Larry Shellito, retired head of the Minnesota National Guard, will face competing demands as the new commissioner of the state's Department of Veterans Affairs, as a growing number of younger vets seek better educational benefits and programs for reintegration while older vets need more specialized and expensive health care.
Shellito was named to the $108,000-a-year post Wednesday by Gov. Mark Dayton, who cited Shellito's "deep personal commitment to improving the quality of services for all Minnesota veterans and to increasing access to them."
The pick is DFLer Dayton's third from among people who served under Republican former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Dayton also asked Pawlenty's transportation commissioner, Tom Sorel, to stay at his post and picked as head of the Minnesota Management and Budget agency Jim Schowalter, a former deputy commissioner.
Shellito, 65, a Vietnam veteran who stepped down as head of the Minnesota Guard while facing mandatory retirement, said he actively sought the Veterans Affairs post, which coordinates programs and resources for the state's 131,000 veterans and their dependents.
"I threw my hat in the ring. One day you just wake up and say, 'There's still a lot of work that needs to be done,'" he said.
Under his guidance, the Guard began a pioneering Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign, which worked to ease the transition and reintegration of soldiers and their families after a deployment. It became the template for similar national programs for the Reserve, Guard components and active military.
The state faces a $6.2 billion budget deficit, but Shellito said he would work to sustain current $112.5 million funding for the department, the bulk of which is taken up with providing health care, including operating five veterans homes statewide. He said he also will work to break down barriers between state and federal programs, and will encourage such things as coordinating medical care on the local level for outstate veterans who might find it inconvenient to travel to VA Medical Centers in Fargo, St. Cloud or Minneapolis.
"Everyone is going to expect that peace dividend," he said. "I grew up as a Vietnam veteran when a nation decided not to talk about it for 20 years. We need to ... honor their service. My biggest fear is that troops now, with all these deployments and redeployments and all the good ink they are getting, think this is normal, and a lot of veterans say, 'No, it's not.'"
Shellito's appointment brought praise from Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who served with Shellito in the Guard and worked with him as a member of Congress on the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. Shellito and Dayton first worked together on the program when Dayton was in the U.S. Senate.
"He is a strong leader ... an excellent manager and a visionary thinker," Walz said of Shellito.
Shellito said it will continue to be important to focus on veterans' issues as the country winds down two wars.
"We are still at war, We're still deploying, the need is still there, but even more importantly we need to create the groundwork. Just because we are no longer in either of those countries doesn't mean the issues have gone away," he said. "I don't need a job. This is a calling."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434