Bill Nemitz: Veterans buddy up and bond

By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald
September 10, 2014
Reprinted with permission

The Vet to Vet program helps Maine veterans of all ages, stripes and uniforms help one another.

Little did Ray Goulet know, back when he was a young Marine dodging enemy fire in the South Pacific, that he’d one day be good buddies with a “doggie.”

“When we were pulling out, the Army was coming in. So some of us Marines put up a big sign in our area that said, ‘No Doggies Allowed,’” recalled Goulet, resurrecting the nick- name he and his fellow leathernecks attached to anyone in an Army uniform.

Ray Goulet, 87, of Biddeford and Gulf War veteran Jim Yankura, 44, of Saco take part in the Vet to Vet program, which is less about war and more about camaraderie. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Sitting on the sofa in Goulet’s living room, the word “Army” emblazoned across the front of his T-shirt, Jim Yankura could only laugh.

“I was hoping he’d have his Marine shirt on,” Yankura said. “I feel bad because he’s got a nice collared shirt on and he looks better than I do!”

Goulet is 87. Yankura is 44.

Goulet saw things no man should have to see on the beaches of Iwo Jima. Yankura’s darkest memories are rooted along the Persian Gulf War’s infamous Highway of Death.

Goulet, who still has nightmares, doesn’t like to dwell on his experiences in a combat zone. Neither does Yankura.

Yet here they sat Monday morning in Goulet’s sun-drenched living room, just a stone’s throw from the picturesque mouth of the Saco River in Biddeford. Two veterans yakking it up as if their friendship went back years rather than just a few months.

“I was a little intimidated at first, Ray being an Iwo Jima vet and all,” confessed Yankura, who lives in nearby Saco. “But as soon as we started talking, it was great.”

Introducing Vet to Vet, a fledgling program that helps Maine veterans of all ages, stripes and uniforms help one another as the years advance, the bodies break down and the memories fade.

“At this point, we have 18 people on our waiting list,” said Sue Gold, who founded the program while working as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with Southern Maine Agency on Aging. “And I suspect that will grow.”

More on that in a minute. First, a look at why this is such a wonderful idea.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine currently has the fifth highest concentration of military veterans of all the states – just under 130,000 men and women who comprise 9.6 percent of the state’s population.

Of those, according to Gold, more than half are older than 60. One-third are not receiving benefits they deserve despite a disability rate of 40 percent for those over 65.

And many either live alone or with an elderly spouse who, for all their years together, never experi- enced the hardships, thrills and frequent tedium of life in uniform.

In short, Maine has many a vet who could use some company.

Gold launched the inaugural training program for volunteers in May – the three evening sessions, each lasting three hours, range from basic listening skills to steering an older or disabled vet toward much- needed benefits.

Upon completing the training, 13 volunteers from York and Cumberland counties were immediately paired with a veteran referred by a social service worker, a friend or in some cases a spouse.

“He doesn’t have much male contact – it’s all women in here,” explained Jacqueline, Goulet’s wife of 60-plus years. “He needed a male companion. And it’s working wonderfully.” They are, no question about it, of different eras.

Goulet retired years ago as a manager at the now-defunct WestPoint Stevens textile mill in Biddeford. Yankura currently works as evening operations manager at the Hannaford supermarket near the Maine Mall in South Portland. It’s there that he started crossing paths with older vets and decided to channel his volunteerism in that direction.

Goulet is a grandfather many times over. Yankura and his wife are still busy raising three kids.

Still, their life histories match on one important milestone: Goulet was but 17, a junior at Biddeford High School, when he became a Marine in 1944. Yankura was just 18 and fresh out of Massabesic High School in Waterboro when he joined the Army in 1989.

“Of course, when I joined, the recruiter said, ‘Hey, what’s the chance of going to war?’” recalled

Yankura. “Lo and behold, nine months later, they sent me to Iraq.”

The program requires that volunteers visit their veteran at least twice a month and, on weeks they don’t see each other, touch base with a phone call. Not a problem – while there’s no time requirement, one recent visit between Yankura and Goulet lasted almost four hours.

Thus Yankura knows all about the time Goulet and his fellow Marines, all leaving the base shower, took off their towels and waved them at a group of blushing Army nurses on their way to watch a movie.

Or the time Goulet, his thumb already injured from an organized boxing match with a guy from Min- nesota (“He beat the hell out of me!”) had insult added to his only war injury when a drill sergeant yanked the thumb every which way to show it wasn’t all that bad.

“It still hurts sometimes,” said Goulet, flexing the thumb seven decades later.

Goulet, conversely, knows about Yankura’s sudden pivot from the safety of his post in Germany to the carnage in southern Iraq, where he served as a front-line combat engineer specializing in exploding booby traps left behind by the Iraqis. He also knows that Yankura shares his love of gardening –just last week, Yankura showed up with an armful of freshly picked cucumbers and tomatoes.

In other words, this budding friendship is less about war –many participants in the program were never deployed to combat zones – and more about camaraderie.

“We just have this understanding that we both shared in something,” said Yankura. “But we don’t have to talk a lot about it. We’ve just got this bond now and that’s what makes it great – a Marine guy and an Army guy.”

Know a veteran who might benefit from the same thing? The next volunteer training will be held in Biddeford on Sept. 16, 18 and 23.

For more information, log onto Southern Maine Agency on Aging’s website (smaaa.org/veterans.php) or call Gold at 396-6525.

Mused Yankura: “I thought I was adopting a veteran. Now I feel like he’s adopted me.” Go figure. A doggie is a Marine’s best friend.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@pressherald.com