AUGUSTA, Maine — Among the many barriers to providing services to needy military veterans — funding, transportation, reaching out to rural communities — the hardest to overcome might seem like the easiest: finding veterans in the first place.

Troubling for a panel of experts who convened Tuesday in Augusta to discuss the problem is the fact that providing services to homeless veterans in Maine continues to become more difficult. With the closure of Loring Air Force Base in 1994 and Brunswick Naval Air Station in 2011, central locations for veterans to congregate — and seek help when they need it — are dwindling.

“Maine doesn’t have that safe place, that base anymore. Naval Air Station Brunswick, that’s where we went to see other military and function in that military community,” said Amy Line, veterans success coordinator for the University of Maine at Augusta and a Navy veteran. “We don’t have that anymore, so we need to create spaces for our veterans to congregate.”

According to Steve Wallace, who chairs Maine’s State Workforce Investment Board Veterans Employment Committee, the number of veterans in Maine is dwindling sharply. There were about 154,000 vets in Maine a decade ago, 129,000 now, and projections show that within five years that number will drop to 114,000.

Of those veterans, the ones who have left the military most recently are having the most difficult time. Wallace said more than 10 percent of veterans between ages 18 and 34 are unemployed. The unemployment rate in older age groups is half that, illustrating that despite years of efforts to create supports for veterans, the message still isn’t resonating.

“We don’t need more agencies in a lot of new areas,” said Wallace, a Marine Corps veteran. “What we do need is a lot more communication about the services that are already out there.”

Wallace’s comments came during The Wages of Valor: Economic and Employment Issues Facing America’s Veterans,” a forum hosted Tuesday by Volunteers of America. The event started with the broadcast of a national panel followed by a Maine-based one. The topic for both was similar: how to help homeless veterans.

Nationally, President Barack Obama has set a goal to end chronic homelessness among veterans by the end of this year.

There was consensus on the Volunteers of America Maine panel that the best way to connect veterans to services that they need is to create more robust transitional services when they leave the military. That includes providing information about the array of services available now and later in life as well as immediate counseling and case management designed to avoid problems before they arise.

“You can’t be in Sadr City [Iraq] on one day and in Farmington, Maine, on another day and not have some kind of transition problems,” said James Pineau, a Marine Corps veteran who is a manager for the U.S. Small Business Administration. “There isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Every veteran is unique.”

There was consensus on the panel that bolstering the network of case managers in Maine who can help veterans connect with a range of services would be the most effective way to pull veterans out of dire situations if there was enough funding to do so.

Michael Merrill is a veterans services worker for Volunteers of America. He agreed that veterans can be hard to reach and acknowledged that the fact there were only a handful of veterans at Tuesday’s event illustrated the challenge. But he hasn’t given up hope.

He told a story of a boy on a beach covered with starfish. The boy throws one of the starfish into the water, but an old man says, “Don’t you know you can’t make a difference? There are hundreds of starfish here.” The boy says, “I made a difference for that one.”

“If I can make a difference for one veteran, that’s where it starts,” said Merrill. “That’s all we need is one vet where we can make a difference. After that, it can spread like wildfire.”

Any veteran in Maine in need of services or curious about what he or she qualifies for can call the Bureau of Veterans’ Services at 430-6035.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.