A historic building on North Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh now houses a new cabinet-level state agency devoted to military and veterans issues.
Gov. Pat McCrory held a ribbon cutting Tuesday for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which is charged with lobbying for North Carolina’s military bases and ensuring that veterans get the services they need.
The department has moved into the Seaboard Building, which dates to the 1860s and housed railroad offices before state government bought it. After World War II, it was dedicated to Seaboard rail yard employees who fought in the war.
“This building has in fact been honoring veterans for decades,” said veterans affairs director Ilario Pantano.
The new department is led by Secretary Cornell Wilson of Charlotte, a retired Marine Corps major general who’d previously served as McCrory’s military affairs adviser. The department’s duties had been split among several state agencies, with a veterans affairs division in the Department of Administration and a military affairs commission under the Department of Commerce.
“As a cabinet-level position, you have a greater opportunity to influence the decisions that are made in the legislature, and also with the federal government,” Wilson said. “This gives us greater stature to make sure we get done what needs to be done.”
Wilson was an active duty Marine for 10 years. As a reservist in 2003, while his family lived in Charlotte, he was sent to Kuwait to command a joint task force of coalition partners supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s been a United Way volunteer, served on boards such as Charlotte Bridge Home and been on humanitarian missions, building bridges and schools in Third World countries and coordinating medical care for rural poor.
He is married to former Department of Social Services Director Mary Wilson. Friends say the Wilsons will keep their south Charlotte house and rent an apartment in Raleigh.
McCrory said the previous organizational structure wasn’t working well, calling it “disjointed” and “disorganized.”
“We’re integrating it into one central voice and one central area,” he said.
The Seaboard Building now houses the NC4VETS program, which aims to help veterans find jobs, apply for federal healthcare benefits and seek education.
The legislature approved the new department – along with McCrory’s request to create a cabinet-level Department of Information Technology – in this year’s budget.
But the proposal drew criticism from the conservative John Locke Foundation, which issued a report that suggested military and veterans programs should instead be consolidated under the Department of Public Safety, because that agency oversees the N.C. National Guard.
Wilson said his new role as a cabinet secretary will make it easier for him to lobby for North Carolina’s military bases and installations in Washington, D.C. He said his department wants to protect the state from any closures or downsizing of military facilities and help the communities surrounding them to be more military friendly.
“We can have a louder voice now ... to make sure our military stays here in this state,” he said. David Perlmutt contributed