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Mar 13, 2024

Don’t make veterans wait to join the digital world

Jason Baker, a U.S. Army veteran, lives in Augusta.

There’s no denying the rapid progress Maine has made in bringing fast, reliable internet to communities around the state.

With millions of dollars from the state and federal government, more and more families and businesses finally have the opportunity to connect.

But the investment in infrastructure only gets us so far.

If we want everyone in Maine to be able to take full advantage of this enhanced connectivity, we also need to invest in people.

The best internet in the world isn’t very good if people can’t afford it or don’t have the devices to sign on. A lack of information and confidence to put the wired world to work for them also contributes to the problem.

I spent two years as a military policeman in the U.S. Army before an injury ended my career. I struggled for a while until I was able to turn things around and graduate from the University of Maine at Augusta with a bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services.

Now, I work to support veterans who need help. And one place where I see the greatest need is to help veterans — particularly those who are older and live in rural areas — use the internet to access the services that they have earned.

We’ve heard it before, but COVID-19 really did change everything. For those with the know-how and the equipment, some of those changes have even been for the better.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has moved lots of information and forms online. Medical appointments are now available online, so veterans can avoid long drives and get care right at home.

You can even make appointments to go to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles to renew your driver’s license or register your truck.

Those are good, important reforms, but they don’t matter a bit if you’re a veteran from the St. John Valley, where I grew up, who doesn’t have a computer, tablet or smartphone. Having these devices is also of no use if no one has ever taken the time to show you how to navigate the web and find the forms and services you need.

If you haven’t done it before, even logging into a Zoom appointment can be so frustrating that people give up. They miss appointments, they lose services, and new problems pile up on the old.

As part of its work to close Maine’s digital divide, the Maine Connectivity Authority was the first state in the country to receive approval from the federal government that seeks to address these very problems. The plan focuses on helping veterans — and other targeted populations — take full advantage of internet access.

It’s important work that’s often overshadowed by the easier to understand stringing of wires, which, of course, is also important.

Under the plan, local partners will help to provide affordable smartphones and other internet-capable devices to people who need them and also provide the training and support necessary for them to confidently use the internet.

We all know that scammers and crooks like to target older folks and veterans, so these populations are smart to be cautious. But with the right training and tools, veterans — and everyone, for that matter — can use the internet safely and effectively. I’ve seen it first hand with the veterans I’ve helped.

Veterans have given of themselves to protect our country and serve our nation. They shouldn’t be left behind when it comes to the amazing possibilities that go along with access to quality, fast, affordable internet.

I’m glad that the state has a plan, and I’m anxious for it to be put into motion. Veterans shouldn’t have to wait any longer to join the digital world if they want to.

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