LEWISTON, Maine — Even as Maine’s population of veterans shrinks to unprecedented levels, the service organizations that help vets are needed more than ever, Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the head of the Maine National Guard, said Friday.
“The Maine Bureau of Veterans Services could not function without all of you,” Campbell told leaders of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their annual state convention in Lewiston.”You people are our eyes and ears.”
The state bureau has fewer than 30 employees, a third of whom work at cemeteries. The remainder of the office staff helps veterans receive state and federal benefits, obtain military records, secure financial aid and make claims and appeals to the VA.
The state agency is considering closing down more than one of its six offices in an effort to save money, Campbell said. Offices are in Bangor, Caribou, Machias, Portland, Springvale, Waterville, Togus and Lewiston. In addition to leading the Maine National Guard, Campbell serves as the commissioner of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.
“We think we can be more effective if we close down some of our more remote offices and consolidate people so that they can travel a little bit more and do more outreach,” Campbell said.
However, even as service groups such as the VFW, the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans are being asked to do more, their numbers are dwindling.
The World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War generations are dying off.
In Maine, the number of veterans is expected to fall by 60,000 by 2030, Ryan Lilly, the director of the VA Maine Healthcare System told VFW members. The number of New England veterans is expected to drop from one million to 500,000, he said.
The numbers are felt in every local post.
This spring, the 47-year-old Raymond J. Lavigne VFW Post 9459 on Route 196 in Lisbon closed its doors due to a lack of active members and too little income.
The few remaining members meet every third Saturday of the month at Lisbon’s Marion T. Morse School building.
It’s a common story, Robert Greene, the VFW’s quartermaster general, said.
“The VFW has lost 800,000 members in the last 20 years,” the national leader said Friday. “We’ve closed 5,000 VFW posts.”
The new generation of veterans — who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — aren’t joining the service groups in big numbers, he said.
The groups are trying to draw them with programs aimed at helping college students and families, Greene said.
They’ll come, but it will take a while, Campbell said.
“Be patient,” Campbell said. “They will join the VFW. If they don’t do it this year, it’s not because they don’t like the VFW. Young men and women coming out of the service need to get their feet underneath them. They’ve got families to start. They’ve got jobs to get involved in.
“They’ll join. I’m confident they will,” Campbell said. “Heck, I just joined today.”