Vaughn Hardacker here: The month of November is a special month in my life. I was married on November 4, 1970, November 10 is the Marine Corps birthday (248th this year), November 11 is Veterans Day, and of course there’s Thanksgiving. This blog will post on November 10th, a day sacrosanct to the vast majority of Marines. The purpose of this blog is not to glorify any one branch of our military. It is, I hope, to save veteran lives.
Over the years the federal government, congress especially, seems to think that veterans’ benefits and retirement funds are an incentive and are a place where they can cut spending. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would even consider a military career. The majority of veteran benefits are services, such as the Base Exchange (BX) or Post Exchange (PX) and are only of use if you live in the proximity of an operating base. Can anyone think of an open base (other than Coast Guard Station) in Maine? At one time there were Air Force bases in Limestone, Presque Isle, and Bangor (southern Maine was a short drive to Pease in Portsmouth, NH) and a Naval Air Station in Brunswick. Today there are none. The economic impact on Limestone (Caribou) and Presque Isle was devastating. When I grew up in Caribou the population was over 10,000 (9,423 in the 1990 census). In 2020 the population was 7,382, a decrease of 22%. The loss of jobs and the money spent blasted the economy. If I had to list all of the businesses that crashed it would fill this blog.
There is one government agency that has, in my opinion, done what it can to assist veterans: The Veterans Administration (VA). Over the years the VA has been plagued by a reputation for being at best slow, bordering on incompetent. Whenever I talk with a veteran who has issues with the VA it always comes down to one thing … the bureaucrats who run the organization, not the medical care that the dedicated doctors, nurses, and technicians deliver. Especially those who work locally.
There are a couple of things that you should know about the VA and Maine. First, the first VA hospital was located in Togus, Maine. Second, the first Customer Based Out-patient Clinic in the country was in Caribou. But, I digress. Recently we fought against the closing of the Maine Veterans Home in Caribou (and won). The homes are run by a non-profit chartered by the state government. They listed several reasons why they felt that they had to close the home, paramount of them was that the veteran population in the area was diminishing. We took exception to that argument. If you cross any parking lot in Aroostook County you will be astonished by the number of veteran license plates and decals for all branches of the military. Still (and keep in mind the adage: Figures don’t lie; but liars figure) an indepent study showed an overall decline in the veteran population. I founded and chair a group called the Aroostook Veterans Advocacy Committee. We spearheaded the movement to save the Caribou home. We have looked closely at the study and immediately saw the problem. Their only source of data was the VA. Remember I mentioned the poor reputation the VA had? We are human and for humans being negative comes easy, being positive takes work.
Here’s what we learned. The negatives are still flowing around. When younger veterans first leave the military, they are mainly in their early to mid-twenties and are still immortal. They are for the most part in good health and medical care is the furthest thing in their mind. However, they won’t be healthy for ever (I’m living proof of that.). Let me tell you a short story.
It’s no secret that we Marines stick together like flies to flypaper. I was visiting with a veteran, several years younger than me (and who isn’t?). In the course of the conversation he mentioned that he has been battling bladder cancer and had several operations. I asked Larry (not his real name) how long he’d been on active duty. He answered four years. My next question was how much time at Camp Lejeune? Two years. Larry had been using his own health insurance to pay his medical bills and was struggling financially. I now asked him the important question: Have you heard about the Camp Lejeune water? NO.
A few years back the Marine Corps announced that anyone, military or civilian, who had spent more than thirty day at Lejeune and was suffering from a number of diseases (Bladder cancer and Parkinson’s are high on the list) might be eligible for a settlement. I asked Larry if he’d registered with the VA when he was discharged. He said No. Should I have?
The Marine Corps announced that the drinking water on Camp Lejeune had been contaminated. If you served there for thirty days or more between the years 1953 and 1987 the government had set aside more than a billion dollars to settle lawsuits. The next thing I said to Larry was, Get your butt down to your congressman’s office and ask for Kim. She will register you and help you do the paperwork.
That was this past April. Larry pulled into my driveway last week and I knew something was up by the smile and look of relief on his face. “Read this,” he said and handed me a sheet of paper. It was from the VA assessing him at 100% disabled and he will receive a monthly pension just under $4,000. “And,” he said, “there was a seven thousand dollar check with it!” I replied, “Wait, they’ll owe you backpay to the date you applied you should get six months back pay. You should see if they will reemburse some of the medical bills you paid.” “Should I get a lawyer?” he asked. “Why,” I answered, “do you want to give some ambulance chaser one-third or more of the money? The VA will handle this for you at no charge.”
Let’s return to the title of this post. What can you do to help the veteran in your life? HAVE THEM REGISTER WITH THE VA! Larry appeared healthy when he left the Corps more than forty years ago. Just because you don’t think you need the VA now, wait about thirty or forty years and see.