Working: Building a crew of veterans


BOWDOIN — Running himself over with a crane couldn’t keep Stephen Martin down.

“I don’t care what you do, just cut them off, I’m going back to work tomorrow,” Martin remembers telling the doctor looking over his broken legs and feet after an on-the-job mishap almost 20 years ago, to which the doctor replied, “You feel like it, go ahead.”

Two days later, he was back at the job site.

That’s how much he loves construction.


Martin, 68, grew up on a farm in Caribou, raised with a strong work ethic. You did your work and you were nice to people, he said. “Be kind on the way up because you’re going to meet them on the way down” was the prevailing philosophy.

He started SME Corp. in 1972, a construction company specializing in metal buildings, after moving down to southern Maine for work. He’s had about 400 projects in all that time around New England.

Martin, who served in the National Guard in the 1970s, started making it a point to hire veterans onto his crew five years ago. His brother, a psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration in New Hampshire, had encouraged him.

His four-person crew now is made up entirely of veterans. He gets referrals from the Lewiston CareerCenter. Many have disabilities or struggles that they’ll share after the fact, but he doesn’t ask.

“The question is: ‘This is the job, can you do it?'” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter what they did in the service, they had a skill. They had some discipline.”

He was one of two employers highlighted by the Maine Department of Labor last week in an update on the state’s Hire-A-Vet campaign.

Martin recently hired a homeless veteran who had been living in a tent with his wife and two young children. The job pays $15 an hour. They’re about to get an apartment now.

“He’s coming along, he’s picking it up fast,” Martin said. “He’s very family-oriented. He’s got two girls that he thinks the world of.”

The crew is working on a private sports and fitness complex in Richmond. He’d like to get the crew back up to eight to nine people and get a steady work flow in place to give everyone stability.

Once that’s more settled, he has a dream: Building an employee-owned manufacturing facility on 10 acres of land he’s bought in Lisbon. It would make special energy-efficient buildings geared to big box stores and industrial users and employ up to 100 people. He has a verbal option on a nearby farm and envisions turning it into transitional housing for homeless veterans.

“We could manufacture these and ship it all over the Northeast and the fellows from SME could erect the buildings or be the general contractors,” Martin said.

It’s a long-range goal. But, he jokes, he has time: “I do plan to live to 125.”

Martin has plans now to semi-retire at 85, which he defines as taking a week off a month in the winter. It’ll give him more time at home with his wife, Nancy, his sweetheart since first grade.

“We worked our way through everything,” he said. “The love of my life. She was the first girl I ever kissed.”

In the meantime, there’s more work to do. On job sites he welds, lugs steel, drives forklifts and drives cranes.

“The guys (all younger than him) will say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to do that.’ Yeah, I do,” Martin said. “It sounds corny, but we’re building monuments; this stuff is going to be here long-term.”

He might as well pour himself into every project.

The crane accident nearly 20 years ago happened in Winthrop at a telephone company building. The crane was in a parking lot with a slight slope when he noticed the parking brake starting to fail. He tried running around the crane to hop in and stop it.

“I totaled five cars and a garage plus I ran over myself — I broke the headlight on the crane,” Martin said.

He heard someone yell to call an ambulance and heard someone else holler back, “Don’t need an ambulance, he’s dead!”

Only he wasn’t. And two days later, he was back at work. 

Hiring preferences for veterans:

There are a growing number of businesses and agencies that are targeting veterans for hire, including federal, state and municipal governments.

In September,  Gov. Paul LePage launched the Maine “Hire-A-Vet” campaign to commit at least 100 employers to recruit and hire 100 veterans over a 100-day span. The city of Auburn was the first to make that hiring commitment.

For information about how hiring preference for veterans works in Maine, go to Maine Bureau of Human Resources at

In Lewiston, The International Training Center for Sheet Metal Workers offers a free five-year training program and guaranteed job placement for veterans. Hiring preference is given to military veterans who have an honorable discharge, a high school degree, can work well with their hands and pass a qualifying exam.

The training center is located at 19 Enterprise St. For more information, call 207-576-6056, or go to

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, businesses are often eligible for tax incentives when hiring veterans. For more information about the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Vow to Hire Heroes provisions, go to