A Q & A with Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA) Commissioner Heather French Henry
A Conversation with Kentucky Department of Veteran's Affairs (KDVA) Commissioner Heather French Henry
TOPs in Lexington's November issue contains a story, "Support and Celebrate Kentucky's Women Veterans" which features excerpts from a recent Q & A session with the Kentucky Department of Veteran's Affairs (KDVA) Commissioner Heather French Henry. Here's the full text of Commissioner Henry's answers to questions about veterans and the issues they face, and what the KDVA is doing to improve the lives of these American heroes. Henry was appointed as Commissioner in 2014, reflecting a lifetime she's spent dedicated to veterans services. The daughter of a Vietnam veteran, she has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work and advocacy on behalf of veterans. In 2001 the U.S. Congress passed a comprehensive bill, the Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Assistance Act, which focuses on eliminating homelessness among veterans nationwide, especially homeless female veterans.
In addition to serving as KDVA Commissioner, Henry is a busy wife, mother, television personality, fashion designer and author. Growing up in the Augusta and Maysville areas, she lives in Louisville with her husband, noted orthopedic surgeon and former Lt. Governor Stephen Henry, and their two daughters Harper and Taylor.
What are some of the most rewarding things about being Commissioner of the KDVA?
It is such an honor and a privilege to serve those who have given so much in defense of our nation. Whether it's ensuring that we create a speedier process for generating disability claims, implementing new programs like our Kentucky Women Veterans UNITE! 2015 Campaign, providing the best in long term nursing care for our veterans or preserving the legacy of sacrifice and service for our veterans buried in our state veterans’ cemeteries … every day is a chance to give back to those who have given so much.
After your first year in the position, what do you see as your greatest accomplishments? What are some of your goals for the future?
1) The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs has great employees who truly care for veterans and their families. It has been a great joy to work hand in hand with our staff to reach out in new and creative ways to educate our veterans and our community about resources available thru KDVA. One of our major initiatives this year was the Kentucky Women Veterans UNITE! 2015. Kentucky has approximately 24,000 women veterans and we needed to address the unique needs facing that population of veterans. We concentrated on a statewide month-to-month issue based platform. Each month we have focused on a unique area of concern often times while partnering with community partners like Churchill Downs who helped to provide creative outreach to draw attention to the cause. We started with a 0 count database and now we are up to approximately 2,300 and counting! It's extremely important to know how we can better serve our women veterans and the only way to do that is to know where they are and hear their voices. We also were able to host our first annual Women Veterans' Conference in April and look forward to hosting this every year as well as smaller regional conferences in Eastern and Western KY.
2) Fifteen years ago there were 250,000 veterans sleeping on the streets each night…during my Miss America year of service we fought long and hard to make an impact to gather more resources to diminish those numbers. Today, we have less than 50,000 homeless veterans on any given night. While still too large a number … it is amazing to see how each state department of veterans’ affairs has partnered with local, state, and federal resources to help make a tremendous impact. Currently, we have less than 1,000 homeless veterans in Kentucky and that is largely due to the creative partnerships with other government agencies and local community based organizations identifying the needs and eradicating the issues.
3) This year we partnered with the Kentucky Sheriff's Association to hand out free gunlocks to military veterans to decrease the suicide rate among our heroes. Today alone, 22 veterans will commit suicide … it has to stop. Of that 22, only 5-7 are using the VA … where are the rest and how do we get to them to provide the quality of care they need? By providing free gunlocks we hope to be able to de-escalate a certain percentage of veterans committing suicide by providing pertinent information on the gunlock such as the veterans crisis hotline and our benefits information.
1) In the future, we need continue to focus on building the database for all veterans statewide. As we continue to grow services we must be able to spread the word so we must be vigilant about identifying our veteran population.
2) Opening our 4th Veterans Nursing Home in Radcliff, KY. This nursing home is the premier model nationwide and it will be the shining jewel in our crown. We hope to see its completion in summer 2016.
3) Opening our 5th Veterans Cemetery in Leslie County, Ky. We currently operate 4 veterans’ cemeteries and hope to do a groundbreaking in the near future so we can open the Leslie County location in summer 2016.
