Bill Nemitz: While other Maine military veterans treat, he’s the guy who greets them

Westbrook volunteer Carlo Giraulo leads a group on Friday at the 62,000-square-foot community-based Department of Veterans Affairs Portland outpatient clinic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Before retiring in November after owning and operating his own insurance agency for 26 years, Carlo Giraulo had a joke about his future.

“Welcome to Walmart!” I’m practicing,” he used to say. “I don’t want to be the boss. I don’t want to become anything!”

Fast forward to Friday morning.

“Now look at me – ‘Welcome to the VA!'” Giraulo boasted with a big smile, beaming in his smart red vest over a crisp white shirt and tie. He had just completed a tour of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (CBOC) community-based ambulance at Portland Harbor and was beaming with the satisfaction of a man on a newfound mission.

The $64 million, 62,000-square-foot clinic, which opens Monday, is a godsend for Maine’s estimated 114,000 veterans. It dwarfs the two clinics it replaces — one in Old Portland, the other in Saco. At the same time, it takes outpatient care for Maine veterans to a new level, from state-of-the-art medical and mental health services to the stunning mural that passers-by can see on West Commercial Street, depicting silhouettes of military servicemen and women beneath the illuminated emblems of the US Forces.

But the building, from the dentist chairs overlooking the Fore River to the ultrasound and X-ray machines to the tables in the main reception area with built-in phone chargers, is only part of the story here.

The other part is the people who will occupy the new place. (Full disclosure, I’m beyond proud to say my daughter, a psychotherapist, is among them.) None will be more visible than the “red coat ambassadors,” all volunteers who will greet veterans upon arrival and help them navigate through the sprawling two-story clinic, spreading the message around every corner that this newest jewel in Maine’s VA system is all about you.

“You are the face of this facility,” said Kylie Higgins, director of volunteer services, of the eight redcoat ambassadors who have been recruited and trained so far to bring a human touch to a system long known for its bureaucracy.

“It’s more than just signposts. It’s more than just “Here’s your appointment” or “Here’s where you sign up,” Higgins said. “It’s really about making sure the veteran is comfortable, making sure their experience – from the time they come in, to the time they come out and the next time they come in – is top notch .”

It couldn’t have come at a better time for Giraulo. After selling his Allstate agency in Westbrook last fall, he was soon 67 and knew that besides riding motorcycles with his wife Jane and falling in love with his 2-year-old grandson Lucca, he needed to find a way to get involved — and give back.

He also knew that when it comes to our collective gratitude, no group deserves more than our military veterans.

Two weeks after graduating from Connecticut high school in 1973, Giraulo enlisted in the Navy. He served for six years, primarily as a cook aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later began his business career here after graduating from the University of Southern Maine.

But he never forgot his fellow veterans, particularly those he would see on the streets, struggling through a post-military life far less blessed than his. Every Veterans Day, he dons a “Welcome Home” hat designed for Vietnam-era veterans who were anything but welcome home and finds a bench in the Maine Mall. It’s his way of quietly reminding all the busy shoppers how lucky they are to live their lives – and the sacrifices they’ve made throughout the decades.

Earlier this winter, Giraulo called Togus VA Medical Center and explained that he was a recently retired veteran and was looking for a volunteer gig in the Portland area. The woman on the other end “almost jumped through the phone,” he recalled.

Westbrook volunteer Carlo Giraulo is interviewed Friday at the Veterans Department’s new outpatient clinic in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Now here he was at the grand opening on Friday, showing visitors around like he owned the place. When it comes to calming people down, the guy is a natural.

On the ubiquity of toilets in the clinic: “As an old man, I love the toilets. I’m telling you, I can’t walk past a toilet without falling in love with it.”

On the TV monitors that hang above the chairs in the full-service dental suite, allowing patients to watch their procedures in real time — if they want to — “I won’t be watching, but isn’t that cool?”

On the small lactation room, complete with a small refrigerator: “It’s for staff and veterans when they need it. … Hey, they’ve thought of everything! They really have thought of everything!”

At the vending machines soon to be installed in the main reception area: “The first thing I asked was, ‘Why are they charging the veterans to buy a candy bar?’ Well, all the money goes to volunteer services. I’m not getting paid, but we use that money to help homeless veterans, buy soap and toiletries, clothes, mittens and gloves. So I think that’s a great idea and if you’re ever here, buy some!”

In the psychiatric ward, where the frosted glass exterior windows not only ensure privacy, but are transformed into works of art with tableaux made of dune grass, birch branches and other local flora: “My father was in Anzio (during World War II). ). He got beat up like that. No one could help him – they didn’t have a facility like this.”

Giraulo signed up as a Red Coat ambassador for three shifts a week—Tuesdays through Thursdays, four hours at a time. But he’ll be there on Monday, he promised his superior, because he doesn’t want to miss the moment when a decade of planning and building comes to an end, the doors open and the first veterans venture inside with wide eyes.

He greets everyone the same way he always greets another vet — not just by saying hello, but by reaching out his hand, looking them straight in the eye, and saying, “Welcome home.”

“It’s going to be my thing,” Giraulo said. “Because this will be her home.”

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