Patrick bumps veterans secretary

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / December 29, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick asked yesterday for the resignation of longtime Veterans’ Services Secretary Thomas G. Kelley, a Vietnam War hero and a Medal of Honor recipient who has served under four governors.

Kelley said that his boss, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, informed him that “the governor and lieutenant governor want to, quote, move in a new direction. I’m not part of that new direction.’’ His resignation takes effect Jan. 21.

He will be replaced on an interim basis by the department’s undersecretary, Coleman Nee, a former public relations consultant who worked on the governor’s 2006 campaign.

Kelley, 71, one of the last holdovers from the previous administration, said he has been decidedly apolitical. “I don’t get involved in politics at all,’’ he said.

Patrick yesterday called Kelley a “true American hero whose contributions to the Commonwealth and to the nation run deep’’ and thanked him for his “extensive and selfless service to our country’’ and to the state.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, who chairs the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veterans’ Services, described Kelley as a strong advocate for the state’s 400,000 veterans and their families and a great partner to the Patrick administration.

Kelley, awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity’’ while serving as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, said the agency he has run since 1999 has made Massachusetts a national leader in programs and benefits for veterans.

The state redefined the word veteran to include military personnel who served in peacetime, not only war, making them eligible for benefits. Massachusetts created a welcome-home program to offer bonuses to returning veterans and free college tuition to National Guard members attending state schools. And Kelley’s agency also created a counseling program called SAVE, Statewide Advocacy for Veterans Empowerment, to help returning vets reintegrate into society.

Nee, who could not be reached for comment, was appointed undersecretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services in 2007. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1987 to 1995, and was stationed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. He was later director of media relations at the Strategy Group, a public affairs, media, and community relations consulting firm in Boston.

Veterans advocates praised Kelley, but also said they look forward to working with Nee.

“We need to regionalize and streamline services,’’ said Steven Como, with Soldier On, a Northampton-based group for homeless veterans. “Secretary Nee has gone around the Commonwealth and talked to everyone. He knows the issues. In these tough times we need to make sure we deliver services to the people who need them. With this announcement, we have someone who is ready to hit the ground running. We’re pretty excited about the appointment.’’

Kelley, a graduate of Boston College High School and the College of the Holy Cross, spent 30 years as a naval surface warfare officer, with several tours aboard destroyers, and served in Washington, D.C., Japan, and Korea, according to his official biography. After leaving the Navy in 1990, he worked as a civilian in the Defense Department.

In 1999, he was named commissioner of veterans’ services and became secretary in August 2003. He served under three successive Republican governors, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney, and was retained by Patrick during his first term.

But Kelley’s future with the administration appeared uncertain after the governor excluded him from Cabinet meetings.

After his reelection last month, Patrick asked all Cabinet secretaries and senior officials to submit letters of resignation and reapply for their jobs.

Andrea Estes can be reached at