James Orr poses for a portrait outside Cumberland County Superior Court last month. Orr helps veterans who need help with legal or other problems through his role as president of Veteran Mentors of Maine. Orr joined the Army out of high school and served 24 years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

James Orr retired from the U.S. Army in 2012 after 24 years, but he still thinks like a platoon sergeant.

During an Army career that included tours in Iraq, Kuwait and Kosovo, Orr says, his main job was to accomplish the mission and take care of his soldiers. Today, as president of the group Veteran Mentors of Maine, taking care of soldiers has become his mission.

Orr and seven other volunteers help veterans experiencing trouble adjusting to civilian life, from legal problems to illness to homelessness. A real estate agent by profession, Orr spends much of his time with veterans in need, driving them on errands, going to court with them, or helping them get furniture for a new home.

And just listening to them.

James Orr of Augusta served in the Army for 24 years, including tours in Iraq, Kuwait and Kosovo. Photo courtesy of James Orr

“A lot of it is just talking to them, seeing where things went wrong and figuring out how to help them out,” said Orr, 50, of Augusta. “As a platoon sergeant that’s what you do, you look out for your guys.”

Orr grew up in the small Maine town of China and joined the Army after high school. He adapted quickly to military life and embraced Army values of  honor, integrity and selfless courage. He saw combat with an infantry unit, patrolling violent, war-torn areas in armored vehicles. He rose to the rank of master sergeant.

When he got out of the Army, Orr didn’t know what he could do to make a living, but knew he wanted to return to Maine. While waiting for some of his retirement pay to kick in, he began house-hunting and working with a Realtor in the Augusta area. Selling real estate began to interest him, because it seemed to Orr that if he worked hard and treated people well, he’d do OK. Plus, he liked that he would make his own hours and be self-reliant. Orr is married and has five children, three of them grown.

Soon after Orr started working in real estate, he showed a house to then-Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, himself a veteran. The two men connected. Liberty told Orr about another veteran who was conducting bible studies for veterans in area jails. Liberty suggested to Orr that he too visit veterans in jail, that they could use someone to talk to.

That was all Orr needed to hear. He began visiting incarcerated veterans and met Norman Lawrence, another veteran mentor. Orr and Lawrence then began talking to T. Jay Wheeler, a case manager with the nonprofit agency Maine Pretrial Services, which offers a range of services to defendants. Together the three men saw a need to help veterans who were struggling with adjustment to civilian life, including trouble with the law.

For the past five years, the three have been working together as Veteran Mentors of Maine. The group’s eight volunteers work with veterans in southern Maine. Some of the veterans have cases in the Cumberland and Kennebec county courts, where they face charges ranging from OUI to bank robbery.

The legal cases are handled by lawyers, but Orr and the other volunteers lend an ear to the veterans, give them rides or help out with other daily challenges. The group works closely with the Elks Lodge, which donates furniture and home supplies to veterans trying to start over. Orr’s job is often that of a mover, carting furniture or pots and pans around the state.

“Just this morning I was delivering furniture. We dropped off a couch but then had to take it apart to get it into the apartment,” said Orr. “We do whatever we can to help these veterans get past whatever mishaps they’ve faced in life.”

Some of his own experiences have helped frame Orr’s desire to help his fellow veterans. When he was getting out of the Army, he attended a class designed to help soldiers transition to civilian life. But the class was no help – the adviser told Orr, an infantryman, that the only civilian job he was qualified for was hit man.

Elizabeth Simoni, executive director of Maine Pretrial Services, calls Orr “a straight shooter, no-nonsense kind of man, who is tireless in his advocacy for those who have served. He is the first line of defense in tough situations.”

Also while in the Army, Orr saw soldiers who experienced traumatic brain injuries in combat, many of whom have struggled with everyday life ever since. While brain injuries among college and pro athletes have received a lot of attention, Orr worries that not enough is being done for veterans with the same ailment.

“You have veterans coming back with brain injuries and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and they start getting themselves in trouble,” Orr said.

As a small nonprofit, Veteran Mentors of Maine needs to raise money for its efforts and seeks volunteers around the state. The duties of the volunteers can be very broad, basically including anything that needs to be done to get a struggling veteran on his or her feet. Much of the work involves helping veterans regain their confidence and self-reliance, and reminding them of the tools for success they gained in the military.

“It’s about purpose, direction and motivation,” Orr said. “That’s what we try to provide.”

 

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