PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Governor Gina M. Raimondo hosted a discussion today at the Rhode Island Veterans Home with Veterans, servicemembers and military families to kick off the search for a new Cabinet-level Director of the Division of Veterans Affairs. During the conversation, Veterans, servicemembers and military families offered their perspective on the necessary qualities the Division's new Director should possess and provided guidance on the most pressing issues and challenges faced by Rhode Island Veterans.
"My father was a World War II Navy Veteran and it is important to me to work with Veterans, advocates and military families to strengthen Rhode Island's commitment to the men and women who served in our name," said Raimondo. "Not only do Veterans, servicemembers and military families deserve our sincere thanks for their sacrifice and service, but they also have an essential role to play in Rhode Island's comeback. We must look to them, first and foremost, as we focus our efforts to choose our new Director and ensure all Veterans and their families have the opportunity to make it in Rhode Island."
Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts and Human Services Director Melba Depeņa Affigne also participated in the discussion.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that our Division of Veterans Affairs and its next Director provide the best service possible to those who serve and have served our nation," said Depeņa. "We owe our Veterans, servicemembers and military families an enormous debt and we have an obligation to ensure that they have every chance for a healthy, secure and successful future."
Rhode Island's population includes approximately 72,000 Veterans, over half of whom are age 65 or older. More than 50,000 of these Veterans served during wartime, including about 7,400 who served (or are currently serving) in post-9/11 engagements. Despite a Veteran-unemployment rate that is lower than the national average, Rhode Island Veterans continue to face unique challenges, particularly those returning from recent service: the unemployment rate for post-9/11 Veterans (10.2 percent) is nearly double the state rate (5.9 percent).
Rhode Island is also home to Naval Station Newport, the Navy's premier training site for officers, officer candidates, senior enlisted personnel, midshipman candidates and undersea warfare and development systems. The Rhode Island National Guard is the second-most heavily deployed National Guard per capita in the nation.
Discussion participants included Veterans from all branches of the military in conflicts ranging from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The group also included representation from servicemembers' families. The conversation touched on issues such as employment, housing and ways to better connect Veterans and military families with resources and services.
"It's important for our leaders in government to hear directly from Veterans, so I applaud the Governor and her staff for taking the time to listen to our concerns at today's roundtable," said Sean Curran, a retired first sergeant from the Rhode Island National Guard who deployed twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
Raimondo included funding in her FY16 budget for the first time to support a new Director of Veterans Affairs position, which was created by statute in 2011.
The Division of Veterans Affairs serves eligible Rhode Island veterans, their surviving spouses and dependents. Benefits include a comprehensive program of social, medical and rehabilitative services for veterans in need of skilled nursing care at the Rhode Island Veterans Home; burial at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery; and resource assistance through the Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Office. Some benefits are also available to veterans' spouses and dependents.
Earlier this year, Raimondo and officials from state, local and federal government broke ground on construction for a new Veterans Home. The $94 million project, which was approved by voters in November 2012, will employ over 400 people in the construction and trades industries.