Members of the Aroostook Veterans Advocacy Committee Vaughn Hardacker (front, left), Bill Flagg, Percy Thibeault and Roger Felix (front, right) discuss their next steps during a recent meeting at Caribou VFW. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — The impending closure of the Maine Veterans Home in Caribou has left Aroostook County veterans, their families and local advocates in a state of frustration, confusion and sadness.

But they are also determined to save the home that hundreds of veterans have turned to over the years.

With the Maine Veterans Home being the only nursing home dedicated to veterans in Aroostook County, families and facility caretakers of the 57 soon-to-be displaced residents are wondering what the next steps will be. Many local nursing homes already have long wait lists and, like Maine Veterans Homes, are short-staffed. Families may have no choice but to send their relatives to the Bangor or Augusta facilities, leaving them unable to visit as often.

For veterans and advocates like Roger Felix, commander of the Caribou VFW and retired Army sergeant, the decision to close the Caribou and Machias homes show a disregard for veterans service and the unique barriers that Aroostook veterans face when accessing medical care.

Caribou veterans are already losing the out-patient Veterans Administration clinic that once existed on Cary Medical Center’s campus, also the current home of Maine Veterans Homes, he said. A larger version of that clinic is being built in Presque Isle. Though that city is just south of Caribou, the distance might still prove challenging for veterans who have limited mobility in Caribou and more northern towns.

“They [the veterans] are mad. They’re feeling betrayed,” said Roger Felix, commander of the Caribou VFW and retired Army sergeant. “Some of these guys who fought in Vietnam were just beginning to trust the VA, but now they might not.”

Felix is the spokesperson for the Aroostook Veterans Advocacy Committee, which includes members from local chapters of the VFW, American Legion, United Veterans of Maine, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Aroostook Veterans Alliance and the Marine Corps League.

On Tuesday, Aroostook Veterans Advocacy members held its first in-person meeting since 2020. That night, everyone came with one question in mind: What will the next steps be to ensure that the Maine Veterans Home doesn’t close, at least for the time being?

But that goal will be difficult to achieve. Maine Veterans Homes leadership has said that even temporary financial assistance from LD 2001, an emergency bill proposed by state Senate President Troy Jackson, will not stop the private nonprofit from closing the two facilities this spring.

During the Feb. 28 Caribou City Council meeting, the organization’s CEO Kelley Kash reiterated the three reasons Maine Veterans Homes has given for the closure: a declining population of veterans, a shortage of employees and continued financial decline.

Since announcing the closures on Feb. 24, officials have claimed that both the Caribou and Machias homes have lost $2 million annually for several years and are on track to lose $3 million this year. The $25 million in gross operating revenue from 2019 that Maine lawmakers have pointed to comes in part from a $49 million VA construction grant to build a new $85 million facility in Augusta, Jackson said.

“The home in Augusta is 40 years old. It needs to be replaced,” Kash said.

But Kash’s statements have left local veterans questioning why Maine Veterans Homes officials did not reach out to Cary or to veterans groups during the last two years, when they began experiencing financial difficulties. Those who spoke during the city council meeting this week questioned the necessity of building a state-of-the-art facility in Augusta but not investing in homes located in Maine’s most rural counties.

Though Kash promised that Maine Veterans Homes would extend the May 1 closure date if not all veterans find suitable homes by then, local entrepreneur and veteran Troy Haney questioned the organization’s motives for closing Caribou and Machias at the time of the Augusta construction.

“Knowing that we are in a small community, you’re connected to a local hospital and live remotely from the rest of your facilities, a suitable thing to do would be sitting down with stakeholders and trying to find a potential path forward to keep the facility open,” Haney said. “Maybe not under your capacity but under Cary’s facility.”

Cubby Johndro, a member of the American Legion Post 15, said during the Aroostook Veterans Advocacy meeting that she is also skeptical of Kash’s claims that the all-veteran Maine Veterans Homes board reached out to Caribou veterans groups to fill an empty seat representing northern Maine.

“Not once did a letter land on our desks saying that we needed representation,” Johndro said. “If it had, I know someone would have answered.”

For now, veterans and advocates are letting their voices be heard at the Maine Legislature in hopes that the Caribou closure can be delayed.

Several members of Aroostook Veterans Advocacy, including Johndro and Felix, testified in favor of LD 2001 on Wednesday. If the bill passes, the group believes that a moratorium should be placed on the Caribou and Machias closures so that Maine Veterans Homes officials, legislators and veterans’ advocates can work toward more permanent solutions.

Bill Flagg, director of community relations and development at Cary, is serving as a liaison between Aroostook Veterans Advocacy and the hospital. Even though there are challenges ahead, the group is ready to push on in the spirit of the veterans, community leaders and legislators who helped start the Caribou MVH in 1986, he said.

“We need to hold [Maine Veterans Homes] accountable, call our legislators and let them know that we’re standing together,” Flagg said.