4) Hiring additional staff to tackle the issues of Education and Employment for Veterans. We have only scratched the surface on what it takes to transition military personnel into a successful civilian life and more can be done. We need full time staff who can take on those issues and implement new programs to focus on education and employment.
I’m sure you know many military families where each generation has served. What common qualities and values have you perceived in those families?
When I talk to future employers at veterans’ job fairs I am constantly reminding them of the incredible work ethic of our military and veteran population. Military life is a structured life and one that requires extreme responsibility. I often relay the experience of seeing a young 19 year old operating a $40 million piece of equipment and coordinating the logistics for a missile strike on a digital platform during one of my tours at the Wendell Ford Training Center in Western Ky. Our veterans and active duty military have incredible skills in management, logistics and planning. In a word … if you want something done give it to a veteran and it gets done.
What have you learned from the female veterans that you’ve met in the course of your career?
Our female veterans are incredible. When we set out to implement our new women veterans program we really needed to hear from the women veteran about what they needed and wanted in terms of outreach and programming. I was blown away at the response we got in return from some of our efforts. Women veterans want to have opportunities to meet each other and form a sisterhood. We were able to create a wonderful environment for our first annual women veterans’ conference. It was creative and fun with programming that still addressed some of the fundamental needs of veterans and families.
Your platform as Miss America was raising awareness of homeless veterans. How did your father’s service as a Vietnam veteran impact your decision to choose that platform?
Military service has a ripple effect for generations … sometimes positive, sometimes negative. My father’s military service changed my life forever. I always knew there were issues with my father and my uncle but didn't know that one day I would take those tragic stories and help to change the face of veteran’s healthcare around the nation and in Kentucky. Showing other veterans and their families that they are not alone is paramount in delivering quality care. I think being a 24 year old fashion designing Miss America and a daughter of a Vietnam veteran was such an odd assortment that it did its job in creating media and public interest in veteran’s issues. It wasn't always easy to share my father's struggles but it was needed to help other veterans and to increase awareness in Congress and Senate about the struggles of veterans and their families. Now, I can't imagine doing anything else. My platform has become my life's mission.
What were some of the ways you were able to help veterans during your reign as Miss Kentucky and later Miss America?
In the beginning creating awareness and educating the population about the plight of veterans was my main concern. However, after winning Miss America it became evident that there were a multitude of issues that needed to be addressed and I was ready to take those on. We quickly developed a full scale platform that not only centered on homelessness but housing, healthcare, disability, claims and benefits. We also did veterans healthcare screenings for Type II Diabetes and Hepatitis C which at the time was pretty controversial. On housing, we were able to partner with the Manufactured Housing Industry and SENCO products to provide "Homes for Heroes." My shining moment really came when we were able to get the homeless veterans assistance act passed which took us actually two years but passed in 2001 and was named the Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Assistance Act. It was truly the first time that eradicating homelessness among veterans was ever mentioned … regardless of what you hear in the media today we were working on it 15 years ago! I have been able to work with some of the most amazing people on the national level from Presidents, Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, and others to implement new programs and provide better quality of care for all veterans … it has been an amazing journey.
What would you say to a young woman considering military service?
I have always regretted not joining the Marine Corps, but do feel that in my small way I am able to give back to those who serve… so, I would say definitely go for it. By 2040 women will make up more than 20% of our armed forces and it will continue to grow. Obviously, I believe women are an amazing resource that has gone underutilized in our military but I see that changing in the future and I am excited to see that change.
When being interviewed right after being crowned Miss America, you mentioned that people you’d met were dumbfounded to learn how many veterans in this country were homeless. What else do you think people would be surprised about regarding veterans?
Civilians are always amazed at how many veterans do not use the VA. Out of 23 million American Veterans roughly 8.9 million (and that number changes constantly) use the VA leaving a majority of veterans out of arms’ reach of the VA. I think this is a significant problem for the awareness and education of veterans about healthcare issues associated with their military service. For instance, out of the 22 heroes who commit suicide today only 5-7 of them have ever been to a VA … where are the others and how can we find them to show them the resources available so we can save their lives? Another shocking realization for civilians is to know that active military fall under the Department of Defense and once they are discharged with general or honorable discharge then they are a "veteran" and fall under the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both departments are vast but have two totally different missions, which can create some communication issues when transitioning an active military member to veteran status. Also, the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs is a state agency not a federal agency. We do not have jurisdiction over any of the VA Medical Centers but we are very strong advocates for our veterans receiving healthcare in a VAMC and strong partners with a VAMC in doing outreach.
