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Vet Services Spotlight
When Greg Pickard arrived in Wright County in early-January, 2017, he was taking over a Veteran Services Department that was flying solo for the first time, buried in paper files and without a Veteran Services Officer (VSO) for several months. In many ways, he was starting from scratch with a daunting hill to climb.
Prior to his arrival, the Wright County Veteran Services Department was combined with Emergency Management – a common practice in many counties. Much of the work done in the office focused more on the Emergency Management side of things rather than Veteran Services. That was apparent in the numbers.
In 2015, there were 1,017 recorded contacts with Wright County veterans – phone calls, emails, walk-in visits, outreach programs, etc. Each was noted in a case log file. In 2016, the year before Pickard took over as Wright County’s VSO, the number was just 706. Pickard didn’t know why the number was so low – he theorized inconsistent logging of contacts and several months without a VSO during the transition – but set out immediately to make that a priority.
“We really didn’t have a very accurate assessment of how many veterans were actually being served,” Pickard said. “There wasn’t a good accounting of it and it didn’t distinguish between an in-office visit, a phone call or an email. We wanted to change that, because Wright County was getting a bad reputation as it pertained to vets in our county. I was told several times that they would go to another county for their requests for services.”
Much of the early focus of the four-person department (three at the time Pickard came on board) was to dig out from under an avalanche of tens of thousands of documents dating back decades and made the department look more like a storage locker than an office. But, Pickard’s vision was to make the new stand-alone Vet Services Department an example for other counties, which wasn’t always the case when it was viewed as the “little brother” in terms of the division of time devoted to either serving veterans or doing emergency management work.
His hiring was the result of the splitting of the two departments and he came in with big plans he intended to back up.
“The county realized there was a problem and switched the focus,” Pickard said. “My coming here was part of that change. Emergency Management was moved out to the Sheriff’s Office, where I thought it belonged all along. I came in strictly to do Veteran Services work. We’re 10th in the state in veteran population among counties in Minnesota. In 2018, Veterans Administration documentation had about 7,800 veterans in Wright County. That’s a pretty big number. It demanded more time be devoted to it and we were able to get that accomplished.”
The results have been dramatic and quantifiable. The department made a point of documenting every contact with veterans – phone calls, emails and office visits. In 2017, that number was 3,087 – three times the number from the last full year of accounting. In 2018, it increased to 3,771. Last year, it rose again to 4,784. Through the first five months of 2020, his office has corresponded with veterans more than 2,100 times, which, if pro-rated over a full year, will top the 5,000 mark.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell, a veteran who served in the U.S. Navy, said Wright County veterans deserved to have someone at the county level serving as a strong advocate for them and feels Pickard and his staff (Steve Svoboda, Colleen Majkrzak and Debbie Ernst) have done an excellent job of building a strong reputation for the office.
“They’ve worked very hard to be proactive, more visible in the community and making the effort to reach out to our Wright County veterans,” Borrell said. “I had heard from other veterans over the years that they didn’t feel they got the best service here. In some ways, I guess it was understandable, because the office was combined with Emergency Management and, when you have a nuclear facility in the county, that got a lot more of the attention than it would in other counties. When the decision was made to split up Veteran Services and Emergency Management, we wanted someone who felt strongly about taking over the position and bringing it to the level where our veterans deserved to have it. I’ve heard nothing but positive things about Greg and his staff from our veterans.”
Winning over county veterans wasn’t easy. Because so much of the focus on the department was geared toward Emergency Management preparedness, there was a sense that they weren’t a priority and, given the need to focus energy on Emergency Management, they were right.
Pickard said his department wasn’t necessarily facing an uphill battle to win over the minds and hearts of Wright County veterans, but there was a certain level of skepticism that change would come about.
“There were some veterans that said they would never set foot back in this office again because they didn’t get the service they thought they deserved,” Pickard said. “It has taken a while, but we’ve got many of them to come back.”
The mission of the refocused Veteran Services was to earn the trust of local vets by showing them that they had advocates in Wright County that would help them fight for their rights and their benefits.
As Pickard saw it, talk is cheap. Anyone can give lip service to make a point. What brings about positive change is action and the Veteran Services Department has let its actions do the talking and allow positive word of mouth to spread.
“I tell all our veterans, whether it’s health or VA benefits or state benefits, I’m here to fight for them to get what they need and what they deserve,” Pickard said. “We do a lot of outreach programs during the course of the year to connect with our veterans and let them know we’re here for them.”
The feeling is that the growth in the number of annual contacts Veteran Services has with Wright County residents will probably level off at some point because the department has reached a saturation level with the 7,800 vets in the county. They all know the department is there to assist them and, when need be, fight for them as steadfastly as they fought for the rest of us during their military service.
In many instances, finding the right people for the right job is required to create a success story. Wright County Veteran Services is one of those stories. Pickard was the right person for the job and he doesn’t mind putting in long hours, because there isn’t anything he would rather be doing.
“This is my passion and my love,” Pickard said. “I get to talk to veterans eight hours a day most days. They are by far my favorite people and, at the end of every two weeks, they give me money to do it. A lot of people don’t love the job they have. I’m not one of those. I love helping veterans and their families and I love this job.”