Sun City Veterans Association Commander Tom BeGasse, left, and Will Grimsley exchange a few words before the start of the monthly meeting of the SCVA. Grimsley is secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and was appointed March 2020 to the newest state cabinet post. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The first secretary of the new South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs said his aim for the department is to bring all available resources together “so we can really raise awareness across the state, and live up to the aspiration of being the most military veteran friendly state in the Union.”

William F. Grimsley is part of a long line of military veterans who came from Beaufort, where he now lives. He was named to the new cabinet post March 4, 2020, seven years after retiring as a major general from the U.S. Army. He recently spoke about his goals for the organization at the monthly meeting of the Sun City Veterans Association.

“Ultimately, it’s about providing the best, most consistent, and equitable service to veterans and their family members across the state, no matter where they live,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is get right-sized.

“It’s a matter of following through, starting with the organization – the processes, the procedures. There’s a whole list of training and leader development pieces, there’s the material solutions, and eventually there’ll be some people moved around, and maybe some additions.”

The new cabinet position was a division within the state government for some time before becoming a cabinet level office, Grimsley said.

“Decisions a couple of years ago by some well-meaning members – not all veterans, either – of the General Assembly really thrust us forward, and it came at a time when there was a push for an executive branch as well,” he said. “The two [goals] came together in the spring of 2019, [with the aim of] ‘Let’s get it elevated so we have a significantly greater voice on behalf of veterans and their family members, and with the military base task force.’”

Grimsley addressed one of the biggest local concerns that has statewide implications: protecting the county’s bases from closure during any future base realignment.

“It’s an advocacy piece, first off. We have to constantly remind people not only that [the bases] are here but put the awareness of what it is they provide. Not just an economic impact. That’s important to us. But it’s the piece of the national security,” said the secretary.

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort serves as home base for three operational squadrons of F-18s, and two training squadrons of F-35s, soon to be four operational squadrons of F-35s.

“They have the best training range, and the most sophisticated radar array of anywhere on the East Coast that they maintain and run for all services. I used them when I was at Fort Stewart, Ga., in the army,” he said. “Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island turns out more Marines per year than anywhere in the world. They turn out the best Marines. They turn out men and women Marines. And they’re doing it in a tremendous fashion. High standard, high quality, great fighting force. It’s important to the nation, so it’s an advocacy piece for a place that is incredibly military friendly in a climate that’s conducive to training year-round. Really, we just need to keep the pressure on. There are a lot of options out there, but none better than South Carolina.”

There are more than 400,000 military veterans in South Carolina, 10% of the adult population, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Nearly 20,000 of them live in Beaufort County. One of the secretary’s concerns is being able to serve all veterans, no matter where they live.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting the resources to the needs, and pulling everybody together in an integrated fashion. We have tremendous opportunities all over the state right now that currently exist – nonprofit, for-profit, businesses, veteran services organizations, groups like the Sun City Vets, individual veterans, well-meaning citizens, you name it. But in many cases, we’re firing on single cylinders all over the state,” said Grimsley.

Another focus is helping those leaving the service, he said, noting  that many young vets are facing challenges, not from lack of career skills, but from going from a military environment to a civilian one.

“We need to do better at transitioning them out of the service now. They’re technologically savvy, they’re smart, they know how to connect,” he said. “They don’t know how to do a lot of other things. They have the skills. They don’t know how to connect them to people like employers, and employers are having difficulty in finding them.”

The secretary feels his efforts have had an impact in raising awareness.

“We’re trying to propose some things that are causing change, and not everybody likes change. We’ve raised the awareness mainly for those who did not know any of that didn’t exist,” Grimsley said, referring to ensuring that veterans and their families can receive the services they need, no matter where. “I don’t believe in change for change’s sake, but I believe in change if it’s outcome-based objectives where you can grade yourself with measures of performance and effectiveness.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.