FARMINGTON — Charlie Bennett pulls another American flag from the bunch he clutches in his hand as a driver stops and hands him a donation.
Many Fridays, around noontime, Bennett parks on Main Street in Farmington to give out flags. Some are recycled from veteran graves because of the size, ones that he didn’t want to see thrown out. Some he's purchased to give away.
The monetary donations are used to purchase new flags for Maine’s four veteran cemeteries for Memorial Day, he said as horns honk and drivers wave at him. A total of 14,000 were placed in the four Maine veteran cemeteries last May.
After 30 years as an active member of American Legion Post 28, Bennett said he is retiring from holding both state and district Legion offices. He’s already held most of the offices anyway.
The lure of warmer winters, travel and new adventures beckons but that only has a slight impact on his commitment to veteran programs.
He'll continue to work with a flag-etiquette program for fifth-graders in local schools, sell flags on the street and co-chair the state veteran cemeteries committee. He'll remain an active Legion member, participate in parades and the Color Guard. Recently, he became chaplain for the National 4th Infantry, New England chapter, he said.
The Army's 4th Infantry division was where it all started. Drafted in 1967, he spent a year on the front line of the Cambodian border. He served as a radio telephone operator, one who called for help and medical support, after a one-week crash course that left him certified in Morse code, he said.
It was a long way from Temple, Maine, where he attended a two-room school until he went to Farmington High School.
A year of service left him with nightmares, health issues and an understanding of the feelings of Vietnam veterans. He gives them awards for their service during the November veterans recognition service held the past three years at Farmington Baptist Church.
“You actually see tears in their eyes. They finally get a welcome home,” he said.
While veterans of the World Wars received ticker-tape parades, his own homecoming from Vietnam was far from that. They were told not to wear dress uniforms but that was all they had, he said. He spent most of his money on a bus ticket from New York to Lewiston where he arrived at 8:55 p.m. on a cold, rainy November night. The bus station was closing. He had an hour wait for his father to drive from Temple. Standing outside, cars passed, one honked at him and the female passenger gave him a finger gesture, he said.
“It's a disgrace,” he said of the homecoming experience many veterans received. He voiced concerns for veterans of today returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are met with a handshake at Bangor Airport and then left on their own.
Bennett served two years with the National Guard in Rhode Island after coming home. Ten years later, David Flint, another veteran in Farmington, invited him to join the local American Legion post. He liked the idea of helping and the veteran programs, he said.
For years, he worked driving trucks across country. For several years, he also ran a local lawn care service but the year in Vietnam left him with health issues that have since ceased his working days. Frequently showered in Agent Orange, he now has heart issues that have been traced to the chemical used in Vietnam. That year also left him with post traumatic stress disorder, he said.
Treatment and medication keep it under control. When his mild temperament fizzles and he's ready to snap at family and friends, he knows it's time for medication.
“It's something I'll have the rest of my life. I'll never get rid of it,” he said.
From his own experience, his advice for other veterans is to not give up. Continue the fight to secure benefits from the Veterans Administration, he said.
After spending Thanksgiving here with family, he and wife, Carol, will entertain their five children, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren and families for a Christmas celebration on Sunday. They just about fill the American Legion hall. Then it's off to Florida for a few months before returning to help place flags for Memorial Day.