2018-04-12 / Front Page

Returning veterans scarce, ‘Heroes’ disbanded

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

Wounded Heroes founder Pam Payeur with her son and inspiration for the program, Cpl. Michael J. A. Payeur, U.S. Army, retired. (Courtesy photo) Wounded Heroes founder Pam Payeur with her son and inspiration for the program, Cpl. Michael J. A. Payeur, U.S. Army, retired. (Courtesy photo) BIDDEFORD– A common saying among wounded veterans is, “We’re not looking for a hand out. We’re looking for a hand up.”

For the last 10 years, the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine has been a “hand up” in Maine, providing transitional aid to wounded vets when they return from war, and in July it will end the services it provides.

With the drawdown of armed forces in 2015, Wounded Heroes has seen a steady decline in the number of calls it receives as there are fewer wounded vets returning home. After careful consideration and discussion, program officials decided to discontinue services. A press release issued April 1 stated that it would return all donations, effective April 1, 2018.

Pam Payeur of Biddeford, founder and executive director of the Wounded Heroes Program, was handed every mother’s worst nightmare when her son was injured during his deployment to Iraq as a tanker for the United States Army in 2007. Her son, Corporal Michael J. A. Payeur, then 20, was involved in 11 improvised explosive device blasts in the tanker he traveled with. The 11th knocked him out and left him with a traumatic brain injury, which caused him to eventually return stateside after a medical stay in Germany. After he was transferred to Fort Hood in Texas, a clerical error left him without treatment for six months. Payeur fought every day to get answers and help her son from nearly 2,000 miles away.

Ed Parker and Pam Payeur of the Wounded Heroes Program share memories and acheivements of their 10 years of volunteer work for wounded veterans in Maine. Payeur is the founder and executive director of the program, which will become nonoperational July 15. (Abigail Worthing photo) Ed Parker and Pam Payeur of the Wounded Heroes Program share memories and acheivements of their 10 years of volunteer work for wounded veterans in Maine. Payeur is the founder and executive director of the program, which will become nonoperational July 15. (Abigail Worthing photo) “We don’t come from a military family,” Payeur said. “We didn’t know the avenues we needed to go through. My son was walking around with Post Its on his shirt so he could remember things because of his brain injury, and I was on the phone with Fort Hood being told my son ‘needed to be more proactive in his care.’”

Payeur helped her son receive care and the experience left her inspired to help others.

“I started to think, does this happen all the time? What happens to the guys who don’t have a mom who will make the calls?” Payeur asked. “If I can fight for him, I can fight for them.”

According to the Department of Defense, when a soldier is discharged from their branch of the military, they are given a rating for their level of disability based on their worst traumatic injury. When they return stateside, they begin patient care with the United States Veteran Affairs. Veterans Affairs will give the soldier a new level of disability, based on their cumulative level of disability, taking into account all injuries. This rating will determine benefits they will receive. With the new level of disability, the veterans then begin to apply for disability pay, but there is often a long gap without income.

“There’s a common misconception that these guys keep getting paid after they’re injured, but they don’t,” Payeur said. “Once they’re discharged, the money stops. They sometimes have to wait between six and 18 months to get the benefits they earned.”

Without income and recovering from injuries sustained in combat, these veterans are left to navigate through a new reality.

“These are people who were really good at their job. They were leading missions, saving lives and now they can’t always take care of things when they get home,” Payeur said. “They don’t always know how to pay bills, or budget, or schedule appointments.”

That is where the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine came in. When a vet called Wounded Heroes, they were required to provide military documents, fill out an application and sign release forms to allow program officials to access their information. The program went through an evaluation process and verified the status of the vet before triaging the needs of the veteran and addressing the most important needs first.

“Sometimes they just need oil for their home. Those are the easy calls,” Payeur said. “Other times they need help paying bills or making rent,” adding that the program gave the money directly to the company or landlord to ensure funds are used responsibly.

