During my tour in Afghanistan as a Navy public affairs officer, I had it relatively easy: warm food, Internet access to my family and the kind of sleep that comes only when you’re surrounded by reassuringly high protective walls. Thousands of Maine war veterans, however, were not nearly as fortunate.

As the war in Afghanistan continues to march toward closure, more veterans are coming home. And as the military begins to shed combat personnel, many more are leaving the service altogether.

Of the millions of service men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 11,000 were from Maine. In fact, Maine ranks second nationally in per capita veterans from those campaigns, a figure that surprises no veteran who lives here. We’re a patriotic state, to be sure.

Because the wars were so long, many service members experienced multiple deployments. More than a third of the 2.5 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan deployed more than once, and some 37,000 deployed more than five times.

Although I’m not a combat veteran, I know enough about the war-zone life to understand that many of these young men and women experienced horrors that would keep even Stephen King up at night. It would take an impossibly resilient soul to not be affected.

Not surprisingly, this continues to exact a toll on both the psyches and bodies of our war veterans.

Of the 1.6 million service members transitioning to veteran status – including more than 600,000 Reserve and Guard members – nearly 700,000 have been awarded disability ratings from the Department of Veterans Affairs. To date, the VA has already treated nearly 300,000 service members for post-traumatic stress disorder.

For those coming home, the warm embrace of family and community is an absolutely essential component of the transition out of uniform. I consider myself extremely blessed to have returned whole, to have had time to put my experiences into perspective, and to have found a new civilian job in short order.

But despite the plethora of government programs and resources available to support transitioning veterans – perhaps more than ever before – many returning service members find themselves short when trying to make ends meet.

Even with combat pay, our most junior service members don’t always make enough to support themselves and their families comfortably. And when something goes awry on the homefront during a deployment, the added stress compounds with the daily tensions of serving in a combat zone.

Thankfully, a number of organizations have signed up to fill the gaps not covered by standard government programs, as well as partnered in new ways with government agencies to help deliver needed services. For example, my agency, Easter Seals Maine, has joined forces with the Maine Department of Labor and the Bureau of Veterans Services to implement a $2 million federal grant designed to improve the coordination of VA benefits, health care and employment assistance for veterans in rural Maine communities.

These are important initiatives, and they will go far in helping the 1 percent of the U.S. population who served in Iraq and Afghanistan transition to their new lives.

However, these brave men and women – many of whom are still of college age – need additional support from the 99 percent of the population they risked their lives to protect.

At Easter Seals, for example, many veterans who reach out to us for assistance need immediate help with things like heating oil, home repairs, vehicle maintenance so they can drive to job interviews or emergency aid to make the rent for the month after an unexpected illness, layoff or breakup. Like other nonprofits, our ability to help veterans relies in large part on the generosity of those who support our programs financially.

These days, we’re all bombarded with requests to support worthy charities – but I believe if the 99 percent of the population who didn’t serve in the wars contributed just a few dollars to the 1 percent who did, we’d be able to help every veteran in need.

Here in Maine, neighbors have always helped one another during difficult times. This should be especially so with our returning veterans, who often are too proud to ask for assistance.

Here in Maine, we also do a wonderful job of welcoming veterans home – the Troop Greeters in Bangor are a wonderful example of this.

And here in Maine, I’m confident we will be up to the challenge of supporting these returning veterans with health care, good-paying jobs and the occasional hand up to help them get back on their feet.

— Special to the Press Herald