WINTHROP — Military veterans from central Maine gathered Sunday at a breakfast at the American Legion Post 40, where they reflected on their service and on the public’s increasing gratitude.

On the eve of Veterans Day, four of those veterans told the Kennebec Journal that organizations like the veterans’ organizations, such as the American Legion, provide important support for veterans.

Marine Corps veteran Cliff West, 99, said American citizens have increased their enthusiasm and gratitude toward veterans, calling it “overdone” at times.

Veterans share Sunday breakfast at the American Legion Post in Winthrop. Staff photo by Andy Molloy Buy this Photo

Dozens of people attended the breakfast, which was free for military veterans and available to the public for a donation. Children from local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops bussed the tables, while veterans and their families chatted with friends.

Sitting together, three veterans from Winthrop: Rodney Cumber, 85, Bob Dawson, 77, and West. Dawson served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and Cumber was drafted into the Army and served around the time of the Cold War.

West, who turns 100 in April, served in World War II and was stationed for a time in the Pacific. He said his unit was involved in a “friendly” fire bombing, when American planes made two passes over their camp before they were called off. He said 12 people died during that incident.

Of the nearly 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 389,000 of them were still living as of 2017, according to the National World War II Museum.

According to the 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, there are 114,020 military veterans from Maine, about half of whom are older than 65. By 2045, the VA estimates there will be 56,000 veterans in Maine.

When asked what being a veteran meant to him, West said he simply did the job he was supposed to do when he signed up. West called the recognition of military veterans “overdone” now, citing the frequent use of the phrase, “Thank you for your service.” He said there was very little fanfare when he returned from serving in World War II.

“Back in 1941 and 1942, the thing to do was to consider (going into) the service,” he said. “You make a decision then, and there was no question I was going in the service.

“After World War II, unless you came back in the first wave of people returning, there wasn’t any big reception. My aim was to get home. I didn’t look for any recognition.”

Cumber said he was surprised when his draft notice arrived, but he had spent time before prepping mentally to enter the service.

“It was the surprise of my life,” he said. “You get drafted, you go.”

Dawson said today’s frequent displays of gratitude toward veterans can seem “a little bit hollow” because people who say it, despite their good intentions, may not know exactly what the veteran did in the military. He said organizations such as the American Legion lobby for veterans’ benefits and are a “big benefit” themselves for those who served.

“I think veterans get a lot of support they really, truly deserve through an organization like this,” Dawson said. “Organizations like this are a big benefit to veterans in terms of getting them where they ought to be for the sacrifices many of them made.”

When asked what people could do to show support for veterans, West said he did not expect anything more. He added, however, that the families of military members who died in the line of duty should receive greater support.

“The Legion goes all out, the VA does everything possible,” he said. “I really think the vets receive sufficient support. My benefits are unbelievable. The ones I really feel sorry for are the wives, mothers and fathers who lost (loved ones). There’s no way you can possibly compensate for that.

Veterans Bob Dawson, left, Rodney Cumber and Col. Cliff West laugh Sunday during breakfast at the American Legion Post in Winthrop. Staff photo by Andy Molloy Buy this Photo

“Only about 1 percent of the veterans serve in combat situations and I don’t feel that’s understood. I don’t think there’s enough distinction between the two of them and the benefits (they receive).”

North Monmouth resident Bob Taylor said he served a year of active duty in the Navy and a few years in the reserves. When his contract was up for renewal after the year of active service, he opted to return to civilian life to find a better-paying job. Despite spending less time on active duty than other military members in the community, Taylor said he attends the local events “to give the guys a rally” and “meet some old friends.”

The Taylor family’s military service continued with his son, Craig, 42, who spent 20 years in the Air Force. Bob Taylor’s wife, Ruth, said they were proud of Craig, but were initially worried when he said he wanted to enlist.

“I honestly told him I didn’t want him to go into the military because there was so much conflict going on,” Ruth Taylor said. “It has changed him. He was a good kid but the Air Force made him better.”

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