There are more opportunities for women in the military now than ever before. How are those women’s roles in the military evolving?
Women make up more of the military today than ever before and by 2040 will make up more than 20% of the military. With the recent news of two women passing the Army Ranger Course ... women are now being seen as a vital asset in combat. Women have been dying in combat and serving in combat longer than this country has been recognizing it so it is time that we as a nation realize that and confront it. However, we also need to address the unique needs of our women military personnel and the struggles they face such as Military Sexual Assault (MST). Although, there are men who are MST survivors, it is more likely that a woman in the military will be faced with MST.
Besides national security, in what other ways do veterans impact our everyday lives?
The cost of our freedom is an extremely high price being paid for with lives not money. The ripple effect of those losses lives on generation to generation as do the physical and mental wounds received by our troops. On a positive note, veterans are the very fabric of our nation. While we may celebrate celebrities and American Idols … It is truly our veterans who should be the center of the stage. We do a better job today than ever before to recognize our heroes but we can always do more as a community. Our veterans should remind us every day that we shouldn't take our freedom for granted.
Governor Beshear has declared 2015 to be the Year of the Woman Veteran in Kentucky. What are some of the ways that the KDVA is celebrating and honoring women veterans as part of this special year?
The Kentucky Women Veteran UNITE! 2015 campaign has been a wonderful initiative that came about out of the need to address women veterans’ issues. In Kentucky, we have over 24,000 women veterans and in 2040 we can expect the number of women in the military to grow over 20% in our nations' military. In October of 2014 I made it my personal mission and KDVA's mission to implement the 2015 yearlong campaign to highlight women veterans and their needs.
We looked at a yearlong month-to-month calendar and started working on already established awareness issues that aligned with the needs of our women veterans such as Women's History Month in March and Sexual Assault Awareness for the month of April. Each month we have highlighted a different issue on www.veterans.ky.gov and also thru our social media. Some of our creative partnerships have been with Churchill Downs to help us highlight women veterans for "Thurby." This helped us highlight groups like Athena's Sisters, a women veterans-specific organization, to a crowd of over 50,000. Again, it's about getting the message out in creative ways to help us locate our women veterans so we can provide them the information they need about their healthcare.
We were also able to hire our first Women Veterans Coordinator, LuWanda Knuckles. LuWanda is an OEF/OIF veteran and is active in the Kentucky National Guard. Every day we now have staff that focuses solely on the needs and programming of these strong "Women of Valor." I knew we did not have a women veteran’s specific database, so we started one. If we wanted to help spread targeted messaging to our Kentucky women veterans we had no way to do that … so, now we do. We started at 0 and now have over 2300 active names and contact information. In April of 2015 we also held our first Women Veterans Conference with over 100 women veterans attending the daylong event … it was a huge success and we hope to continue that in the future. The future is extremely bright for our Women Veterans Program at the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs … we have done great work but still have great work to do!
What can civilians do to show their support for veterans here in KY?
There are many ways for civilians to help and honor our veterans but many don't know how. Whether it is simply recognizing the local heroes in your community at an event or gathering funds or donations for a larger program everyone can help. Recently, KDVA formed the Veterans Youth Council comprised of 9 youth from grades 6-12 to help volunteer and spread the word about veterans programming. This council has already welcomed home an Honor Flight at the Lexington Bluegrass Airport, put over 2,000 gunlocks together for our gunlock giveaway, and worked the Kentucky State Fair on behalf of our veterans. No matter what age everyone can do something. There are also ways to volunteer at the local VA Medical Centers simply by calling the Volunteer Services Coordinator at each facility to see what they need and where veterans need to be served. Again, the sky is the limit on what we can do to say thank you to a veteran for their sacrifice and service.