It Takes a Veteran to Know a Veteran: Maine Vet to Vet Program Changing Lives

May 19, 2015

SCARBOROUGH, Maine - A Maine-based non-profit is hoping to expand a program that aims to provide older, ailing, and often lonely veterans with support and companionship from someone with a shared military background.

The "Vet to Vet" program was started about a year ago.  And, in many cases, the program is just as helpful to the volunteer.

At least twice a month Jim Yankura pays a visit to his friend, Raymond Goulet, of Biddeford. "Hey you old Marine - how you doing?" Yankura greets Goulet.

Marine Corps veteran Goulet has a nickname for Yankura - who served in the Army.

"What do you usually call me?" Yankura asks.

"Doggie," Goulet responds.

"That's right.  He goes, 'Who's that, my old doggie friend?' " Yankura says.

"That's right, and I still call him a doggie."

The nickname "doggie" is meant affectionately, but is grounded in a military rivalry dating back more than 70 years. It was how Goulet and his fellow Marines referred to members of the Army. Goulet, who's 89, served in the South Pacific. Still only a teenager, he saw action at Guam and Iwo Jima.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," he says. "Did you hear that? It's still the same."

Goulet says he followed his older brother into the Marines, and recalls a chance meeting with him as his platoon had just shipped into Guam and was preparing to go into combat for the first time. "So we're all lined up in our tents, so I get this guy going, 'Is there a Goulet in here?' So the guys down say, "Hey Frenchie, you got someone looking for you.' "

That someone was Goulet's brother, returning from action and preparing to head back to the U.S. on leave. Goulet says it was emotional encounter. "That's quite a feeling, you know - 9,000 miles from home and we see each other. But he was all shook up, he was worried about me."

"I was U.S. Army, believe it or not," says Jim Yankura. Yankura is 46, and also a combat veteran. He visits Goulet a couple of times a month as part of the Vet to Vet volunteer program.

Yankura says when he joined up in 1989, he never thought he'd have to go to war. He was planning on two years active duty to get money for college.

"My recruiter said, 'Ah, what's the chances of there ever being a war?' So I said, 'Yeah, you're right.' So I joined, and nine months later, as I was stationed in Germany, I went to Operation Desert Storm. So kind of a little bit of irony there."
 

Veteran Raymond Goulet's military dog tags hang on an Iwo Jima momento.
Credit Tom Porter / MPBN

Yankura admits that when he was paired up with Ray Goulet, he wondered how a veteran of Iwo Jima would look at his Desert Storm experience. But the two men hit it off, and sometimes chat for up to four hours at a time - and not just about the shared experience of combat. "We'll talk about the simple things of just gardening or sports or family," Yankura says.

"This program has brought out a lot of stuff that I didn't know," says Ray Goulet's wife of 62 years, Jackie. "Sometimes when Jim and Ray are talking, I'll be working in the kitchen or I'll be sitting there, and I've learned an awful lot about Iwo Jima, and all that went on there, and I would not have known if it wasn't for Jim."

"He wouldn't have talked to you about it," I say.

"No," she replies.

"There's a number of projects out there that show peer-to-peer matchings work," says Susan Gold, coordinator of the Vet to Vet project. Gold is with the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, which started the program 12 months ago. Since that time, some 3- trained volunteers have served 36 veterans, and the agency has applied for a grant to expand the program to other parts of the state.

"The program continues to inspire me," Gold says. "I just feel like some of these relationships are going to be for life. And I think that, in some ways, this experience has been life-changing - for both the voluteer and the person they're visiting."

Back at Ray Goulet's house in Biddeford, Desert Storm vet Jim Yankura is getting ready to say goodbye until next time. "It's an honor to sit next to this guy," he says of Goulet. "This guy right here is my hero."