PORTLAND — A new support network will provide free job assistance, education and wellness programs for unemployed veterans returning from overseas combat.
The Portland Veterans Network, unveiled last week by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, provides free chamber membership to unemployed veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
The goal of the program is to offer free opportunities to veterans to help them reintegrate into the community and gain access to fulfilling employment, education and wellness, according to the chamber.
In addition to free chamber membership, veterans will have access to hundreds of networking events, a mentor, job-search advice and coaching, assistance navigating college and university systems, free tickets to family recreational opportunities, a family week at Camp Kieve Wavus and free access to the Saco Bay Physical Therapy Center and Medically Oriented Gym.
Chris Tyll, chairman of the task force that organized the network, said plans came together quickly after listening to Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talk about the difficulty veterans may face when they return home. He said everyone who listened to Sutherland in a meeting a month ago “left this room touched and changed forever.”
“This is the 1 percent of the population we should be talking about,” Tyll said.
He said the unemployment rate for veterans nationwide stands at 11 percent and is even higher – 29 percent – for veterans ages 18-24.
Tyll said veterans possess unique skill sets, work ethics and outlooks on life that will help the economy thrive.
“They don’t really need us,” he said. “We need them.”
First lady Ann LePage attended the March 29 press conference to announce the new initiative. She said access to good jobs and wellness programs are the only way to ensure a seamless transition for veterans.
“Returning home after experiencing military combat is a challenge and reintegrating to the workplace and family life can be a daunting task,” LePage said. “No single program, nonprofit or government agency has the resources to provide lifetime care and support to our military personnel.”
Godfrey Wood, CEO of the chamber, said the goal is to involve 50 to 100 veterans in the program.
“So many young men and women from Maine have fought the way on terror to protect our freedom,” Wood said. “Now these young people are returning home and it is our duty to help them reintegrate into the community. Everything we are doing for them is absolutely free, and they will each choose a sponsor/mentor to be with them, at every step, to assure they can get to all the resources needed to find a good job.”
Sgt. Jamie Gray of the Maine National Guard said many returning veterans are young and have little or no work experience outside of the military. Often, they don’t know how their skills translate to civilian jobs, he said.
Gray said many employers welcome the leadership, supervisory experience and dedication to the mission that veterans possess.
Secretary of State Charles Summers, who introduced Sutherland to Wood, praised chamber members for their dedication to helping veterans in their transition.
“It became very, very easy for chamber members to see how they could have an effect on a veteran’s life very easily and in a meaningful way,” Summers said. “I really believe at the end of the day the (Portland Veterans Network) will serve as a model for the country.”
Chris Tyll talks about the new Portland Veterans Network, an effort organized by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to connect unemployed veterans with jobs, education and wellness programs.