Francisco Urena, who has strong ties to Lawrence, was asked to step down as the state's secretary of veterans' services, Gov. Charlie Baker confirmed Wednesday. 

Urena, 40, was asked to resign from the state post after a 174-page report on COVID-19 infection and 76 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home was issued following an investigation by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein. 

Baker described the report as "nothing short of gut wrenching" and "hard to read." In late March, conditions in the soldiers hospital were "truly horrific and tragic," he said. 

"Veterans who deserve the best from state government got exactly the opposite," Baker said. 

The governor, in a noontime press briefing, said it was the responsibility of the veterans secretary, an arm of his administration, to oversee the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and its management. 

"Secretary Urena was asked to step down and he graciously did," said Baker. 

Baker immediately followed the comment by praising Urena, saying during the past five years he has been a "spectacular advocate and ambassador" for veterans in the state and implemented many programs. 

Urena acknowledged his resignation and said he was sorry, according to news reports. 

He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 

Born in the Dominican Republic, he came to Lawrence at age 4, the son of a single mother. 

Those in his adopted city have long embraced and celebrated his accomplishments. 

A Purple Heart recipient, Urena was initially hired in Lawrence by former Mayor Michael Sullivan to work in a communications and outreach capacity in the community during the Mother's Day Floods of 2006. 

Sullivan later named him the city's director of veterans services in 2007. 

In May 2007, Urena was instrumental in assisting the family of Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez of Lawrence who was captured, tortured and murdered by insurgents in Iraq.

Jimenez's body was recovered 14 months later.

"Thank you is not enough for what Francisco did for me and my family during our ordeal," said Andy Jimenez, Alex's father, in a 2011 Eagle-Tribune interview.

"He went above and beyond his duties," Jimenez said.

In 2011, Urena was hired in Boston as commissioner of veterans services and in 2015 he was appointed to Baker's cabinet as secretary of veterans services.

He has also served on a national advisory committee for Veterans Families, Caregivers and Survivors. The committee was chaired by former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole. 

Reached Wednesday, Sullivan said he was saddened to hear of Urena's resignation and described him as a "person of total service to his country, as well as to his fellow veterans."

"As a young Marine he put his life on the line defending his country. Thoughout his city and state service, his passion was to always help and guide veterans to the services provided and needed. ... Knowing Francisco, he will always continue helping his fellow veterans no matter what title he might have," Sullivan said. 

Lawrence City Councilor David Abdoo first met Urena during the 2006 Mothers Day Floods. He praised Urena for his immediate ability to connect with people, his work ethic and for always being "on duty." 

"I am confident that history will raise this honorable man up from this moment in time," he said. 

Abdoo said he looks forward to the conclusions of investigations into the conditions at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home by the U.S. Attorney, Attorney General and others for the loss "of 76 American heroes." 

"When those inquiries are closed, and the facts known, we will know where the responsibilities lie for this tragic mass loss of human life," Abdoo said. 

Urena is married with two young children. 

Now a Boston resident, he spent eight years in the Marines guarding U.S. embassies in Syria and Kyrgyzstan. He also was a tank commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During 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. In 2005, he was awarded the Purple Heart, a decoration for military personnel who are wounded in action.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill. 

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