LEWISTON — Roy Driver has been counseling veterans since 1980, but his work with vets really goes back 10 years earlier, when Driver was in his 20s. Right after he became one.
In college in 1970, after four years in the Coast Guard, Driver became part of a group that successfully lobbied the Connecticut Legislature for tuition waivers for veterans at state schools.
"We started organizing ourselves around things that would be beneficial for us other than drinking beer," he said.
Fast forward 40 years: After making a difference in a lot of vets' lives, Driver's retiring. His wife and daughter, by chance, bought him a home brewing kit as an early retirement gift. "They're expecting me to become a nano-brewer," joked Driver, 66.
He'll leave the Lewiston Vet Center on Jan. 2, after serving eight years as team leader here, and more years in Connecticut as team leader and Portland as a counselor.
Ask him if there's anyone who stands out over all these decades and he smiles.
Driver grew up in Pennsylvania. After high school, he attended college for a year on a business and accounting track.
"I hated it," he said. "Back in 1966, there weren't many options if you didn't want to be in school. The draft was breathing down people's necks."
He talked to military recruiters. A friend brought him to the Coast Guard.
"They had a person that flunked their physical, so they asked me if I wanted to join," Driver said. "I wasn't doing anything the next four years, so I said yes."
He attended sonar school and, later, oceanography school. After his training, he served aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Casco and Boutwell in the North Atlantic. On both vessels, his job was testing ocean depths to determine good places for enemy subs to hide.
In college, he studied psychology. After working as an on-campus veterans coordinator, Driver was hired to open Hartford's first vet center in late 1980. It formally opened days before the Iranian hostages were freed and the positive public fanfare that ensued. Driver remembers facing tough questions.
Why hadn't they gotten that sort of welcome home?
"There were a lot of angry vets, and rightly so," he said.
He stayed at the Hartford center until 1991, when he moved to the Portland office to be a counselor. He came to Lewiston to be a team leader in May 2004.
"There's something special about veterans that deserves the best treatment that can be given. Working with people that are prepared to make a sacrifice, possibly the ultimate sacrifice, it's motivating," Driver said.
He credits a supportive family and staff in helping with work that can be stressful.
"We hear things, and as is much is said, 'I've never told anyone this, ever,'" Driver said.
It means he and clients get close. That's made saying goodbye to the job difficult.
Some people do stand out.
"Sometimes in combat, people may, because of the brotherhood that is created, they make promises to each other, 'If I don't make it, would you . . .'" Driver said. "There was a veteran who I had known this about: His helicopter was shot down, his mentor was killed."
It happened during the Vietnam War. Decades later, the man still felt awful. He had never reached out to his mentor's family.
"I like to take something that needs to be done and attend to it, see it through," Driver said.
He and the office manager sent out 90 letters to anyone with the same last name in a particular geographical area. The letter reached the dead man's niece, who gave it to her mom, the dead man's sister. She, in turn, gave it to her mom, the dead man's mother.
The surviving soldier went to visit her, Driver said. "He was pretty much taken into the family, an adult adopted son. He called her Ma."
That felt good.
"It was great, but there's other things like that," Driver said.
He connected another soldier in a similar situation, the same era, with the soldier's late buddy's sister, who turned out to be a Catholic nun. Guilt had weighed him down for years.
"She forgave him," Driver said.
Know anyone everyone knows? Contact staff writer Kathryn Skelton at 689-2844 or email@example.com