The American Legion Family Department of Maine Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Memorial wasn’t officially dedicated until Sept. 28. But the memorial had already made a powerful impact prior to that.
Department Adjutant Paul L'Heureux said he was leaving department headquarters in Winslow after work a few weeks ago when he heard what he thought was crying. “It didn’t make any sense to me, but I took a moment … and looked over (at the memorial) and sure enough … there was a veteran near the wall, and he was letting it all out,” L'Heureux said. “He had an uncle, a grandfather – I can’t remember exactly – (on the memorial) I just stood there, and when he spotted me he came over and gave me a big man hug. We chatted for about 20 minutes, and he said ‘now I have a place to go visit.’ That just sealed it for me.”
The memorial – built from granite and brick in the shape of a wall – contains the name, branch of service and war conflict from all 480 POWs and MIAs from Maine. When a servicemember is repatriated to the United States, as was World War II U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Alberic Blanchette during construction of the memorial, a gold star is placed next to the name.
Department Commander Matthew Jabaut said the memorial allows the Maine Legion Family to educate the public on the POW-MIA issue. “I think that they’re shocked when they hear the numbers of 81,000 (POWs-MIAs) nationally, 480 in Maine. It becomes a little more real for them,” he said. “So we’re bringing some awareness to that. One of our big pillars in national security is to keep that going and to help not forget those (missing). And I think this was just another piece and our way in Maine that we can help with that.”
Ground for the project was broken in September of 2017 as a joint project between Maine’s American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary, Sons of The American Legion and American Legion Riders. In June of that year during department conventions, then-Department Commander Randall Kluj, Auxiliary President Ann Durost, SAL Commander. Ron Marr and American Legion Riders State Director Kaye Bouchard joined together in the POW/MIA memorial project.
“It’s been a project of love from everybody involved,” Kluj said. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and obviously the POW-MIA flag was born through that. So it’s just something where you never want to forget those who have given their life for you – and especially these who have never been recovered. Obviously the families are broken by it. Anything we can do to keep their stories alive probably we should be doing. That was, I think, the gist behind this.”
Bricks were sold to help fund the project. L'Heureux said some contractors donated their time, while some materials also were donated. “We chose to do it right the first time,” he said. “We used quality granite, bricks, everything, so that the future generations of the Legion wouldn’t have to make repairs 20 years from now.
The Maine American Legion Auxiliary was responsible for gathering the names for the memorial, going through the Department of Defense’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to obtain them. Auxiliary Secretary Michelle McRae also met regularly with L'Heureux and other state Legion Family leaders leading up to the memorial’s dedication. That all four branches of the Legion Family are located at department headquarters made the process much easier.
“Just last week alone, all the last-minute things that we had to do for the dedication, if we’d have been at different locations it would have been almost impossible to do everything that we’d done,” McRae said.
Jabaut said it was important that the memorial was Legion Family-driven. “This being a joint project with the (department) president and the commander really helps drive that,” he said. “And then the Sons commander jumps in, and the Riders jump in to donate pieces and parts of it. Everybody kind of has their little piece that they can look at and say ‘we were really involved in X part of that, and we were a driving force behind that piece of it.’ We broke ground together as a family, and now, two years later, really dedicated it as a family.”
The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by American Legion National Commander Bill Oxford, state Legion Family leadership and Legion Family members from all over the state, and members of the state legislature. More than 200 people attended the ceremony.
Former Department Service Officer Amedeo Lauria became involved with the project from the beginning, primarily from a public relations standpoint. He shared info about the project via social media and saw the results of that work with the turnout at the dedication.
“It was unbelievable,” Lauria said. “It’s nice for people to know The American Legion is here and we have not forgotten those who’ve given the ultimate sacrifice and those who haven’t returned.
Kluj said the completed memorial is “breathtaking. It’s obviously gone far above what we hoped to do. We were able to dig into this and do it right. “
L'Heureux has been told the memorial already is getting steady traffic from visitors on weekends, as well as the visits he witnesses during the week. “(The Maine Legion Family) already had a footprint, but we needed to be branded,” he said. “That was the glue that bonded the family together even after being here."
To watch a video of the dedication ceremony, click here.