York County veterans Eric Mihan and Vernon Huestis celebrated their 200th visit recently as participants in the Vet to Vet Maine program headquartered in Biddeford. The nonprofit organization matches veteran volunteers with fellow veterans who could benefit from visits from a friend. The volunteers visit their assigned veteran in the veteran’s home at least twice a month, providing companionship and assistance in applying for VA benefits and referrals to programs and services when needed.
The camaraderie between the two veterans just keeps getting better, according to Mihan. Huestis, who turned 91 in September, signed up for Vet to Vet in the spring of 2014 when Susan Gold, then Vet to Vet coordinator, invited him to participate in the new program. He was among the first 13 veterans matched to 13 volunteers as part of a pilot project operated under the auspices of Southern Maine Agency on Agency. The program has since been transferred to Vet to Vet Maine, an independent Maine nonprofit. Vet to Vet Maine operates from office space donated by Volk Packaging Co. at the Biddeford Industrial Park.
Mihan, a decade younger than Huestis, was also among the first participants, as a Vet to Vet volunteer, to enroll in the program. He had seen a newspaper article promoting the project and decided it might be a good fit for him.
During their first visits, the two veterans sat on Huestis’s porch swing and got acquainted. The pair discovered they had served in the same Army division, the Second Infantry Division, 20 years apart—Huestis in 1945-1946 and Mihan in 1961-1963. They also learned that they shared a love of reading and soon formed their own personal book club. Both agreed to “star” in Vet to Vet’s video to promote the program.
The two shared other interests as well. Huestis volunteered for years as a member of the Maine Appalachian Trail Association. Mihan, too, has a history of volunteer work with the Biddeford Free Clinic and walked up to four miles a day in 2014, when he applied to become a Vet to Vet volunteer.
For most visits Mihan brought coffee and treats from Reilly’s bakery, and they talked about the books on their joint reading list—starting with Arthur Conan Doyle, a lot of Dickens’s work, lengthy tomes by James A. Michener. They celebrated their 100th visit in 2016 by embarking on David McCullough’s blockbuster history of the American Revolution, 1776.
Huestis was the primary caregiver for his wife, who was in a wheelchair, so they usually stayed home and talked. But occasionally, they’d go out for a ride together. On one trip, they got lost on the way to the Maine Military Museum in South Portland but had a good time regardless. Mihan kids Huestis that he was the navigator on that trip, and Huestis responds that they didn’t get lost, they merely went on a $5 tour of the area.
In the spring of 2018, Huestis fell and eventually moved into a long-term care facility. Mihan visits him there now, sometimes three or four times a week. They reminisce about books they have read, talk about their life stories, and discuss what they’ll read next.
Since Huestis’s fall, Mihan has come to know Huestis’s two daughters, who say that Mihan’s visits with their father have made life less stressful for the rest of the family. “It’s so nice knowing someone is there for him,” his daughter Martha said. Mihan, she adds, “is really special, a good guy.” During her father’s medical problems, Martha was surprised to learn that he had had scarlet fever while at boot camp, but Mihan knew.
Since the early days of their relationship, the veterans have developed a strong bond of friendship that is “very meaningful,” Mihan says. Adds Huestis: “He’s the kind of friend you’d like to see anytime.”