Payeur has made Wounded Heroes a round the clock commitment for the last 10 years, taking up the majority of her waking hours. She even took to sleeping with her phone to ensure that someone would be there to answer the phone if there was someone in need.

“You never know when someone will be in a dark place, and just need someone on the other end of the phone,” Payeur said.

Wounded Heroes would often collaborate with other veterans aid programs to ensure vets were getting help best tailored to their situation. Other programs would also refer their vets to Wounded Heroes because the exclusively volunteer and donation-funded program gives them more freedom to work with applicants.

“The VA’s parameters are firm. If they say they can’t, then that’s the end. That’s not how we work,” Payeur said. “If (the veteran) is asking for something, we know they can’t wait a week. It probably took them a week to work up the courage to ask for it.”

Although the two organizations are not affiliated, Wounded Heroes came under scrutiny in 2016 when the Wounded Warrior Project was accused of wasting donor funds on lavish trips and parties. According to published reports, Wounded Warrior Project has since terminated its two top executives, Steve Nardizzi and Al Giordano, and has increased scrutiny on spending under new CEO Michael S. Linnington.

Wounded Heroes is a nonprofit, and the all-volunteer, 14-person board and fluctuating volunteer base allows them to return 90 percent of donations back to veterans.

“Being all volunteer makes it easier. It protects our dollars and makes us feel more responsible for the money we receive. There’s no overhead. It’s definitely not easy, but we’ve proven it can be done,” Payeur said.

Wounded Heroes “fundraised relentlessly,” Payeur said, hosting events throughout the year. It has also partnered with local businesses such as Bentley’s Saloon in Arundel for charity motorcycle rides. The organization has hosted fundraising galas, fishing tournaments, yard sales and toy drives, ensuring they are helping not only with the immediate issues veterans face, but to make sure that they, along with their families, don’t go without at the holidays.

Ed Parker of Biddeford has served on the board for Wounded Heroes for eight years and said delivering gifts on the holidays is one of the most rewarding experiences he has had with Wounded Heroes.

“Easter baskets, wrapping toys for the kids, delivering them. It was great. We would deliver Thanksgiving dinners every year,” Parker said. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of food we had.”

Wounded Heroes also focused on events that brought veterans together. It hosted multiple fishing tournaments a year, offering vets the opportunity to spend the day fishing and bonding. Captains of the boats donated their time and the equipment, with trips ending in a barbeque. In 2016, George Bush Sr. skippered his own boat to lead the “Fishing for Freedom” tournament sponsored by Wounded Heroes.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a Vietnam door gunner who flew in Apaches, or tankers from current combat. We bring them together as peers and let the magic happen,” Payeur said. “We don’t force it. It’s not our conversation to have.”

The leaders at Wounded Heroes have never considered themselves a “board,” instead choosing to see themselves as a “team,” working together to serve the veterans and support each other along the way.

“We’ve worked with no agenda,” said Parker, who volunteered for Wounded Heroes alongside his late wife Diane Parker, who died last year, and her parents Doris and Ralph Legarde, whom the team refers to as “Mama Bear and Papa Bear.”

“We all heard the call to action,” Payeur said. “At our yearly meeting, we would never question if we should continue. We would question how we could do better for the vets.”

Payeur will now follow a new endeavor as a production assistant for documentary filmmaker Eric Christiansen. Payeur met Christiansen when she, along with her son, were featured in his documentary “Searching for Home, Coming Back From War,” that followed soldiers returning home from active combat. Christiansen was inspired by her work ethic and offered her a position on his next project.

The final Wounded Heroes Ride will be held July 14, and as of July 15, the organization will no longer be operational. The final Wounded Heroes Ride will be the program’s 10th, and organizers expect anywhere between 100 and 1,000 riders to participate.

“Before we decided to stop, I asked my son if he thought I was leaving anyone behind. His response was, ‘Nope. Ya done good,” Payeur said.

“The people we set out to serve have been served, and we can sit back and say, ‘mission accomplished.’”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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