When Ernie Paradis spoke after Monday’s parade in Waterville, he discussed a very serious situation: suicide among soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

“We’ve lost more people over there because of that and that’s a real big issue,” Paradis said.

Paradis, 70, is commander of Bourque-Lanigan American Legion Post No. 5, which for many years has hosted the annual Veterans Day parade Nov. 11. He has been a Legion member 48 years.

A U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam era, Paradis was in the Monday parade, which started at the Legion post on College Avenue, went downtown, and ended in the legion parking lot where Paradis spoke at the U.S. Army tank.

Paradis says that when young people sign up for the service, they leave their homes and are thrown into combat to face horrific situations.

“A lot of them just can’t take it,” he said.

Paradis served on active duty as a second class machinist’s mate aboard a radar picket ship from 1962 to 1964. The crew used radar to detect enemy ships or other watercraft and report them to the U.S. Air Force. Paradis worked in the engine room, running and monitoring the engines.

His experience was a far cry from that of those now serving in Afghanistan, he said.

“It’s a different world; we’re fighting different battles and they have different issues,” he said.

Paradis has great concern for all these young people.

“When these boys come home, we have to be very ready to help them get the help they need. Most of the people over there are 18 to 22. They get into a war situation and …”

He pauses in mid-thought.

“I thank God every day that I didn’t have to go out there and fight in combat with the enemy,” he said.

Paradis knows he’s fortunate, having been able to marry his sweetheart, Donna, while he was on active duty in 1963, come home to Waterville, settle into a home, have a son and work 34 years as parts manager for Thompson Volkswagen Audi Mazda. His son is now 50 and a civil engineer working in Boston; Paradis, now retired, and his wife, moved to Winslow two-and-a-half years ago. Life has been sweet.

But other vets do not lead such charmed lives.

“When you’re on active duty, they make you all these promises,” Paradis said. “You take the oath. Then you get these poor guys coming back without legs and arms and the government doesn’t want to step up to the plate.”

When that happens, the Legion steps in.

“We’re there to help the veterans collect the benefits they have coming to them and whatever we can do to move veterans forward,” he said.

In general, veterans get what they need, he said, but advocacy groups must be vigilant.

Paradis knows things change. He has seen Legion membership dwindle as older veterans pass away and younger ones increasingly seem uninterested in joining, he said.

“They don’t realize what we’re all about and it’s hard to get that message out,” he said.

Post 5, whose members have included former Gov. Edmund Muskie and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, still has the largest membership of any Legion in the state, with 751 last year, Paradis said.

What has not dwindled is the legion’s commitment to veterans and Paradis hopes more young people will join.

“We welcome anybody who would like to come if they have been in the service. We’ll gladly taken them under our fold and help them with any needs they have.”

He vows to keep spreading the word.

“We do what we can; we just have to keep plugging. We can’t let it go. We have to let people know what veterans do and what they’ve done and what this country owes them.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]