Volunteer Carlo Giraulo of Westbrook leads a group on a tour Friday of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ 62,000-square-foot Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Back before he retired in November after owning and operating his own insurance agency for 26 years, Carlo Giraulo had a go-to joke about his future.

“Welcome to Walmart!” I’m practicing,” he’d say. ‘I don’t want to be the boss. I don’t want to be anything!”

Fast-forward to Friday morning.

“Look at me now – ‘Welcome to the VA!’” Giraulo boasted with a broad smile, resplendent in his snappy red vest over a crisp white shirt and tie. He’d just finished conducting a tour of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, or CBOC, on Portland’s waterfront and beamed with the contentment of a man on a newfound mission.

The $64 million, 62,000-square-foot clinic, which opens on Monday, is a godsend to Maine’s estimated 114,000 veterans. It dwarfs the two clinics it replaces – one in Portland’s Old Port, the other in Saco. At the same time, it takes Maine veterans’ outpatient care to a new level, from state-of-the-art medical and mental health services to the stunning mural, visible to passers-by on West Commercial Street, that depicts silhouettes of military servicemen and woman beneath the illuminated emblems of the U.S. armed forces.

But the building, from the dentistry chairs positioned to look out on the Fore River, to the ultrasound and X-ray units, right down to the tables in the main reception area with built-in phone chargers, is only part of the story here.


The other part is the people who will staff the new place. (Full disclosure, I’m beyond proud to say that my daughter, a mental health therapist, is among them.) None will be more visible than the “red coat ambassadors,” all volunteers, who will greet veterans upon arrival, help them navigate the sprawling two-story clinic and, at every turn, drive home the message that this latest jewel in Maine’s VA system is all about them.

“They are the face of this facility,” Kylie Higgins, chief of volunteer services, said of the eight red coat ambassadors recruited and trained thus far to add a human touch to a system long known for its layers of bureaucracy.

“It’s more than just wayfinding. It’s more than just, ‘Here’s your appointment’ or ‘Here’s where you check in,’” Higgins said. “It’s really making sure that the veteran is comfortable, making sure that their experience – from the time they come in until the time that they come out and the next time that they come in – is topnotch.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time for Giraulo. Soon to be 67, he knew after selling his Allstate agency in Westbrook last fall that beyond his motorcycling with his wife, Jane, and doting over his 2-year-old grandson, Lucca, he’d need to find some way to stay engaged – and to give back.

He also knew that when it comes to our collective gratitude, no group is more deserving than our military veterans.

Two weeks after he graduated from high school in Connecticut back in 1973, Giraulo enlisted in the Navy. He served for six years – much of it as a cook aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt – and later embarked on his business career here after graduating from the University of Southern Maine.


But he never forgot his fellow veterans, especially those he’d see on the street struggling through post-military lives far less blessed than his. Each Veterans Day, he dons a “Welcome Home” cap, designed for Vietnam-era veterans who were anything but welcomed home, and finds a bench at the Maine Mall. It’s his way of quietly reminding all the busy shoppers how lucky they are to live the lives they do – and of the sacrifices over the decades that have made all of that possible.

Earlier this winter, Giraulo called the Togus VA Medical Center, explained that he was a recently retired veteran and was looking for a volunteer gig in the Portland area. The woman on the other end “almost jumped through the phone,” he recalled.

Volunteer Carlo Giraulo of Westbrook is interviewed Friday at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ new Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Now here he was at Friday’s grand opening, leading visitors around like he owned the place. When it comes to putting people at ease, the guy’s a natural.

On the ubiquity of restrooms throughout the clinic: “Being an old guy, I love the restrooms. I’ll tell you, I can’t pass by a restroom without falling in love with it.”

On the TV monitors that hang over the chairs in the full-service dental suite, enabling patients to watch their procedures – if they’re so inclined – in real time: “I’m not going to watch, but isn’t that cool?”

On the small lactation room, complete with a small refrigerator: “It’s for staff and veterans if they need it. … Hey, they thought of everything! They really thought of everything!”


On the soon-to-be-installed vending machines off the main reception area: “The first thing I asked was, ‘Why do they charge the veterans to buy a candy bar?’ Well, all the money’s going to go to voluntary services. I won’t get paid, but we use that money for homeless veterans, buying soap and toiletries, clothing, mittens and gloves. So, I think this is a great idea and if you’re ever around here, buy something!”

On the mental health unit, where the frosted-glass exterior windows, in addition to ensuring privacy, are transformed into works of art with tableaus of dune grass, birch branches and other local flora: “My father was at Anzio (in World War II). He got beat up that way. Nobody could help him – they didn’t have a facility like this.”

Giraulo signed up for three shifts a week as a red coat ambassador – Tuesdays through Thursdays, four hours a hitch. But he’ll be there on Monday, he promised his supervisor, because he doesn’t want to miss that moment when a decade of planning and construction ends, the doors open and the first wide-eyed veterans venture inside.

He’ll greet each one the same way he always greets a fellow vet – not just by saying hello, but by extending his hand, looking them straight in the eye and saying, ‘Welcome home.”

“That’s going to be my thing,” Giraulo said. “Because this will be their home.”

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