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Helping Others Led Urena to State's Top Veterans Post

Former Lawrence Veterans' Agent Hopes to End Struggles for Mass. Residents who Served

ndy Jiminez, left, father of Alex Jiminez is comforted by former Lawrence veterans agent Francisco Urena. Photo by Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune
Andy Jiminez, left, father of Alex Jiminez is comforted by former Lawrence veterans agent Francisco Urena during a bridge naming ceremony in Lawrence.

02/23/2016
Eagle-Tribune
By Craig Sandler

BOSTON — To find out what the state’s 385,000 veterans expect from Veterans’ Services Secretary Francisco Urena, you just have to go to http://www.massvetsadvisor.org and look at the menu to the left:

Counseling-Education-Employment-Finance-Medical...

In other words, a lot.

To find out what he expects of himself as secretary, you have to go to 600 Washington St. and ask him.

“Make sure Massachusetts stays the best state in the country for veteran’s services,” he says.

Because of state law, almost every city and town has a veterans’ service agent running a municipal-level office. Urena, who used to be one in Lawrence, now oversees their work. Massachusetts veterans are eligible for the most generous state-level cash benefits in the country.

But delivering the money and the services to all those vets is Urena’s duty with the help of the local agents.

Urena says those local agents tell him what his constituency needs. Inevitably, “our power in this office is in collaboration,” he says.

Appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker a year ago, he’s settled into his job after making the jump himself from the local level to state government. Virtually all important veterans’ officials are vets themselves, and Urena has a Purple Heart, yet his career in government began not so much on the battlefield, but on a bicycle.

He had been back home from Iraq just a matter of weeks when the floods of 2006 hit Lawrence. To survey the situation, Urena hopped on his bike.

One thing led to another. He found himself in a volunteer tent as a Spanish translator. Before long Urena was in front of a community-access TV camera. A couple of days after his bike ride, he found himself shaking hands with U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in Lawrence.

Asked to volunteer

The mayor at that time, Michael Sullivan, took note. He told Urena there was a need for volunteers at the Lawrence veterans’ services office.

That’s what he did, and kept working with CATV, getting to know the city better, especially its vets. He went to night school at Northern Essex Community College, eventually graduating from UMass Lowell. When the job of Lawrence veterans’ services director opened up in 2007, Urena landed it on the basis of veterans’ endorsements despite his young age. He got involved with the family of Alex Jimenez, an Army soldier captured and killed by Iraqi insurgents and helped them through the grieving process.

Urena was once late to Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago because he was busy getting a vet living under a bridge into a rooming house. One can infer there are many other examples. “Hands on is something I truly enjoy, so hands on is something I want to pass on to all of my people.”

He was the state’s Veterans Agent of the Year in 2008, which brought him to the attention of former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He recruited Urena to become Boston’s Commissioner of Veterans’ Services in 2011, where he worked to clean up a department in need of new leadership in the wake of a kickback scandal and other management troubles.

His resume reflects a pattern of “above and beyond” behavior that Urena says has its roots in two places: his mother, Romona Montilla, and his longtime Scout leader in South Florida, Joe Alterman. Starting as a Cub and rising to Eagle Scout “instilled the Americanism in me” - he’s a native Dominican - “the community involvement, the community spirit, and I carried that over with me into the Marine Corps.”

The challenges of Boy Scouts, he said, taught him teamwork, business skills and a concern for “troop welfare.”


Tank commander

Francisco Urena spent eight years in the service, guarding U.S. embassies in Syria and Kyrgyzstan and was a tank commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Francisco Urena spent eight years in the service, guarding U.S. embassies in Syria and Kyrgyzstan and was a tank commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In the Marines he was a tank commander. He describes it this way: “We need to do the mission first, but we have to take care of people doing it. There’s three other people in this war machine that moves along at 44 mph, that shoots 4,000 feet away, you have to make sure you get along with that person.”

Because of his background, and at just 35 years old, he seemed a natural choice for the state job by the newly-elected Gov. Charlie Baker.

Now, he has to bring his experience to bear on a population of 365,000 Massachusetts veterans as diverse as their deployments, from World War II to the very newest returnee from Afghanistan. Their needs and the needs of their families range from economic to emotional.

He says the number one goal for his tenure is “ending veterans homelessness.” There were about 1,000 vets homeless statewide in the 2014 Homelessness Census, 414 of them in Boston. Urena wants to clean up that number and then set up a system so that that any veteran coming in is out of a homeless shelter quickly and into a permanent place with supportive services, under the “Housing First” model.

That’s not going to happen with swarms of staffers deployed from Boston. Rather, it will be the veterans’ services agents across the state with whom Urena must coordinate and collaborate to link homeless vets with available housing. Keeping it local means “a person in need walks to someone trusted, local, someone accessible,” Urena says. And the vet-to-vet dynamic can make all the difference in getting a person off the street.

That drives another goal for the next three years — to get full state reimbursement for local veterans homelessness services, now capped at 75 percent.


‘Not just processing paper’

Ultimately, it’s 32 service providers - non-profit housing and homelessness agencies - that address the array of needs chronically homeless people present: mental health, medical, substance abuse, employment, not to mention the key in the lock of the door to a permanent place.

SAVE (Statewide Advocacy for Veterans Empowerment), run out of Urena’s office, provides a line into Boston for struggling veterans statewide to ask for help. Urena says by and large, asking for help isn’t something vets are great at, and it’s his department’s responsibility to make it as easy as possible.

Authorizers at 600 Washington St. review all the spending done by the local offices, and Urena’s department approves or denies requests for reimbursement from the state, as well as benefits for individuals. That authorization department also scans for fraud. Urena wants middle managers to motivate the authorizers to exhibit an attitude that “what they’re doing is they’re not just processing paper, they’re taking care of veterans.”

To see how the core job’s getting done, and to move his larger goals forward, Urena convenes his team on Mondays like most agency heads - the cast of characters comprising chief of staff Michael Rigas, General Counsel Claudia McKelway, CFO Anita Patel, and leaders of departments like the Veterans’ Cemeteries, Women Veterans, and the SAVE team. “There’s an aspect of making sure they’re empowered, that it’s not me running the agency, it’s them.”

Time in the communities is important to him, too. Urena says one of the most significant aspects he thought needed changing was a need for better relations and more collaboration between the local and the state operations. “There was not enough collaboration. Us against them, them against us, is a mentality we want to get away from.”

Urena said he tries to learn some best practices and share them — offering himself as a two-way conduit with the local agents and what they’re doing and how they could improve. A simple example: in Lowell he saw how the agent got a Wounded Warrior parking space placed in front of City Hall.

“It’s an easy (thing to do), but it tells that community or a veteran driving by, look they care about my service, about my disability,” he said.

One last top goal for Urena right now is far less measurable than homeless counts but he says every bit as important —raising awareness and respect for veterans and the military in young people.

The state has a diminishing number of veterans, and in the next 20 years that the current 365,000 is going to be cut in half unless, he said, “God forbid there’s a big demand for more men and women to enlist.”

Vietnam-era vets make up the middle of the state’s veterans bell curve, with a much smaller number from the non-draftee, Iraqi and Afghanistan campaign eras.

And that means, for all the positive attention those veterans receive, not too many young people actually have a veteran in their day-to-day lives.