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Thompson looks to help veterans, move department forward

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Rick Thompson is a familiar face and name to many West Virginians.

The Wayne County Democrat served as a member of the House of Delegates from 2000 to June 2013 and spent seven years serving as speaker.

But Thompson resigned last month to take over as cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veteran's Assistance.

Thompson sat down with the State Journal to talk about his transition and how he hopes the Department of Veteran's Assistance can continue helping veterans past and present.


SJ: You served in the Legislature for a long time, and you served as speaker of the House. What made you decide to leave the Legislature and take on this new role?

RT: "I was in the House this time 13 years, seven years as speaker. I believe we accomplished a lot while I was speaker and while I was a member. We got a lot of things accomplished and a lot of issues resolved, which is what I like to do. We were able to address some of the unfunded liabilities that hadn't been addressed previously, such as other post-employment benefits, we were able to get the education bill through this last session, we addressed Marcellus legislation, regulating Marcellus industry — a lot of difficult issues, prison overcrowding. We passed the prison reform bill this past session. We were able to accomplish a lot, but opportunities like this, being a veteran myself, don't come along that often. Secretary (Keith) Gwinn was retiring for disability reasons and the governor needed someone in this position and couldn't wait for that, so the opportunity was here. It was something I was really interested in. I felt like I could continue to do what I always, the reason I'm in state government and politics — I always want to help people. This gives me that opportunity because this department, that's our job. Our job is to assist veterans. It's a rewarding job. I'm thankful for the governor who I think shows a lot of interest in our veterans by asking me to take this job and offer me this opportunity. He really believes our veterans who have given so much to us and our country deserve a lot given to them. That's the reason I did it more than anything else. It's an opportunity to help veterans and to help their families. They obviously need a lot of help in a lot of different areas. That's what this department does, and I'm proud to be a part of it."


SJ: How does your experience as both a veteran and a lawmaker help you transition into this new role?

RT: "From the position I just left, speaker of the House, I know how state government operates. I know every aspect of it. I know the separate branches of government, how they work with each other and how they accomplish goals. I know how they get things done in the Legislature and how the financial budget works in West Virginia. I know the people who are involved directly in these different aspects of state government. When we have issues, I have contacts within state government. If we have a financial question, I can call people in the budget office directly. They've been more than willing to help us here. Basically, I know a lot of people and I know the process. I think I'm in a position to provide a lot of assistance to veterans because of the knowledge I have from the job I've just came from and the job I've had for many years."


SJ: How does this department work on helping solve some of the issues veterans face?

RT: "This department is geared around this state in all aspects of veteran assistance, whether it be financial, whether it be social, whether it be health related, education related — all the different issues facing our veterans. And not just our veterans from World War II and those conflicts, but our veterans coming home today. All these different veterans who have served in different conflicts and different wars have different issues. What we have in this department is we have beginning with 15 field offices located around the state of West Virginia. At those field offices are veterans service officers and assistants, and their job is to help the veteran in whatever issue they face. They have a lot of claims processing. They're their connection, their power of attorney, with the federal government. They're very dedicated. The veteran services officers are veterans, and they understand the issues. To give you some numbers, last year they brought in in excess of $100 million to our veterans in federal claim money that come in to the state of West Virginia. We're at an increased rate this year. It looks like it will be over $250 million. They help our veterans get to the federal VA claim centers. That's our base. We have two claims offices, one is in Huntington and one is in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh VA center handles our four northern counties. The claims offices will help them with every aspect of their appeals as they go through the system. The Huntington office serves most of West Virginia and the Pittsburgh office serves those four northern counties. In addition to those claims procedures, we have outreach programs with social workers. There are four positions, currently we have three of those filled and one just retired, that regionally work across the sate. They're experts in the social area. If a veteran comes into the claims office and has issues of that nature, they're notified and they'll move out into the community, they'll move into the VA centers, the senior centers, the different organizations and see what they can do to help our veterans. We have a cemetery in Institute that's pretty new. We have a veteran's home in Barboursville where veterans can go live that don't have the ability to live in the community. It's a home — a very nice place. I've been there and they have food for them, nurses there and volunteers that come help them there. In Clarksburg, we have the VA nursing facility for our veterans, which is a full-fledged nursing home. Currently I think there are 95 patients there who receive 24/7 nursing care. It's a very large facility. We have our central office here that assists all the different branches of what we do around the state. Every aspect of what a veteran needs is what we're able to provide here. A big issue for us is letting the veterans know what we can do for them and what services are available. One of the goals I have is to elevate the knowledge across this state about the services we can provide through this department. Frankly, most people don't understand how many services there are through this department for our veterans. The state of West Virginia is one of the leaders in the country in helping our veterans. We have the facilities and ability in helping them in all aspects. It's just getting that information out to them. So we'll be doing some things around the state to let people know where we are and what we can do for them. It's not only us, we have agreements with WorkForce West Virginia, for example. They work with us and we work with them to help veterans find jobs. A lot of employers are looking for good employees. A lot of times veterans are just what they're looking for because of the training they had in the service and they know how to follow routine orders they're given, they know how to do a lot of things from their military training. So we work with them, we work with (the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources) on social issues. They have some programs with housing. We have a lot of veterans who are homeless, and they're trying to address those issues, as well as a lot of the things they're bringing back with them when they go overseas. We're raising awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we need to help people understand what our veterans are going through. Those are some of the things we're looking forward to as we move this department forward."


SJ: Is there any one particular issue that needs your attention the most?

RT: "Each conflict and each war brings its own set of problems as the veterans return home. The key here is not to focus on any one. The key is to be flexible enough to realize there are differences in the services our veterans need. We need to address them all and not focus on one to the exclusion of others. To some veterans, they just need a job. Our newer ones coming out need help finding employment. To them, they don't have a job. They really need to support their families and get back in society and get a job. They've been away. To some veterans, its getting them educational benefits so they can continue their education so they can get a better job. To some veterans who are hurt or have illnesses, its getting them the treatment they need. To some veterans, they don't have a home, so it's getting them a place to stay, a place to eat. Some veterans were injured in the service, so it's getting them through a process with the fed government in getting them compensated for their injuries, their service-connected injuries. Some are totally disabled and need nursing care 24/7. So recognizing all those different issues is what we're supposed to be doing to help the vet in whatever aspect they need.


SJ: What are some of your goals as you move forward in your new position?

RT: "One goal is to make sure we're structured from this office all the way to our field offices, to be on the same mission, the same message and everyone is working down the same pathway. To do that, I have to visit these locations. I have to visit every facility numerous times. Yesterday I was at the Huntington field claims office. The VA director for the federal side was there and he took me through a complete tour of the entire federal facility and showed me how everything worked on the federal level. So learning how everything works and putting in place a system — the VA is going all computerized, they're going online and getting rid of paper files. So how can we make sure we're up to date in scanning and getting those docs into that fed computer system so our veterans can get good, accurate evaluations of their claims. I think a second issue is raising the level of awareness as to the services the state of West Virginia provides to its veterans. This department and other agencies within state government, letting the people know, the veterans know how they can get a hold of us and what we can or cannot do for them. Sometimes if it's federal, it's federal; if it's state, it's state. We mostly can be their representative, their liaison between them and the federal government and the things they have to deal with on the federal level. So getting that info out through the press, through word of mouth, grassroots, whatever we have to do to get that message out—we're here, we're here to help, here's how we can help and be sure to let us know if you ever have a problem and we'll try to help you."