Veterans First – Not Veterans Last


“Building on the Dignity of each Veteran”


by Ken Smith


The Department of Labor (DOL) has a “Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project” that is operated out of the office of the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Employment and Training.  Currently the position of Assistant Secretary is vacant, so the Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of DOL-VETS , who is a good guy named Junior Ortiz runs the agency.  I have met Junior and he is a man on a mission.  I would suggest to Junior that he change the name of the “Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project” to the “Veterans Homeless Reintegration Project”, and here is why.  This simple name change puts “Veterans First” but more importantly, it changes a mind set that is permeating the Veterans Homeless programming of our nation.  This is less a semantics change and more of a “Mindset” change.  This country needs to build on the dignity of each individual Veteran who happens to be homeless by simply remembering that they were Veterans First, and homeless second.  Sounds like a simple matter, and some would wonder what a change in wording would actually accomplish.  Here are my two cents”


There are over twenty five million American veterans, nearly two and a half million of which are service disabled and an estimate of anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 who find themselves homeless in America on any given night. A key foundational commitment of DOL-VETS is to support  service disabled veterans  in the workplace . DOL-VETS does this by actively seeking out programs that employ veterans whenever possible. 


Now DOL-VETS doesn’t hold the franchise on Veterans who are homeless. HUD’s office of CPD and the VA’s office of Homeless Veterans and other federal agencies espouse the same Veterans last message.  They all need to change to a “Veterans First” commitment and re-tool their Veterans homeless programs in the same way that Detroit re-tooled the car industry.

Each Veteran who is homeless started his or her service as a graduate of one of the military services  “boot camps” and its that pride and spirit of accomplishment at graduation that needs to be re-kindled into the Veteran who is homeless. That’s harder to do when labeled as homeless first and Veteran last.

I have a little experience with Veterans who are homeless and would suggest that DOL-VETS and other federal agencies align in a pact that develops “Veterans First” as a mission motto. It would allow all federal agencies to come to the table under one flag and work towards a common goal, “Veterans First”.  Veteran Service Organizations, (VSO’s) could be mobilized to help carry the “Veterans First”  flag.   It would also reignite the Veteran in each of us who served as we would be reminded that we don’t leave our wounded behind.

As Veterans day approaches and we all reflect on the sacrifices that have been made allowing us the liberties we enjoy, we all need to remember that it has been the hard work, efforts and commitment by our Veterans that have allowed us to live in the greatest country in the world.  Our freedoms are the envy of many, but they come with a cost.

DOL Secretary Solis recently spoke out about her commitment to American Veterans.   I take her at her word.  It seems to me that she is “talking the talk and walking the walk”, as her agency strives to assist those Veterans who are unemployed.  She stated in her Salute to Veterans in the Great Hall at DOL headquarters on Thursday, November 3rd, 2011:

” Today, I would like to make some news”. We’re completely overhauling our TAP veterans employment workshop to help vets translate their military experience into full-time civilian employment. We’re redoing our curriculum to help veterans better communicate their value to a company’s hiring manager. It’s the first redesign of our DOL/VETS employment workshop program in  19 years.

Her words make sense.  She is brave to make the change to the curriculum, and should be congratulated on her vision. Let us remember as we approach Veterans Day that thousands of America’s Veterans are still looking for work, still living in a shelter and still wondering how they can gain a “toe hold” back into society.

Putting “Veterans First” is one small step to returning the dignity that Veterans deserve.  Lets learn a lesson from the brave Secretary of Labor and not wait 19 years to put this into play.

**Columnists Note:  I was contacted by Mike Volpe,  out of the office of Public Affairs at DOL, who reminded me that Congress makes programs, (and he said names them too), and I should target Congress to advocate for any name changes to Veteran Homeless programs.  I respectfully disagree Mike, and think that a name change of a program falls within the purview of the Secretary.


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For more than twenty-five years Ken Smith has been a leading advocate for veterans. A combat Vietnam veteran, Ken served during 1971-72 as a paramedic and an infantry squad leader with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. After his discharge, Ken continued his work as a paramedic in New England. On the streets of Boston he encountered growing numbers of homeless Vietnam veterans, and he became determined to both assist them and draw attention to their plight. In 1989, Ken founded the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, located in a former VA hospital at 17 Court Street in downtown Boston. One of the first facilities designed for homeless veterans and now a national model, the shelter has served over 35,000 of America’s veterans who, for whatever reason, find themselves living on the streets. In 1992 Ken was awarded Point of Light #142 by President George H. W. Bush, and later that same year received the AMVETS Silver Helmet Award, considered the “Oscar” for American veterans. As one of America’s foremost veterans service organizations, AMVETS (or American Veterans) has a proud history of assisting veterans and sponsoring numerous programs that serve our country and its citizens. Ken was awarded this honor along with Peter Coors, with whom he still maintains a personal friendship. Over the years Ken has appeared on many national media programs including Good Morning America, Prime Time Live, ABC News, CBS News, Larry King Live, CNN, 60 Minutes, and The Geraldo Show. He has been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, and numerous international newspapers, magazines, and websites. In 1992, Ken had the distinction of addressing both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a keynote speaker on the subject of veterans. Ken recently left his last assignment with the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, where he was the chief technology architect of the Veteran’s Vocational Technical Institute, Purple Heart Car Donation program, Purple Heart Call Center, Purple Heart Radio, Purple Heart Tech Support, Purple Heart Services, and over thirty new Purple Heart websites. Ken Smith provided the vision and has overseen the implementation of innovative, virtual, work-at-home training programs for veterans with combat disabilities. Ken has designed, upgraded, and supervised the integration and installation of Purple Heart Service Foundations computer and telephony systems, upgrading features from legacy POTS phones to SIP-trunked communications systems including establishing new VPN networks for teams of remote virtual employees. An adventure sports enthusiast, Ken enjoys extreme skiing, competitive sailing, flying, and travel. He has traveled extensively worldwide, delivering his positive message to the veterans of other countries that a paraplegic veteran of the United States suffers the same as a paraplegic veteran of India; that an amputee veteran of Nepal suffers as much as an amputee veteran of France. Ken’s mentor was Harold Russell, the two-time Academy Award winner who starred in the 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives. A World War II veteran, on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Harold lost both of his hands. This ghastly misfortune did not stop him, and he went on to become the chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Disabilities. For over fifty years he served US presidents from Truman to Clinton. Ken was humbled and grateful when Harold agreed to serve as the best man at Ken’s wedding. Ken has been instrumental in the planning stages for the Veterans Workshop, a new nationwide veterans’ advocacy group building a new “Veterans Hotline, and the development of special programs for those who have lost their sight or their hearing, or who have suffered spinal cord injury, as a result of their military experience. The Veterans Workshop provides a forum where new technology and advancements in the fields of prosthetic and orthotic solutions, many designed by Ken, are shared along with virtual training and employment programs. A 1970 graduate of De La Salle Academy in Newport, Rhode Island, for the past twenty-five years Ken has continued his education with extensive college courses in computer technology and related social service fields. He resides in his native state of Rhode Island with his wife and children.