There’s no denying that the past few years have been rough for Gene Coombs, an 86-year-old Korean War-era Army veteran.
The retired organic farmer and jack-of-all-trades has been spending solitary winters living in just a couple of the rooms of his ramshackle farmhouse on Route 202 in Troy, closing off the rest of the space in a futile effort to save money on heating fuel.
Despite that, he was still buying 230 gallons of oil a month, a cost that was hard to squeeze out of his small Social Security stipend. Because of macular degeneration, his eyesight has deteriorated, and now he is legally blind and can no longer drive.
All that can mean a lonely, hardscrabble life.
But recently — just in the past couple of weeks, in fact — there’s a new spring in the step of the friendly octogenarian. That’s due to the whirlwind of activity happening in his dooryard, on the spot where his barn had stood before it collapsed years ago.
A group of men and women — mostly veterans — had been coming to his property every day.
They’re armed with carpentry tools, lumber, doughnuts, carafes of coffee — and a plan.
They are building Coombs a new small house, which will be safe, efficient and manageable for an elderly man on his own. And they want it to be ready for him to move into before the winter.
They made him a promise, they said, and they intend to keep it.
“It’s been an all-out effort,” said Bob Sousa, the vice president of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine. “This is what happens when you have a bunch of vets working together.”
The new house is meant to be a fresh start for Coombs. But it’s also a fresh start for Sousa and the rest of the members of the nonprofit group, which had seen its fortunes rise during the past few years before crashing ignominiously to the ground.
The United Farmer Veterans of Maine had risen to prominence under the leadership of Jerry Ireland, a controversial Army veteran from Swanville. Ireland, who is fighting 13 charges of cruelty to animals connected to the alleged mistreatment and death in March of his heritage Mangalitsa pigs, was ousted from his position at the helm of the nonprofit in July, according to Sousa. In late August, he also stepped down from his post at the head of the MaineFirst Co-op, a for-profit venture that is a project of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine.
On the same day that Ireland stepped down from that role, Sousa worked to freeze the bank accounts for the MaineFirst Co-op, saying then that the finances were so convoluted they would require an internal audit as a first step.
Three weeks later, there are still questions lingering in his mind: questions about how money was and wasn’t used, and questions about how both entities will be able to move forward.
Previously, Sousa said, being connected to the nonprofit helped open doors to politicians and other movers and shakers who wanted to help the group’s goal of supporting Maine veteran farmers. Ever since the troubles began, those doors have slammed shut. But the needs remain, Sousa said.
“People won’t even talk to us, all because of the actions of one person,” he said. “It will take us awhile to get back some credibility. We’re trying to get back to our original mission statement, which is giving a hand up, not a hand out.”
Previous BDN efforts to contact Ireland through his attorney, Hunter Tzovarras, have been unsuccessful.
Coombs said that he was one of the people who was on the receiving end of promises from the veterans group under its old management. In his case, the promise was to build him a new house that would be ready by last fall.
It didn’t happen, which was a disappointment but not a surprise, he said.
“I’ve been around people before, so I didn’t expect too much,” he said.
The farmer’s life has been marked by ups and downs, joy and tragedy, he said. He’s raised children and had his heart broken by the death of his beloved companion.
He farmed organically before it was hip and sold his vegetables all over, although in recent years he has frequented the food pantry he used to support.
Right now, though, things are looking up. He’s enjoying the camaraderie and help from the veterans. And over the past two weeks, he’s been tickled about the way that his new house is rising, board by board.
“I’m surprised these people have gone to bat for me,” he said, adding that he is now eager to teach organic farming to the veterans. “I can’t be dead. I can’t retire. I’ve got too much work to do.”
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