Chelsea-Boston Metro Area Veterans Affairs 2014: The Year in Review

VA Secretary McDonald Visits Harvard Law School

Last month, I was among several veteran professionals associated with the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home (CSH) who attended the presentation given by the newly confirmed Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, during his visit at Harvard Law School on Nov. 24. McDonald highlighted his current efforts as head of the Veterans Administration (VA) to investigate and rectify recent scandals revealing systemic corruption and gross negligence by numerous VA offices and personnel. Among other topics, McDonald discussed the current hiring campaign to fill job vacancies in VA hospitals across the nation – job vacancies his staff has identified as preventing veterans from promptly receiving efficient services – and the VA’s goal of recruiting more lawyers for the beleaguered agency. This was Secretary McDonald’s second visit to the area this year; he visited the Boston VA Healthcare System in October.

Harvard University Helps Area Veterans Find Employment in Higher Education

Harvard University, host of McDonald’s November visit, has an active student and alumni veterans association, and the university has displayed a passionate interest in working with Metro-Boston veterans. Harvard’s Human Resources office assists area veterans in finding gainful employment and in pursuing professional development programs. Recently Harvard hosted its second workshop series for veterans interested in employment at Harvard University and other Massachusetts institutions of higher education. Harvard’s Veterans Navigating a Career in Higher Education workshop series, conducted on five Thursday evenings during October, provided critical insider tips on Harvard Human Resources recruitment techniques and hiring strategies. Having worked as an academic affairs professional in the field of higher education and for the Harvard Law School, I was pleased to have been selected to participate in this year’s workshop, which was limited to 20 veterans. Being the first CSH resident-professional to attend the veterans-only series, I can affirm that this is a highly valuable professional development workshop. I encourage all Chelsea Soldiers’ Home residents and other metro-Boston veteran-professionals interested in employment in the field of higher education to keep an eye out for future social media alerts from the Harvard Human Resources office announcing the workshop’s fall 2015 session.

Women Veterans Make History at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home

The first-ever woman veteran Superintendent in the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home’s 132-year history, Cheryl Poppe, Lt. Col. (Ret.), MA Army National Guard, was sworn in at the State House by Governor Deval Patrick on Nov. 7, the same day the state Department of Veterans Services held its Women Veterans Appreciation event in the State House’s Memorial Hall. As a veterans affairs advocacy professional-in-residence at CSH, the founder and commissioner of the Boston Commission on Women Veterans, and as an avid supporter of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Women Veterans, I join the women veterans of the Commonwealth in saluting Superintendent Poppe on this historic achievement. The CSH first admitted women veterans as residents 43 years ago according to a July 1971 article published in the Quincy Sun on the occasion of the Home’s admission of its first three women veterans. This year the Home made history in employing its first woman veteran social work intern, Abbey Sereno, as well as its first full-time professional woman veteran social worker, Shannon O’Leary. Sereno is an OEF/OIF U.S. Air Force veteran currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Boston College, and O’Leary, also a US Air Force veteran, is a graduate of the Simmons School of Social Work. Last December, Newton resident Shemeka Hill, a U.S Air Force veteran of the post-9/11 era pursuing a degree in Human Services at Quincy College, became the first African-American woman-veteran staff professional to be employed in the Home’s Department of Residential Services. While it has made historic strides in admitting women veterans as residents, and in hiring women veterans as staff professionals, the CSH has yet to hire qualified women veteran residents despite the fact that in the Commonwealth and nationally women veterans suffer unemployment at a disproportionately higher rate than male veterans. The Home might easily establish a CSH Resident-Hire affirmative action/preference policy that requires newly hired veteran residents to terminate their residency at the Home within 60 days of hire. This policy would certainly increase the capacity for Home residents to secure employment while decreasing the number of unemployed Commonwealth male and female veterans. In the new year, perhaps our local legislators will support the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home establishment of a qualified veteran-resident-hire preference policy. This is a non-discriminatory veterans and CSH residents employment-rights policy that seems long overdue.

Soldiers’ Home Veterans and Civil War Reenactors Promote Civil War Sesquicentennial

The Soldier’s Home Superintendent, along with myself and a number of other area veterans, is an active member of the Massachusetts Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, which also has an Advisory Board. The Commission and its Board members meet monthly at the Massachusetts State House. Established in April 2011 by Governor Patrick’s Executive Order 529, the Commission’s mandate is “to plan events and activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War”. On Dec. 16 the Commission hosted the first “MA State House Civil War Christmas Celebration.” This celebration included a sing-along of Christmas songs written during the Civil War, such as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, written during the Christmas season of 1863 by Cambridge resident Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Celebration also included the launching of the Commission’s inaugural State House Civil War Tour. The Commission’s inaugural Civil War tour included CSH residents who are members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) organization. The SUVCW members participated in the inaugural State House Civil War tour as Civil War reenactors.

