He could be dead right now. When police first made contact with him Tuesday in the town of Madawaska, on Maine’s northern border, the 30-year-old Army veteran told them in no uncertain terms what he wanted.

“He made it very clear to us that he wanted to commit suicide by cop,” Madawaska Police Chief Ross Dubois said in an interview Thursday.

You won’t see his name here, because Chief Dubois, much to his credit, decided in the end that the young man is no criminal.

Still, Tuesday’s eight-hour standoff should not go unnoticed – both in the exemplary police response and the gaping void faced by Maine veterans in need of serious mental health treatment.

Let’s start with the police.

The call came in from the veteran’s girlfriend around 3:20 p.m. Tuesday. The man, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder since he returned from a deployment to Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was “out of control,” the girlfriend told police.

What’s worse, as the first officers arrived at the address on Main Street, they learned he may have had access to a handgun.

As he responded to the call, the police chief already knew the man had barricaded himself inside an apartment, demanding that police end his life. Small towns being what they are, Dubois could still recall the young veteran as a preschooler growing up alongside Dubois’ son, Chris.

“They graduated from high school together,” Dubois said.

But now police from several agencies had shut down Main Street. They had to assume the man was armed. And no one wanted to make a bad situation worse.

“This definitely could have gone south pretty quick,” Dubois said.

After a few hours, worried how the police presence must look from inside the apartment, Dubois grew worried that all the commotion might push the distraught veteran over the edge.

“I didn’t want him to see all that, so we went down to five officers – just enough to secure the building,” he said.

Then, as the hours passed, Dubois got a call from New Gloucester, more than 300 miles away. It was Chris – himself a captain in the Army Reserve – who somehow had heard what was happening. He told his father that another soldier, a sergeant first class who lived in the Bangor area, had been helping the barricaded veteran with his PTSD and might be able to help.

“So we contacted him to see if he could give us any advice on how we could talk (the veteran) down,” Dubois said.

“I’m on my way,” replied the sergeant first class, who jumped in his car and drove three and a half hours to Madawaska. Upon arriving, he helped police determine that the veteran did not have a gun, after all. When police finally entered the apartment, he went in with them.

The veteran surrendered after a minor struggle and was taken by ambulance first to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and later to the Togus VA Medical Center. Dubois assigned an officer to ride along on both trips – not because the man was in custody but simply to ensure that things stayed calm.

“We are considering this a medical issue and will not be pursuing any criminal charges at this time,” Dubois later told the local newspaper, the Fiddlehead Focus.

But he did not stop there. The police chief also told the local news reporter, “When we send our youth off to war, we need to do a better job at making sure our veterans receive the services they need when they return.”

Which brings us to that systemic void.

On Aug. 21, all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie. Their message: Maine needs a permanent residential rehabilitation unit within the VA Maine Healthcare System that focuses specifically on substance abuse and serious mental illness.

The VA has no long-term treatment beds in Maine for veterans grappling with such difficulties. Not one.

In their letter, the delegation decried the fact that veterans seeking extended substance abuse and mental health treatment must travel to VA facilities in Vermont, Massachusetts or Connecticut. The closest, in White River Junction, Vermont, is more than a seven-hour drive from Madawaska.

“This unacceptable situation for Maine veterans has continued for too long,” the delegation wrote. It poses “an exceptionally difficult choice for Maine veterans who seek mental health and substance abuse treatment: Either receive care far away from their family or support networks or forgo evaluation and treatment out of concern for having to leave their communities.”

Up on the northern tip of Maine, Chief Dubois knows of what they speak. He’s talked with veterans about the hardships they face and he’s seen how his community of 4,000 – caught up like everywhere else in the “political climate” – has lost some of that small-town, neighbor-helping-neighbor atmosphere in recent years.

“These soldiers are leaving the military, where they have the camaraderie, they have all the support, they have people watching their back and they’re watching others,” Dubois said. “And they’re coming home to these dysfunctional communities and they’re just on their own.”

September, as it happens, is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. All over Maine, the state Bureau of Veterans Services, Maine Vet Centers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine and VA Maine Healthcare System are holding a “Call to Action” – a series of training sessions and other events to better educate veterans and their families on how to spot suicide’s warning signs and, equally important, where to turn for help.

In other words, much is already being done to help troubled veterans here in Maine. But at the same time, as the congressional delegation’s plea for treatment beds amply illustrates, much more still needs to happen.

We can only hope that the veteran from Madawaska, wherever he is right now, gets the helps he needs as he straddles the divide between his military past and his civilian future. According to Dubois, the young soldier’s unit “did see a lot of action while he was (in Iraq).”

At the same time, we all share a duty to pay attention to the veterans in our midst – especially those who might be struggling. Not just during this month, but every day, week and month of the year.

They must never, ever, be forgotten.

And they need to know, as the good police chief from Madawaska so aptly demonstrated this week, that a cry for help is not a crime.

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