Last year the Marine Corps League Detachment in which I am the second in command (officially the Senior Vice-Commandant) in conjunction with Cary Medical Center in Caribou began a quest. We wanted to establish two things: (1) an advisory committee made up of members from the various veterans groups in Aroostook County and (2) a long-term facility in which homeless veterans could be housed until they got back on their feet. I had no idea what I was getting into!
First I wrote letters to every veterans post or detachment in the county and comprised a committee the we have called the Aroostook Veteran’s Advisory Committee. The committee has members from The Marine Corps League (MCL), the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the American Legion (AL), and the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). At our first meeting I was unanimously voted as chairman (that’ll teach me to start something!) and we stated our mission as being the lobbying group for local veterans. As most of our blog followers probably know, Aroostook County is Maine’s furthest north county and is bigger than some states. The only Veterans Administration hospital in Maine is located in Togus, a 200 mile plus distance away. To assist veterans in rural areas the Veterans Administration started a program called Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home). ARCH was designed to assist veterans in rural areas by allowing select local hospitals in their local area treat them for their service-connected problems. Five hospitals were selected as beta sites — Cary Medical Center was one of these. Of the five hospitals only Cary was a success (the primary reasons for this are too complex to go into in this blog) and in August of 2016 the program was to lose its funding.
The Aroostook Veteran’s Advisory Committee took on the battle to save Project ARCH. Each of the organizations that comprise the AVAC have clauses in their charters that they are to refrain from political activity and they are not to get involved in politics. This is not true of our committee, we immediately contacted Maine’s two senators (Both senators Susan Collins and Angus King have offices and representatives in Caribou) and the congressman for Maine’s 2nd congressional district (Bruce Poloquin has an office and representative in Presque Isle) and were pleasantly surprised that all three supported our effort. Congressman Poloquin’s representative, Kim Rohn,now attends our meetings. We got a meeting in which the Vice-Secretary of Health for the VA system. Dr. David Shulkin (whom President Trump has recently named VA Secretary), was sent from Washington to meet with us. Also in attendance were our local state legislators and Congressman Poloquin. To help Dr. Shulkin understand our concern, the Director of Togus, Ryan Kelly, drove him from the VA Medical Center to Caribou on a dark night in February. It helped emphasize our concerns. Dr. Shulkin later mentioned what a long drive it was. I replied, “Now consider what it’s like for a sick veteran…”
When the delegation from the VA arrived they were led into the meeting room at Cary Medical Center and were astonished to see 150 veterans there. The meeting opened and was over three hours long as veterans were given the opportunity to actually meet and ask questions of the VA decision-makers.
The end result was a commitment from Dr. Shulkin that regardless of what action congress may (or may not) take, Cary Medical Center would continue operating as an ARCH facility (although the program may be renamed).
For me the high point of the meeting came when Kim Rohn took me aside and said: “They are scared to death of you.”
I replied: “Who, Togus?”
“No,” Kim said, “Washington. They see how you have organized all of the veterans in Aroostook County and they are afraid that when word of what you’ve done gets out it will spread.”
I smiled and said: “I already sent letters to the national headquarters of every veteran’s organization.”
In a future blog I’ll present our next campaign . . . a long-term shelter for homeless veterans and their families that we are calling The Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm For Hope (named for Aroostook County’s two Medal of Honor winners).