Today, November 11, is Veterans’ Day. It was originally Armistice Day to commemorate the veterans of WWI. The treaty ending the war (even though hostilities had stopped months before) was signed at 11 A.M. (the eleventh hour) on the 11th day of the 11th month. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill making it a day to honor all veterans who served honorably on May 26, 1954. As a veteran, it is a day I hold dear and makes me pause and reflect on “What have I done for other veterans this past year?” This year I can reflect back with pride and a sense of accomplishment.
About The Maine Veterans’ Homes. The Maine Veterans Homes’ are regulated by the Maine Department of Veterans Affairs but are not run by it. The homes are run by a non-profit corporation, The Maine Veterans Homes’ The administration of Maine Veterans’ Homes is vested in the Board of Trustees of the Maine Veterans’ Homes. The Board of Trustees is formally appointed by the Governor and is comprised of honorably discharged Veterans and non-veteran community members who broadly represent the various Veteran organizations, interests, and geographic regions of the state. The initial charter specified that locations would be in Augusta, Bangor, Caribou, Machias, Scarborough, and South Paris. The board later changed this without the approval of the legislature.
In October 2021, the Board met behind closed doors and decided to close the Caribou and Machias locations in May 2022. They also agreed to keep this confidential until February 2022 because they feared an exodus of nurses and staff. Delaying the announcement also made the window for public input would be reduced. When they made the announcement public, the Board cited the following reasons for the closures (1) difficulties in finding qualified staff and (2) a declining population of veterans. When he learned of the closures, Senator Troy Jackson took action. He wrote a bill requiring the Maine Veterans’ Homes to go before the legislature (which was not required then) and contacted several area veterans groups.
As Commandant of Detachment 1414 of the Marine Corps League, I was notified of this decision. It spurred me into action. Several years ago, my detachment identified as many living WWII veterans as possible. We visited each one and presented them with a certificate of appreciation and an American Flag. It was possibly one of the most emotional events I’ve ever been involved in. The reaction we received from these men and women was phenomenal, everything from surprise to hugging us–we even saw a lot of tears. Never before had I experienced a ninety-something-year-old veteran struggling out of a wheelchair to stand at attention to salute me. I even met a Navy veteran who drove one of the landing craft that took U. S. Marines ashore at the battle of Iwo Jima.
At the time, five of these veterans lived in the Caribou Maine Veterans’ Home. We learned of a public hearing with the Committee On Veterans and Legal Affairs and obtained access. More than twenty local veterans attended and were each given three minutes to speak. We got our eyes open wide about the management of the Maine Veterans’ Homes. The CEO of the non-profit (who we later learned was earning $243,000.00 per year) stated his case mentioning the items listed above. The next speaker was an employee of the Caribou home. Her comments were: “Of course, they can’t find qualified staff. They’ve had a hiring freeze on since October. As for there not being a large enough population of veterans, currently, 100% of our beds are occupied, and we have a waiting list.” She closed with a warning, “We haven’t started seeing an influx of Vietnam and Gulf wars veterans The committee approved Senator Jackson’s bill and went before the entire legislature, which was unanimously approved. Governor Mills signed the bill into law, and the Maine Veterans’ Homes backed down. Another factor was the expansion of the Augusta location.
The Maine Veterans’ Homes had received approval for a $30,000,000 bond to construct a new home in Augusta. There was more surprise when we saw photos of the new location (where we were told our patients could be moved to. Why not tell our people to say a final goodbye to their loved ones because they’d never see them again?) The new home was over budget by a considerable amount, and The Maine Veterans’ Homes wanted it to be as fully occupied as possible to justify the cost overruns (this is my personal theory). The pictures showed fancy entrances to the rooms (all of which were private), coffee shops, and conference rooms that could be rented. “What do those things have to do with caring for our veterans?” was the most often asked question.
In closing, we saved the Caribou and Macias homes, and the board, which previously had no representation north of Bangor, now has an Aroostook County member. I wrote a letter to the governor recommending the expansion of the Board and the creation of an advisory committee that would meet periodically with the management of the Caribou home to discuss ways in which we, veterans’ organizations, can assist them. We also have made a commitment to ourselves that we will not be caught off guard again… we will continue to monitor the actions of The Maine Veterans’ Homes.
BTW. It has been reported to me that the CEO of the Maine Veterans’ Homes has announced his intention to retire early in 2023.