Veterans from five wars to join panel at Portland screening of ‘Welcome to Lee, Maine’

Posted May 21, 2013, at 8:43 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — When a stranger thanks Sgt. Nathaniel Grace of the Maine Army National Guard for his service, he makes it a point to return the gratitude.

“Whenever someone says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I shake their hand and say, ‘Thank you for your support,’ because that’s something my predecessors didn’t have,” he said.

Grace, of Orono, on Wednesday night in Portland will join a panel of veterans who collectively saw service in five wars.

“The most moving, powerful part of the evening tomorrow from my perspective is that there will be a panel of veterans from [World War II], Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, all together talking about their experiences — for the public,” said Marty Pottenger, an event organizer with the city of Portland’s Art At Work initiative. “That’s very rare.”

Grace was deployed twice to Afghanistan, first for 15 months starting in 2007 and then again for 12 months starting in 2009.

The Wednesday night panel discussion, which is also scheduled to include veterans’ family members and service providers, will take place after the screening of the documentary “Welcome to Lee, Maine,” which follows the response of the 845-person community after two of the town’s native sons — Joel House and Blair Emery — died at war in 2007.

“This one town had the highest percentage of casualties per capita of anyplace in the country,” Grace said. “That’s what this movie is about, being a close-knit, strong and patriotic community.”

Grace told the BDNon Tuesday that he has learned in his travels that veterans from all generations can relate to the sense of brotherhood they feel with those they were deployed alongside. He also said that his feeling of being unwelcome in Afghanistan in 2007 echoes the sentiment he hears from Vietnam veterans about their deployments to that country.

But he said at least coming home from Afghanistan, he felt welcome back in America, which is not a feeling many Vietnam veterans felt upon their returns home.

Grace said during a previous panel discussion, he was seated next to a Vietnam vet whose story touched him.

“When he came home, his company commander told him they were all required to wear their dress greens when they left the base, but after that they should go into the first restroom they saw to change into civilian clothes, because the public wasn’t welcoming them back,” he said. “In contrast when I got off the plane I was welcomed by the governor of the state of Maine, the adjutant general [of the Maine National Guard] and members of the community. The Augusta Armory was just filled with people who were welcoming us with open arms. There were banners, there were streamers, there was a balloon drop welcoming us back.”

Grace said that, knowing how veterans of some previous wars were received upon returning home, he doesn’t take those celebrations — or the handshakes from strangers — for granted.

Now he represents the Maine National Guard in the Maine Military & Community Network, which works to build public awareness of the struggles faced by veterans and to connect those veterans with the support programs and government services they’re entitled to.

The event takes place at 6 p.m. at One Longfellow Square in Portland, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. Entry is free, although donations are being collected.

Seth Koenig can be reached at skoenig@bangordailynews.com or on Twitter @SethKoenig.

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