TOGUS, Maine — Like a lot of other veterans, Paul Newcomb didn’t seek out the services he qualifies for until he really needed them.
And in March of this year, he really needed them. After years of alcoholism, he had lost nearly everything. He was living on the street and had alienated family and friends. He had health problems. So on March 17, on the advice of one of the homeless shelters he stayed at, he checked into a 28-day substance abuse program at Togus VA Medical Center.
“If it hadn’t been for them, I honestly don’t know where the hell I’d be right now,” said Newcomb. “The VA has helped me a lot. I knew I had to do something.”
After the treatment program, Newcomb entered a compensated training program run by the VA. On Friday, he started a part-time job as a maintenance man for Sweetser. He has secured an apartment at a halfway house in Saco.
These are all services that are available to virtually every U.S. veteran. Though many, like Newcomb, find help on their own, some need a little boost toward the wide range of assistance programs available to them. That’s why for the 15th year in a row, veterans from across Maine converged on Togus Saturday for the Homeless Veterans Stand Down.
Nationally, the Stand Down was conceived by two Vietnam War veterans as a safe retreat for units returning from combat operations. Over the years it has evolved into a clearinghouse of services for veterans, ranging from medical and dental checkups to providing warm winter coats and boots. This year, more than 76,000 homeless veterans were expected to participate in the “hand up, not hand out” event.
Ryan Lilly, director of the Maine VA Medical Center, said dozens of staff donating their time and more than 200 volunteers make the event possible in Maine. He said one indication that the program makes a long-term difference in a veteran’s life is the fact that each year, an almost entirely new crop of homeless veterans participates. While homelessness is often indicative of multiple problems, Lilly said the very fact the attendees are veterans gives them an advantage over many people.
“All of these people were once high-functioning members of organizations that achieved great things,” said Lilly. “They’ve fallen a long way to end up homeless. The upside is that we know they can become high-functioning members of society again.”
Charles Soule of Lewiston is another example of a veteran whose life was turned around by the Veteran’s Administration. Three years ago, when he was in an accident that left several of the bones in his face broken, VA doctors rebuilt the right side of his face. Today, even a doctor at the Stand Down could hardly tell that Soule had ever been injured.
“They did a fantastic job,” said Soule, who has been in and out of homeless shelters for years. “I’m 34 years out of the service and they’re still helping me out. Imagine how much that surgery would have cost me privately.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, helped kick off the event Saturday morning. He said he is used to being surrounded by veterans whenever he’s in public, which is what happened Saturday. One Vietnam veteran asked for help in securing a Purple Heart that he earned by being wounded in battle, but never received. A couple others asked what progress is being made to help them find jobs.
“This is a perfect example of where veteran-to-veteran programs can really help,” said Michaud. “There are a lot of resources available out there.”
John, a Marine Corps veteran who didn’t want his last name in the newspaper, agreed. John has been living in homeless shelters in Portland for years. Saturday was the first time he ever tried to secure veterans benefits. He was most interested in some warm clothing and a sleeping bag.
“I basically came to see what this is all about,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of good by doing this.”