Our no-fail commitment to Mass. veterans
As state's first secretary of veterans' services, I'm determined to do right for those who have served
WOUNDED SOLDIERS RETURNING from combat share much in common. Amidst their trauma is a selfless call for their embattled brothers and sisters. How are they doing? Did they make it? Although their words may differ, the sentiment isn’t lost.
As a physician and army combat veteran, my response to them is rooted in my role: let’s just focus on you now. But the solidarity between battle-hardened veterans is as palpable as is inspiring and even lasts after death.
Memorial Day offers each of us an opportunity to honor that commitment borne in tragedy. Like the soldier who loses a comrade in war and lives a life in remembrance of that event, we have an obligation to renew that promise not just with gratitude, but with action.
I wake up every day bearing this responsibility as the first secretary of the Executive Office of Veterans’ Services. The weight has only grown given tragic events in recent years and current challenges: stabilizing two veterans’ homes; expanding outreach to women veterans; addressing the pressing needs of veteran housing and mental health.
Since my appointment in March, the administration has appointed a Statewide Veterans’ Homes Council made up of leaders in health care to provide guidance to both homes; applications for the homes to become licensed and certified long-term care facilities by the Department of Public Health and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will soon be submitted; we’ve convened working groups to standardize and make policies more transparent across the homes; and we’ve purchased an electronic medical records system that will be implemented this summer to foster better care.
More recently, EOVS secured federal funding in April to build an almost $500 million state of the art veterans’ home at Holyoke. This facility will resemble the modern, fossil-free veterans’ home in Chelsea set to open later this year. Additionally, we have forged an agreement to repurpose the unusable domiciliary buildings at the Chelsea site to build over 200 housing units for veterans and their families.
Yet, it’s the actions behind the scenes that have me most inspired. Building up a beleaguered agency is not an easy feat. But a start-up mentality has taken over and the push to meet higher expectations is evident. In just two months since its inception, Executive Office of Veterans’ Services has undergone a dramatic transformation, more than doubling capacity and establishing a robust operations element to streamline efforts, build efficiency, and most importantly, create a culture of accountability.
This newfound energy has spilled over into community affairs, revitalizing collaboration with our partners. We’ve launched a statewide tour to visit municipal veteran service officers to listen and learn from their frontline experiences. And to uplift underrepresented voices, Gov. Healey signed an executive order establishing a Veteran’s Advisory Committee where diversity, equity, and inclusion are integral.
Beacon Hill legislation to reform the Massachusetts veterans’ homes in 2022 laid the groundwork for change and now Gov. Healey and Lt. Gov. Driscoll – both of whom were born into military families – are meeting the moment. Their commitment to engage, partner, and move swiftly are all elements necessary to forge a new secretariat and rebuild trust in the veteran community.This Memorial Day, as we honor this sacred commitment borne out of tragedy, let us answer the call with urgency. Undoubtedly, change can be burdensome and more difficult decisions will surface. But the mission cannot fail, and my office will do whatever necessary to advocate and ensure our veterans receive the services they have earned.
Jon Santiago is the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services, a United States Army combat veteran, and an emergency medicine physician.