AUBURN, Maine — More than 150 people gathered at Central Maine Community College on Friday to talk all things military.
Deployment stress. Sacrifice. Struggles with readjustment.
Not just for the service members, but also for their children.
“They go to school and a lot of people are wondering, ‘What’s going on with this child? He seems to be different than normal.’ They may not realize his parent, the one he’s close to, is gone for a year,” said Sgt. Nathaniel Grace, community liaison for Maine Military and Community Services and organizer for the Maine Military and Community Network’s third annual statewide conference. ”
The conference’s theme this year: military children and families.
“A lot of times the attention goes to the military member and, sometimes, the family member, the child, is kind of left behind,” Grace said.
The Maine Military and Community Network is a collaborative effort by organizations, volunteers and concerned citizens to raise awareness of the challenges facing military service members and their families and to raise awareness of the resources that are available to them.
On Friday, representatives from dozens of veterans groups, community organizations and state agencies gathered in Auburn to talk about those challenges and to learn what each offers for resources.
Gov. Paul LePage and Maine first lady Ann LePage, who have been active in veterans affairs, gave the event’s welcoming address.
“To all of our military personnel, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the service that you provide our state and our country,” the governor said. “To the spouses, we are indebted to you.”
His wife echoed the sentiment.
“In Maine alone, there are 6,492 military-connected children. This means an empty seat at the dinner table, an empty seat on the couch opening Christmas presents at Christmastime, an empty seat at a sporting event or dance recital. Always wondering, will they ever get to see their mom or their dad again?” she said. “We must acknowledge the sacrifices of these children, what they go through, and identify ways we can help support them.”
University of Maine at Augusta President Allyson Handley delivered the conference’s keynote address. UMA has become known for its veteran-friendly policies and practices, including peer support groups, staff dedicated to assisting veterans and a newsletter — “The Welcome Mat” — for and about vets at UMA.
Handley urged other groups, including K-12 schools, to consider their own supports for veterans and their families.
“This conference can powerfully move that conversation forward,” she said.
The event also included a resource fair where organizations, businesses and schools could promote their supports, benefits and opportunities for veterans and their families.
“The more resources the better,” said Mark Cater, who looked forward to learning what other organizations could provide to vets even as his Military Family Assistance Center touted its own legal, financial, crisis and other referral services.
The conference also offered panel discussions, including one popular panel comprised entirely of military families who talked about the challenges they faced, particularly during deployment.
And particularly for the children who have to go on with a normal life while one of their parents is in a war zone.
“I remember my oldest saying she liked going to the military youth things because those kids understood,” said panelist Tina Clifford, whose husband was deployed overseas in 2009, leaving her and their three young children in Maine. “She could talk to them and they would get it.”