AUGUSTA, Maine — A Lewiston lawmaker and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan wants Maine to take a hard look at how the state helps veterans who return home after their service.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said Wednesday that the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services does many good things and offers many programs and benefits to veterans, but there are still gaps between state and federal programs that leave behind many veterans, especially younger ones.
Golden is sponsoring a bill, LD 721, that would establish a special commission to study the services and programs the state offers veterans and make recommendations on how to improve those programs and suggest new ones.
Golden told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday that his legislation isn’t meant as a criticism of Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services or its staff, but based on conversations and meetings he’s had with veterans around the state, he believes there’s room for improvement.
“I do think it is important to acknowledge that our system of veterans services is not perfect,” Golden said.
He said his own experiences as a veteran seeking to find work, go back to school and get on a career path while dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder helped inform his views. He also said that working in Washington, D.C. for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on veterans issues gave him insight on benefits and programs designed for veterans at the federal level.
“No two veterans are exactly alike, but too many programs and services are structured as circles into which we attempt to cram squares, triangles and rectangles,” Golden said. “The state needs to be flexible and veterans need case management to identify how to tailor services to their unique needs.”
He said while there are many programs available at the state and federal levels, there’s no easy way for a veteran to learn what’s available or how to access those services.
Golden said he hoped the commission would develop a multi-year work plan so the state could tackle improving its veterans services in an affordable and staged process.
He has amended his bill so the Bureau of Veterans Services would not have to spend its resources on doing the research. Instead, legislative staff from the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis would work with the commission to do the research.
Others supporting Golden’s bill said the state must evolve in the way it communicates with its newest generation of veterans — those from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or future conflicts.
While the state does offer a brochure listing the benefits and services it has available, it may not be very effective at actually reaching veterans, according to Matthew Jabaut, a Lewiston resident and U.S. Army veteran who served as a medic in Iraq and Kuwait.
Jabaut said when he returned to Maine three years ago, he was never contacted by the state and were it not for his involvement in veteran service organizations, he would have had no knowledge of the programs and benefits available to Maine veterans.
“There is a definite and immediate need to study improving the state’s engagement and communication with the veterans of the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jabaut said.
He said he appreciates the state’s effort to catalogue the benefits and programs in a pamphlet, “but most of us don’t operate in pamphlets. We operate online, we operate mobile and we operate through applications.”
Peter Ogden, the retiring director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said the state sends a copy of the brochure listing services to those returning home from military service based on notification of discharges from the federal government.
But, Ogden said, those notifications don’t always reach the state in a timely fashion and may not have the veteran’s correct address. He said it’s unclear whether the information the state sends to veterans is always received.
He said the bureau has stopped sending brochures after only two veterans called his office in 2014, despite the state sending thousands of brochures.
And while the number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan may be growing in Maine, Ogden said 65 percent of Maine veterans are over the age of 65. Only about 4 percent were under the age of 30, while another 20 percent were 50 or older.
Others speaking in favor of the review included members and officers from Maine’s Disabled American Veterans, Maine American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.
William “Chick” Cicotte, an Air Force veteran and the Maine Legislative chairman for the American Legion, said he has been working with and for veterans for 45 years and started helping veterans of World War I many years ago.
Cicotte said Golden’s bill was on track and needed to get today’s veterans connected with the services and benefits they should have.
“I get a lot of phone calls from parents of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and I have seen there was a need to help these people; they were being left out, they were being treated the wrong way,” Cicotte said. “They are the 21st-century veterans and people are asking them the same questions they were asking veterans 25 and 30 years ago.”
Golden’s bill and two others seeking to establish a veterans commission and task force will face additional scrutiny from the committee and the full Legislature in the weeks ahead.