Civil War Veterans Group Keeps Civil War History Alive at the Soldiers’ Home

Members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) organization are the legal heirs of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization. The Grand Army of the Republic is a highly esteemed historical veterans organization in the Commonwealth, and is the only Civil War era veterans organization authorized by Massachusetts General Laws to have a “room in the state house…preserved and maintained as a museum and shrine to the Grand Army of the Republic.” The SUVCW meet monthly at CSH and have a long history there. The Home was founded and established as a private corporation by members of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1882. 2014 marked the 80th anniversary of the Home’s formal and official transition from a Grand Army Republic corporation to a state institution in November of 1934, as enacted in accordance with MA legislation promulgated in the Acts and Resolves of the Commonwealth approved in June of 1931. The SUVCW (Major T. B. Griffith Camp 22) meets in the CSH Library on the second Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m. However, this coming Jan. 13 they will meet at 7 p.m. The Department Commander, Ed Norris, will swear in the new camp commander Charles Lewis. The SUVCW also holds a monthly program on different Civil War subjects at the Home’s Quigley Long-Term Care Facility at 1 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month.

Soldiers’ Home Adds Record Number of Veteran Employees & Holds Veterans Expo

Originally established as a long-term retirement home for male veterans after the American Civil War, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home currently welcomes and domiciles male and female veterans, including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the jurisdiction of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home is unique in that it is a state entity on hierarchical par with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This hierarchical stature makes the Home one of the few state soldiers’ homes in our nation not under the aegis of the relevant state Department of Veterans Services.

CSH continues to establish diversity within the ranks of its staff while it strives to move its operations into the 21st century.  This year the Home also welcomed its first male veteran social worker, Dr. David Duren. Duren is a decorated US Army veteran who holds a doctorate degree in clinical counseling psychology. Other recent veteran professional and managerial staff hires include Lou Scapicchio and Paul Moran. Attorney Scapicchio, a former U.S. Army captain and a former member of the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, serves as the legal counsel for the Home. Moran, a U.S. Army veteran, is the new Director of Strategic Communications and Inter-governmental Relations for the Home. While in the past, designated CSH professional staff personnel have performed a similar role as Moran, Moran is the first professional to be hired specifically to advance CSH’s strategic communications and inter-governmental relations. The Soldiers’ Home now has the largest percentage of veterans in its Department of Residential Services, and among other professional staff personnel, that it has had in at least the last 10 years.

In October the CSH hosted its first Veterans Expo and launched its first official Facebook page. It is anticipated CSH soon will upgrade its website to reflect the Home’s status as a 21st-century multifaceted health care facility that has two components: a long-term care facility and a domiciliary for both retired and transitioning veterans. Throughout 2014 the CSH and its residents have been aided and supported by a host of gracious, thoughtful, patriotic, and generous community, civic, and veterans service organizations – too numerous to name – whose leaders, members, and employees generously gave of their time, talent, energy, and resources. Thanks also go out to the CSH Board of Trustees, our local city and state legislative representatives, and to the Legislature’s Joint Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee. As a member of the CSH Residents Council, on behalf of all Home residents, I offer our sincerest collective thanks to all our benefactors.

New Year Will Bring New Governor, New EOHHS Secretary, and More Activity by Valor Act II Commission to Study Veterans Care & Services

This year the Joint Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee was pivotal in the passing of Valor Act II. Valor Act II mandates the establishment of a commission to “study and evaluate the emerging changes in veterans’ care and delivery of services relative to long-term health care and housing with the goal of ensuring all services provided by the state are strategically balanced by region and are in-line with and complimentary to those services provided by the federal government and other service providers”. Many Home residents will be watching with interest for upcoming proposals from the Commission. Such proposals no doubt should lead to meaningful legislation mandating the hiring of an ombudsperson for CSH domiciliary residents. Currently CSH domiciliary residents lack any access to an ombudsperson. Also anticipated will be a new policy mandating that married veteran-residents now required to be domiciled separately from each other at CSH be given, upon their request, shared living quarters – a humane and common-sense policy already long-established in numerous other state veterans’ homes and also at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington D.C.

On January 8, 2015, Charlie Baker will be sworn in as our new governor. He appears poised to appoint Marylou Sudders as head of the Executive Office of Health & Human Services (EOHHS). Baker’s and Sudders’ creative input and recommendations to the Commission and to the Department of Veterans Services will be of major interest to  Home residents, Boston metro area veterans at large and to those veterans volunteering to serve on the newly developing Boston Veterans Advisory Council, which will have its first meeting on Jan. 22. It is to be expected that Baker’s and Sudders’ veterans’ policies, legislation, and initiatives for 2015 will mirror and augment VA Secretary McDonald’s national objectives, and the Valor Act II Commission’s state objectives of increasing veterans services excellence and enhancing benefits integrity at all relevant levels. Care for Bay State veterans begins at home – in this case the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.

Dna. Maria St. Catherine McConnell is a former USAF intelligence officer and military instructor, and a veterans affairs advocacy professional-at-large-in-residence at the CSH since 2009. Active in Boston metro area veterans’ community organizations and affairs, she is founder and commissioner of The Boston Commission on Women Veterans. She is also Director of the Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers Initiative for Leadership & Program Management Excellence in Veteran and Women Veterans Affairs in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which advocates for increased professional excellence in local veterans affairs initiatives. She currently serves on the CSH Residents Council.

Disclaimer: McConnell is an independent veteran affairs observer and advocacy professional and writer on Commonwealth veterans affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or opinion of the MA Department of Veterans Services, the Chelsea Soldier’s Home, its staff, the CSH Residents Council, CSH residents, or any local or civic veterans service organization or any other entity mentioned.

Contributed by Dna. Maria St. Catherine McConnell (USAF officer emerita)

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