Maine Sens. Brownie Carson, left, and Brad Farrin pose for a photo last month. The two have their political differences, but both have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to help veterans in Maine. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — On the surface it would seem state senators Brownie Carson and Brad Farrin don’t have much in common.

Carson, 71,  is a Midcoast Democrat from Harpswell and a former environmental activist who once headed the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Farrin, 55,  is a Republican from interior Somerset County town of Norridgewock and a corporate manager for a large company that sells and leases heavy-duty Caterpillar construction equipment.

Brownie Carson, second from left, poses with three other platoon commanders in G Co., 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, taken in Vietnam in late 1968 or early 1969. Photo courtesy of Brownie Carson

The two could even be seen as political polar opposites if not for the mostly congenial nature of Maine’s snug, 35-seat upper chamber. The pair frequently vote on opposite sides of key issues.

But Carson and Farrin are among more than two dozen state lawmakers who are also veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Carson was wounded in combat while serving as a young Marine Corps officer in Vietnam.

“I was 20 when I took over a platoon in South Vietnam,” he recalled. “It was about a month before the 1968 elections, so I was too young to vote in 1968 and in charge of the lives of about 40 young Marines.”

After being wounded, Carson spent five months recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He then returned to Bowdoin College, which he had left to join the Marines, to finish his school.

Carson later protested U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. As a member of  Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he even confronted and challenged then-U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, over her support of the conflict.

“It was a really remarkable experience. I felt really strongly, I was very angry, I felt I had been lied to and the vast majority of us who had served had been,” Carson said. “I just came to believe it was a very serious mistake.”

Carson still has great respect for all those who served  and still describes with admiration the heroism of the Army helicopter pilot who rescued him from a “hot landing zone” and then went to get two more wounded Marines before taking them all to an Army field hospital.

Farrin, who joined the U.S. Air Force in 1984, served on active duty for three and a half years before returning to Maine. He became a full-time member of the Maine Air National Guard and served  another 26 years, including tours in combat zones in Iraq and the Horn of Africa.

When he retired in 2013 as a command chief master sergeant, Farrin held the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the Maine Air National Guard.

Farrin became interested in politics after his local state representative backed a bill that would have prohibited military recruiters from wearing their uniforms in public schools. The notion angered him because he knew the military could be an opportunity for some who might not have one otherwise. Starting in 2014, he served two terms in the Maine House and was elected to the Senate in 2018.

“I’m just a dumb kid from Norridgewock and the military, for me – I got to travel the world,” Farrin said. “Good and bad – Iraq, that was different, that’s a whole different story.”

Brad Farrin with the crew chief of the C-130 from the 129th Rescue Wing while deployed in the Horn of Africa in 2009. Photo courtesy of Sen. Brad Farrin

He has fonder memories of going to the Horn of Africa, where he worked with locals and local military. “I got to teach senior military classes in Ethiopia, and English classes in Djibouti for the kids – it was a whole different deployment to Djibouti. It was really kind of cool.”

Without the Air Force, Farrin said, he wouldn’t have had those opportunities. “I got an education, I learned a skill,” he said.

The senators said their military experiences, while vastly different, have helped mold their service in public office.

Both have sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills to help their fellow veterans – one in five Mainers fits that category. The lawmakers and their peers have helped pass legislation to add outreach workers in the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services, build housing for homeless vets, exempt military pensions from the state’s income tax, allow active duty military members free access to state parks and provide disabled veterans the opportunity to hunt for free.

Additionally, Farrin and Carson supported legislation that helps veterans service organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Farrin stays actively involved with those groups as well.

Carson also volunteers as an ambulance driver one night a week for his town’s rescue service.

Both men have also signed on to bills that help make sure veterans are recognized for their service, as well as legislation targeting people who would  pretend to be veterans to gain benefits, discounts or recognition.

But both also said they sometimes struggle with bills that are meant to be nice gestures towards veterans, when in reality they don’t solve core problems many veterans face: housing, higher education and even a smooth transition from active duty – especially combat duty – back to civilian life.

“There are a lot of things we could focus on,” Farrin said. “Because  hunting licenses and free passes to the state parks aren’t going to make the biggest difference in the world.”

Farrin and Carson agree that the Maine Legislature can have the greatest impact on how members of the state’s National Guard are treated during peacetime missions, when they are deployed with the federal government and upon their return home.

“As legislators we have the most responsibility in taking care of our guardsmen, because they are the state militia,” Farrin said.

“I think Brad’s right,” Carson agreed, noting they may not always agree on the role the Guard should play when it comes to global conflict.

“The role of the state militia is not to be going into combat in foreign lands,” Carson said. He said he respects all who have been called up to do that and who have been deployed overseas as members of Guard units, but believes those jobs are better left to active-duty military.

Ultimately, though, Carson and Farrin said the common bond that most veterans share takes them beyond political disagreement.

“It can be frustrating as heck” serving in the Legislature, Farrin added. But he said he senses lawmakers do make important differences in the lives of veterans.

“I’d spend more money than you,” Carson said to Farrin, laughing. “We all know that.”

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