Group still hopes to raise the final $6,000 needed by Memorial Day weekend to fund a Gold Star monument at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston.

LEWISTON — With much fanfare last fall, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston for a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.

The Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation, an organization set up to support the state’s Gold Star families, was leading the fundraising effort.

Barely four months later, that effort was in danger of collapsing. Accusations and charges leveled at the Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation by a former board member and some veterans from outside the group hurt fundraising, said founder Dean Barron, who recently stepped down as the group’s president.

But the selection of Adrienne Bennett — Gov. Paul LePage’s former press secretary — as the foundation’s new president is seen as a positive development as the Maine Fallen Heroes group enters a new chapter.

Bennett, who could not be reached for comment, will be joined by a new board of directors to plot a new direction to aid Gold Star families and complete the fundraising goal for the new Lewiston monument.

According to Barron, funds for the local Gold Star monument are still $6,000 shy of the $20,000 goal. 

“A couple of people gave us a couple of hiccups,” said Barron, who added that he expects the change in leadership will “probably help” the cause.

The memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on Memorial Day weekend.

The Gold Star program, started in World War I, honors immediate family members of American military personnel who have died in service to the nation.

Barron claims his Gold Star membership from the death of his son, Marine Cpl. Joshua Barron of Standish, who died in Arizona in 2011 from a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, but the cause was “undetermined.” The family disputes the suicide ruling.

The Maine Legislature approved renaming a bridge in Gorham near the Standish town line in his honor. The dedication ceremony was held in November.

In 2015, Barron founded the Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation. The group was set up to support Gold Star families. It funds scholarships, heating assistance and other means of support, which could include rent, car payments, mortgages and food.

Last year, the organization teamed up with the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation to bring a Gold Star memorial to Lewiston.

Williams, 95, the fourth-oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, who earned his during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, attended the groundbreaking ceremony last fall and recited a prayer during the ceremony. Williams, of West Virginia, has made it his life’s mission to honor Gold Star families.

Williams’ foundation, to date, has dedicated 47 Gold Star monuments across the country and has another 53 in progress, including the one in Lewiston.

With the upcoming dedication of the new stone, what should be a time to honor the sacrifices made by Gold Star families has instead devolved sharply into personal attacks and accusations on social media leveled by some veterans outside the group, directed at Barron. They include charges of financial irregularities, questions about whether he was honorably or dishonorably discharged, and even his eligibility as a Gold Star father.

Barron finally had enough and stepped down within the past couple of weeks “as a result of all the false accusations and all the crap that’s come my way.”

“A Gold Star father should never have been in this position, running an organization for other Gold Star families,” Barron said.

Past board members have differing views on the group. One past member, who asked to remain anonymous, said the organization lacked transparency and Barron never produced financial reports.

“At first we’d always ask for the financials and things of that matter so that we could see kind of where we were donation-wise, and what we needed to raise,” the past member said. “We always got a runaround about where it was or why it wasn’t there — the printer was out of ink, the printer was broken, the computer is broken. It was always something.”

That former board member admitted finally seeing a spreadsheet at one meeting, which the member said was done “half-assed.”

Asked about providing financial records, Barron said, “They never asked. Nobody ever asked to see the financials except for one person. That one person I had to appoint to the board so I could show them the report.”

Another former board member, Carmel Collins of Bridgton, never saw a problem at board meetings.

“As far as I was concerned, I felt comfortable with the numbers,” Collins said.

According to GuideStar, an organization that reports on nonprofit companies, Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation received $45,000 in contributions in 2015 and $32,000 in 2016. Expenses in fiscal 2016 included $15,000 for program services and $5,000 for fundraising.

Collins left the group after two years and was never troubled by anything she saw during her tenure.

“I’ve known Dean and his wife for five to seven years,” she said. “It was just commitment. I couldn’t be at every meeting. I didn’t see anything unprofessional.”

Paul Bernard of Turner, one of the founders of Lewiston’s Veterans Memorial Park and a former board member of the L&A Veterans’ Council, is unhappy with Barron’s involvement in bringing a monument there. Bernard was always meticulous in checking discharge papers before allowing a name on one of the park’s memorial stones.

Bernard initiated the policy that a veteran who is dishonorably discharged is not eligible to have his or her name placed on one of the memorial stones. Allowing Barron to bring the Gold Star memorial to the park would be a “black eye” for the city and local veterans, said Bernard, who says Barron was dishonorably discharged.

While Barron has denied that discharge status to his detractors, Scott Brown, superintendent of the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery System, said in a message sent to Dennis Swindler, one of the veterans who has challenged Barron’s status, that Barron had a dishonorable discharge.

“I have spoken with Association Chairman Mr. (Kelley) Wynne, who related that they are fully aware of Mr. Barron’s dishonorable discharge and he will continue to be on the board as a member of the public. … They view his dishonorable discharge from nearly 40 years ago as mistakes of a young man who served whatever sentence was placed upon him, and he is serving veterans in a capacity that he is able to. “

Barron volunteers at the cemetery.

Asked about his discharge status, Barron asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”

When told why some veterans did not want him being involved with the Lewiston park, Barron fired back. “Tough. They’ll get over it. I’m a proud veteran. A Gold Star father.”

The new Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation is still working to get everything in order during the transition to Bennett’s leadership.

A spaghetti dinner is still planned for Feb. 16 at American Legion Post 31 in Auburn to help raise the final $6,000. Donations are also still being sought, but Maine Fallen Heroes will not see any of that money.

“All of the funds will be going through the Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation,” Barron said.

Asked whether there was anything that he thought he could have done differently, Barron replied, “Not having a child, probably. That’s about the only thing I could have done differently. I hate to say that. He was my son. I honor him.”

This monument will be placed in Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston to honor Gold Star families. (Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation photo)

Adrienne Bennett is the new president of the Maine Fallen Heroes Foundation.

Dean Barron with the Freeport Flag Ladies.

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