Forty-eight years ago, Dave Patch was stationed on a destroyer and minesweeper in Vietnam. Patch served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War and remained in the U.S. Navy until 1986. Today, Patch is fighting another battle. For the past six years, Patch has immersed himself in learning Veterans Administration rules and regulations. And if he’s not sure about a VA benefit, Patch knows who to call for an answer. In reecnt years, he has sought assistance either from the state’s Veterans Hospital in Togus, or state and federal officials.
Patch followed veterans issues for years before joining the American Legion six years ago. He joined after a trip to the State House where he saw a strong presence of American Legion members. Patch served 25 years in the U.S. Navy. His service included working in the Pentagon from 1981 to 1986. But once he left military service, there was no inclination to join the American Legion or any other veterans’ organizations.
“I’ve always been a bit of a ‘political junkie’ and I had a lot of free time. So I started following legislation in Augusta, and I saw all those blue hats. So I joined the Boothbay American Legion six years ago to begin networking with other vets regarding VA issues,” he said.
In 2015, Patch became the post’s commander. Patch began his command with a five-year plan. His first objective is making the legion hall more accessible. The creation of a veterans gathering space inside the legion hall was a top priority.
“It’s still a work in progress. We’re setting up a lounge to watch TV or internet access. The bottom line is this is a big empty hall, and it’s tired. So we want to make this a place for veterans to come and hang out without it becoming a bar,” he said.
Another step in making the hall more accessible is serving morning coffee and donuts on Saturdays. Several veterans gather early on Saturday mornings at the transfer station waiting for it to open. So the local legion wants to serve coffee and donuts at the legion hall Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. so veterans won’t have to congregate in the cold prior to the transfer station’s opening.
Under Patch’s command, the legion is also seeking more active members. The local legion has approximately 145 members with about 12 to 14 who are active. Patch understands the challenges of recruiting new members. He didn’t join until he was in his 60s. He is hoping to recruit a “younger” class of veterans who are ready to join. “I’m thinking vets in their 50s would make great members. Pre-retirement is a great age because they don’t typically have as many family obligations.”
As Patch began networking with other veterans, he became involved in establishing the Midcoast Veterans Council in Brunswick. In 2012, several retired veterans created the group for supporting retired vets. Patch is the council’s commander and has a volunteer full-time executive director. At Brunswick Landing, a local bowling center provided office space for the veterans group. The council provides information to veterans and their families about government benefits. It also provides a space for local midcoast veterans to socialize.
The council is open five days a week. It provides a place for the VA to meet with veterans and explain their benefits. This perk avoids veterans from traveling to Augusta to hear about their benefits.
Patch may be the commander, but he only spends a couple hours a week in Brunswick.
“We have a couple full-time volunteers so I don’t spend much time there. There is a lot to do in Boothbay so I call our legion hall the Midcoast Veterans Council’s annex,” Patch said.
In his years of dealing with the Veterans Administration, Patch has learned some valuable lessons: For one, there are two VAs. “There is the benefit side and a healthcare side,” he said. “If a doctor treats you for a knee caused by something like jumping out of a plane during active duty, it may be covered, but if you don’t file a claim, the VA won’t know about it, and it won’t be covered,” Patch said.
Another valuable lesson he learned is the VA is complex. A vet requesting benefits has a friend in Patch.
He travels with veterans on his or her first trip to Togus requesting VA benefits. “It’s just difficult to navigate the system. So somebody going to Togus for the first time, I take them,” he said.
For Patch, some problems are simple, but a few are more complex. He remembers state Rep. Stephanie Hawke seeking his assistance for a constituent. Hawke received a complaint by a local veteran being treated at Togus. The constituent was receiving medical marijuana until a change in administration occurred at Togus. Togus administrators stopped medical marijuana prescriptions because federal law barred it.
“They told (the veteran) there was nothing they could do because it was illegal. So I discussed the situation with Congresswoman Pingree’s office. They researched it, and discovered it didn’t violate VA policy or any law,” he said.
Patch’s term as post commander ends in June 2019. He is hoping to serve two more terms in completing his five-year mission serving local vets as the Charles E. Sherman, Jr. American Legion Post No. 36 commander.