions are,” he said. “They’re local, organized by leaders like you.”
Sutherland’s talk often was gut-wrenching and emotional. At one point during the question-and-answer session, Pam Payeur of Biddeford, director of the Warrior Legacy Foundation’s Wounded Heroes Program of Maine, got up to speak. She had planned to attend the breakfast but didn’t know until Wednesday morning that Sutherland had been in command of her son’s brigade in Iraq. Her son is 100 percent combat-disabled, she said, and faces many of the challenges that Sutherland talked about — having lost 114 of his closest friends to combat in Iraq. She talked about how important it is that families of vets also seek and receive aid as they attempt to live with sons, daughters and spouses who suffer from post-traumatic stress.
“I don’t know how to be a mother to a son who has seen the things [the colonel] has described,” he said.
In an emotional moment, she thanked Sutherland.
“You brought my son back alive, and I want to thank you,” Payeur said. “If my son could leave tomorrow and serve under your command, he would.”
It was obviously a powerful moment for Sutherland.
“It just shows you how small this world is,” he said.
Chris Tyll, chairman of the Portland Veterans Network, said there are 15 veterans in the program now. There are many people in the community who have stepped forward to be mentors, he said, and the hope is that more veterans take advantage of the program.
Maine recently has made changes to help vets more readily translate military skills to civilian life, he said, including acceptance of commercial driving experience and barber training as meeting state requirements. The next goal, he said, is to achieve similar recognition for emergency medical technician training.
According to recent Maine Department of Labor statistics, there were 132,000 veterans in Maine accounting for 13.2 percent of the total civilian population 20 years of age and older in 2011, which is the fourth-highest percentage in the country. Those vets had an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent in 2011, slightly more than the overall unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. However, veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, the report found.
A number of those vets were in the audience Wednesday. When asked to stand, about 60 vets did so. Two of them were Sonia Barrantes and Jacob Staub of Portland. The couple retired recently from the Navy, where they flew jets off aircraft carriers. Barrantes is a Scarborough native and returned to Maine to work as a mechanical engineer at a local firm. Staub is starting his own engineering boutique firm aimed at prototypes, repair and collaborative work.
Staub said Sutherland’s discussion about civilian employers not knowing how military experience translates rang true. Barrantes said it’s impossible for those who haven’t been in the military to understand the relationship you develop with your co-workers. There’s a high level of risk in every aspect of work in the military, she said, starting with training.
“Mistakes can kill you,” she said.
She said she wasn’t sure what help she could give to vets who served on the ground, if she could relate as a former pilot. But after hearing Sutherland talk, she said, she wants to explore being a mentor. The most important thing, she said, was understanding how people in the military relate to each other and depend on each other.
“It’s not as important that I was not on the ground,” she said.