EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 10, 2013

Veteran devotes energy to helping fellow vets

By Yadira Betances
ybetances@eagletribune.com

---- — On this day when men and women who have served the country in the Armed Forces are honored, Lawrence’s Francisco Urena will go on television to promote the services and programs offered by his office, before heading off to Veterans Day events throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.

“This is a very special day,” said Urena, former director of Lawrence’s Veterans Services Department, before outgoing Boston Mayor Tom Menino appointed him Commissioner of Veterans Services for the City of Boston.

“This is a day to recognize and honor the service of veterans who are returning to our community and others who are among us,” said Urena, whose mother Ramona Montilla still lives in Lawrence.

Urena, 33, a Marine Corps veteran, was a tank commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a clash with insurgents in the Anbar Province, Urena was struck in the face with flying glass and debris. He still has a piece of scrap metal in his cheek. He was awarded a Purple Heart in 2005. He spent eight years in the Marine Corps, mainly guarding U.S. embassies in Syria and Kyrgyzstan.

In Lawrence, Urena was instrumental in assisting the family of Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez of Lawrence who was captured by insurgents in Iraq in May of 2007. His body was recovered 14 months later.

Urena had been Lawrence veterans director, as well as the sole member of the department, for just a few months when Jimenez was declared missing in action. Urena assisted Jimenez’ father Andy and other family members during the emotional months leading up to the recovery of his son’s body.

In 2008 he was named the state’s Veterans Services Director of the Year in part for his work with the Jimenez family.

As commissioner in Boston, Urena said he and his team of 14 staff members are responsible for taking care of the 20,000 veterans and their families who live in Boston, welcoming returning service men and women with a breakfast; hosting events honoring the service of veterans; representing the mayor at events and welcoming student veterans who move to Boston from other parts of the country so they can learn about the benefits and programs available to them through his office.

“Better yet, it’s a way of creating advocates who can speak on our behalf and promote good work we do in the community,” Urena said.

A big part of his department is a public assistance program that cares for 700 veterans and their families.

“We want to provide better quality of life for them and prevent homelessness. This is a social issue that we’re conscious of and are trying to eliminate by 2015, which is a statewide goal.”

Urena said veterans are being received with open arms today and one of his goals as commissioner is to keep that sentiment going for as long as we can.

“I’ve heard the stories of veterans who came back to a welcome not as grandiose as the one I received when I came back to the community,” he said. “Those vets who are in need should get benefits they deserve, and as long as I have any power or ability, they will not be treated the way they were — not on my watch.”

In addition to helping fellow veterans, Urena said the highlight of his time as commissioner includes building a memorial for veterans of Puerto Rican descent, which will be unveiled on Nov. 19.

It honors all the Puerto Ricans who have served since the Civil War and is the first one to have a male and female officer next to each other. He is also proud of the Fallen Heroes Memorial to be built in Boston’s Seaport district, the Beirut Memorial and the re-dedication of Vietnam memorials throughout the city.

Urena said his greatest satisfaction comes when he helps a fellow veteran through a crisis. He recalls meeting a veteran who had an alcohol problem and Urena took him to rehab. A few years later, the two met again.

“He told me, ‘You saved my life.’ I was taken back by what he said and the change in him. Examples like that gives me the drive to continue what I’m doing, knowing I am making a difference,” Urena said.

One of his goals as commissioner of Veteran’s Services is to visit every public housing project in Boston by the end of the year, looking for veterans. During one of his visits to an apartment building, he found a veteran who had been living there for two months and was sleeping on the floor.

“I was able to provide him furniture, but I was so upset that the managers don’t know who we are,” Urena said.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Urena moved to Lawrence at age 4. He attended the Tarbox School before moving to Florida. He joined the Marines the day after graduating from Broward High School in 1998.

Urena said he always wanted to join the military “to serve our country” which he learned from being in the Boy Scouts.

Urena has a bachelor’s degree in history and legal studies from UMass Lowell and an associate’s degree in political science from Northern Essex Community College. He is pursuing a master’s degree part-time, in public affairs, at the UMass Boston.

Now, Urena devotes his time to serving veterans — a new mission that demands all his focus.

“(I am) very focused on not falling short on that mission,” Urena said. “There’s more than can be done is my mantra.”

He also appreciates the support he receives from family members and friends who know that his life revolves around his work.

In addition to spending time with family and his girlfriend Jen Siegler, he enjoys playing with his Fox Terrier Tucker, skiing and going to the beach. His real passion is kayaking, a hobby he said that he picked up after getting involved with the Greater Lawrence Boating program.

“That’s what levels me off and helps me to cope with all the things I come across,” he said. “I like the comradery of being in a group setting, the challenges such as crossing from Gloucester to Beverly in a nor’easter. I think I got that from the military to be in a friendly competition while getting a great workout.”

In May, Urena was invited to participate in the Molokai Challenge, known as the Surfski World Championship of the sport. With a distance of 30 nautical miles, the race starts in the island of Molokai, crosses the Ka’iwi Channel considered one of the roughest ocean channels in the world — and ends at Hawaii Kai on Oahu. Urena finished the race in less than 6 hours.

While in Hawaii, Urena laid a wreath on behalf of Menino and all Boston residents at the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, honoring those who fell during the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

“It brings it full circle, because I’ve meet survivors of the attack, and being there gives me the opportunity to relate to them. When I talk with them, I can say, ‘Yes, I understand what you’re talking about,’ “ he said, adding it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Visiting the Arizona Memorial as well as the Cemetery of the Pacific, took on an extra meaning because of the six people from Massachusetts who died that day, including Julian Stopyra of Lawrence, whose gravesite he was able to visit to pay his respects.