BRUNSWICK — As jets soared and tumbled through the air at the Great State of Maine Air Show last weekend – an event meant to honor those who have served in the U.S. armed services – Randall Simonse of North Yarmouth remembered a darker time when veterans weren’t welcomed back with open arms.
Simonse, a commander for 716th chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and member of Amvets Post 2 in Yarmouth, served in the Vietnam War.
“Because of all the movies and stuff, they painted all Vietnam veterans as half-crazy and killers and things like that,” said Simonse, who spent four months in an Okinawa, Japan, hospital after his helicopter was shot down. “And there’s still some of that stigma that goes along today. Our veterans today still face that unwarranted stigma.
“You don’t have to look too hard today to find Vietnam veterans that have done nothing but quietly pursuing their lives, having careers, helping others, and that’s what all veterans are.”
Simonse is one of those veterans who seeks to help others. He was at the Brunswick Executive Airport to inform others of a nonprofit guide service for veterans and active service members that he is involved with called House in the Woods.
“Many veterans, when they’re wounded and return, they feel different. Because, actually, they are different,” Simonse said. “But this gives them an opportunity, despite what handicaps they have, because they are 100 percent disabled, they get an opportunity to feel normal.”
Simonse is a registered Maine guide with the nonprofit, which was founded by a mother and father of a soldier who died in Iraq in 2007. The Vietnam veteran had just finished a moose hunt with five veterans the week before the air show.
This week, he will guide four women veterans, two of whom want to get their own moose and bear. Simonse said his Amvets post donated $10,000 to the hunt.
During the air show, Simonse spent some of his time talking to another group that plays a hand in the enrichment of veterans’ lives: the Department of Veterans Affairs. Representatives from the department’s readjustment and counseling program for combat veterans and their families, Vet Center, were also present.
Jim Doherty, a spokesman who was there for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that sometimes veterans face another stigma: seeking help and getting the benefits they’re entitled to.
“Some of them are under the impression that if they take some benefits, they are taking something away from somebody else, and it’s not that way at all,”said Doherty, who served in the Navy from 1972 to 2002. “What I try to tell them is ‘you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.’ There’s enough lunch for everyone.”
On Saturday alone, Doherty said he talked to at least 75 veterans who had questions about veteran benefits.
“It’s not like we can take so many a year. We especially see this with some of the older vets,” Doherty said. “We’re not interested in getting by. We’re interesting in giving them what they’re entitled to.”
Doherty spent most of the weekend at the air show in front of a large van for Vet Center. The program has 300 centers across the U.S. including five locations in Maine.
Recent reports from the U.S. Army found that the number of soldiers who committed suicide this year rose greatly from last year. 116 active-duty soldiers have been reported to take their own lives so far this year.
In June, the National Alliance on Mental Health released a report that found the stigma to seek mental help is still high among service members.
Eric Etsy, an outreach specialist who was there for Vet Center, said this is why programs like his have learned how to become more proactive with outreach.
“I think ‘proactive’ is the key word,” Etsy said.
But despite the reported stigma, Etsy said he and his representatives were kept busy “back-to-back” this past weekend at the Maine air show, constantly engaging veterans or family members.
For Randall Simonse, this is a sign of the changing times.
“You know the Vietnam Veterans of America have a wonderful slogan, and that is ‘never again will one generation of veterans turn its back on another,'” Simonse said.
A jet soars above a controlled gasoline explosion at the Brunswick Executive Airport on Aug. 25 during the Great State of Maine Air Show. The organizer, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said more than 40,000 people attended the show last weekend.
Corrected Aug. 31, 2012.