Mainers have a long history of military service — a tradition beginning with the American Revolution, which we commemorate and celebrate July 4. Benjamin King fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Ezekiel Chase suffered two years on a British prison ship. Daniel Nelson served in the new Navy under John Paul Jones. Many others fought in the Bagaduce Expedition to remove the British from Fort George, now Castine.
Mainers fought in numerous other battles in the Revolutionary War and in most wars that have followed. Our towns erected monuments to honor many who served our nation. Plaques and obelisks and carved granite represent one way to honor those who fought for our freedom. Today, however, we need to match actions to these symbols of support.
We need to extend a hand to our veterans, not only in thanks, but in service. We need to thank them for their service by serving them, all of our veterans, and especially our servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many Americans assume that veterans are taught about what services are available to them while they are still in active service. Military personnel may be told, but they are often too busy with more pressing matters to absorb the material. When they get out, they first want to connect with loved ones and experience the simple joys of being back home.
Soon, however, veterans want to reconstruct the experiences of everyday life — most importantly, a job to go to. Some may need assistance fitting in back home, readjusting to a life that moved on while they were away.
Veterans need help reconnecting with the work force, transferring the skills they developed in the military into skills employers recognize on a job application. As fellow citizens, we can extend our hands in aid and support.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine has the fourth-highest concentration of veterans in the nation. Approximately 132,000 residents are veterans, representing 13.2 percent of the state’s population age 20 or older.
In the past, veterans’ unemployment rates fell below that of the nonveteran population. This trend has reversed in recent years. Now veterans have higher unemployment rates than do nonveteran workers. Most notable is the plight of young veterans, whose unemployment rates nearly tripled to more than 14 percent during the recession and early recovery.
I believe that employment, education and retraining opportunities are something that our returning service personnel have earned.
The Maine Department of Labor’s 12 CareerCenters offer specialized employment and training services for veterans. The federal VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 includes the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. This retraining program provides 12 months of retraining benefits assistance to those unemployed veterans not eligible for any other VA education benefit program. Veterans must be between 35 and 60 years old, with a discharge other than dishonorable, and they must be enrolled in a VA-approved program of education offered by a community college or technical school in a high-demand occupation.
The CareerCenters’ well-informed and highly trained staff can assist veterans with the application process. In addition, the centers’ veterans representatives assist post-9/11-era veterans who are having difficulty transitioning to civilian employment. They offer intensive services and workshops on skills assessment, resume writing, interviewing, job search strategies, networking and how to access other state or federal resources. Veterans and eligible spouses are given priority under most Maine Department of Labor-funded and administered programs.
We know that these employment services can make a veteran’s transition a bit easier. Just last month, one returning Navy man wrote to his veterans representative: “Thank you for helping me today. It is good to know another fellow sailor is there to help me through this difficult time. I am truly grateful.”
Not to be forgotten, too, are the widows, orphans and grieving who have lost their treasured spouse, parent or son or daughter to the scourge of conflict. They also deserve our recognition and assistance.
We here at home can now help our servicemen and women in a big way by thanking them for their services and connecting them with a good job. Let them not be alone. Help them accomplish the goals they have set. Your help, freely given, will be remembered by these brave Americans who have set aside time from their lives so that we can fulfill our hopes and dreams here at home. These are the same dreams Benjamin King, Ezekiel Chase and Daniel Nelson fought for more than 236 years ago.
Maine Commissioner of Labor Robert J. Winglass is a decorated retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general. After retirement he served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives and then worked for IBM.