AUGUSTA, Maine — An ongoing feud over whether a Vietnam War-era National Guard member is qualified to serve on a state board has raised the question of who is a veteran.
Earlier this week, Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, questioned whether National Guard service during the early 1970s makes someone a military veteran.
Gov. Paul LePage, Republican lawmakers and members of Maine veterans organizations quickly expressed outrage that Gilbert raised the issue.
During a Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday on Christopher Pierce’s nomination to serve on the Finance Authority of Maine’s board, Gilbert said that service in the National Guard during the early 1970s “was not considered qualification for veteran’s status.”
“I think your credentials are great, but to fill a seat to be occupied by a veteran — that’s questionable,” said Gilbert, who along with two other Democrats voted against Pierce’s nomination. The committee voted 7-3 to endorse it, and the full Senate will take up the matter Thursday.
For the purpose of eligibility for preferential employment status, federal labor law defines a veteran as “an individual who —
(A) served on active duty in the armed forces during a war, in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge has been authorized, or during the period beginning April 28, 1952, and ending July 1, 1955;
(B) served on active duty as defined by section 101 (21) of title 38 at any time in the armed forces for a period of more than 180 consecutive days any part of which occurred after January 31, 1955, and before October 15, 1976, not including service under section 12103 (d) of title 10 pursuant to an enlistment in the Army National Guard or the Air National Guard or as a Reserve for service in the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve;
(D) served on active duty as defined by section 101 (21) of title 38 at any time in the armed forces for a period of more than 180 consecutive days any part of which occurred during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on the date prescribed by Presidential proclamation or by law as the last date of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
By that definition, Pierce, a Cumberland resident, would not qualify for status as a veteran. However, state law related to membership on the 15-member FAME boardsimply requires that two of the at-large members be veterans. A 1997 statute defines “veteran” as “any person who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces and was not dishonorably discharged,” but does not link service on the board in any way to the federal law.
Gilbert’s reservations about whether Pierce should be considered a veteran enraged LePage, who fired off an angry release Tuesday afternoon in which he described Gilbert’s statements as “outrageous” and “out of line.”
Four Republican state representatives — Ken Fredette of Newport, Dennis Keschl of Belgrade, Jarrod Crockett of Bethel and Doug Damon of Bangor — blasted Gilbert for his “shocking remarks regarding National Guard veterans” in a release issued Wednesday afternoon. The release lists extensive military service for all four legislators.
“A National Guardsman is certainly no less of a veteran than any other soldier, sailor or airman,” Keschl said in the release.“”Rep. Gilbert’s remarks are incredibly insensitive, and he owes all those who have served in the National Guard an apology.”
Gilbert stood his ground. “While I respect Christopher Pierce and his service to the National Guard, I strongly believe this position should be filled by someone who meets the VA’s own criteria for being a veteran,” he said in a release from the House Democratic Office. “I’m a proud veteran who served in Panama and at the Army War College. … I’d be happy to match my record of service with the governor any day.”
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion disagreed with Gilbert’s interpretation of what constitutes a veteran.
“I worked with them side by side,” said Caribou resident Peter Miesburger of the VFW. “They picked up the workload and carried on. It was an issue during the late 1960s or early 1970s, but it’s not now. My attitude was always ‘Put them in fatigues, they’re just another airman.’”
American Legion member William “Chick” Ciciotte of Topsham, a Vietnam-era veteran, has organized recognition ceremonies for more than 500 Maine veterans. He said those ceremonies make no distinction between active-duty military and National Guard service.
“When they put the uniform on, they are subject to call and put their lives on the line,” Ciciotte told the Bangor Daily News.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the law related to the Finance Authority of Maine did not define the term veteran. Veteran is defined as "any person who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces and was not dishonorably discharged."