It is common etiquette to buy someone a beverage of choice or dinner when they render a service for you, or simply do something worth celebrating. Yes, the money comes out of your pocket, but you do not complain. How could you? You’re thankful for a favor that was done by someone willing to volunteer their time to you when they could have been home with their family or friends, enjoying a Sunday afternoon football game, or studying for an upcoming exam. Why don’t our Army and Air Guardsmen within the state of Maine get the same treatment? Are they not rendering a service to all of us; spending countless weekends away from family, two weeks of vacation time on orders in the summer or going overseas every three to four years on deployment?
The great myth of military service today is the assumption that if you serve, college is free. The fact of the matter is that between multiple budget cuts and new requirements, these moneys are becoming increasingly more difficult for soldiers in the Guard to access, and in turn limiting the ability to afford higher education. For deployed soldiers, there are more programs to assist with school payments and medical bills, but for the young soldier that enlists and have no foreign deployments, these benefits are harder to get, and often times limited in comparison. In a time when the federal government has not only lowered the amount of money a soldier gets paid, but has also removed a chunk of college funding, soldiers are looking to their state to fill the void.
Over a year ago, Governor Paul LePage spoke in favor of a bill proposed by Rep. Brad Farrin (R-Norridgewock) in the Maine Legislature that would provide free college tuition to all Maine Army and Air Guardsmen. This bill comes with an estimated $500,000 price tag per year, and although it got approved with bipartisan support, sits delayed in the Appropriations Committee collecting dust. I’d like to ask why this is, why a bill so widely supported and passed is hidden under a stack somewhere, but like so many others sitting in limbo the answer is clear; it comes down to the money.
In reality, an appropriation of $500,000 a year to educate our servicemen and women is pocket change compared to losing them to surrounding states in a time when Maine is losing a vast amount of its young people. In recent years, all of our bordering states have passed legislation granting free tuition at all public universities; Massachusetts and New Hampshire are leading the charge. Not only are our soldiers absconding hastily to our neighboring states for college, but they are finding jobs there, paying taxes there and bringing their skill sets with them.
Per capita, Maine is the most deployed state in the National Guard. With engineers, military police, infantry, aviation and many more job types, our troops are known nationwide as some of the best trained, most disciplined and bravest. As a state, we need to take action to ensure this bill is funded. No longer can we limit our support of troops to Facebook posts and flag waving at the annual parade; we must take real, concrete and direct action.
With proper pressure on the Appropriations Committee, and vocal support of our soldiers, we can ensure that Maine is not only known for having the best troops, but for having the most educated and supported troops. As citizens of this state, pick up the phone and call your representation, pick up a pen and write a letter or schedule a meeting in person. Our message is simple. We want to give back to those who give so much in times of national disaster, war and peacetime. As Mainers, we refuse to sit back while our soldiers and airmen struggle to make ends meet and better their lives. As a state, let’s put this one on our tab.