Miller reflects on her years with the NDVS

Miller reflects on her years with the NDVS
Retired Nevada Department of Veterans Services director Kat Miller, right, and, former Gov. Brian Sandoval, left, and Bill Baumann, chairman of the Veterans Services Commission break ground for the new Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks in July 2017. Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group file photo

Former director considers the state veterans home as her greatest accomplishment

Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group

During his tenure as governor from 2011-2019, Brian Sandoval wanted to make Nevada the friendliest state for veterans. The Nevada Department of Veterans Services responded, especially during Kat Miller’s guidance as director. Steve Ranson, editor emeritus with the Lahontan Valley News who writes about the military for the Nevada News Group, asked Miller to reflect on her years with the NDVS.

You have spent 10 years with the NDVS, and the last nine years or so as director. Why retire now?  

I have loved serving as the NDVS director — It has been the high point of my professional career.  With that said, there is more to life than the world of work, and I would like to explore other possibilities before its time for my memorial service 

Under Gov. Brian Sandoval, the goal was to make Nevada the friendliest state for veterans. Did we achieve it and what makes the state stand out?

Nevada is the friendliest state for veterans.  There are states with higher taxes that spend more on veterans programming, but Nevada is very well known for the collaborative way that state, local, non-profit and members of the business community pull together to support the needs of veterans and their families.  Under the past two administrations, 98 bills specifically benefiting veterans and their families were passed by the Nevada Legislature and signed into law by both Governors’ Sisolak and Sandoval. 

Additionally, Nevada veterans with issues, problems, or concerns can reach out to the Nevada Department of Veterans services and get a dedicated service officer or other qualified team member to respond to their issue within 48 business hours — usually much sooner.  This accessibility is not common across the country, and early identification of concerns as helped with early resolutions. 

As director, you will leave a lasting legacy. What are the high points of your tenure with NDVS?

There are too many high points to list, but I chief among them was the construction of the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home, the creation of the Nevada Veterans Advocate Program, our State Veterans Homes’ heroic response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, and expanding the Mayor’s and Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among veterans and their families to communities throughout Nevada. 

I will also offer this.  There are many Nevada state agencies, but NDVS stands out as unique among them for two reasons.  First, in every climate survey undertaken by NDVS in the past decade, teammates have consistently reported that serving Nevada’s veterans gives them a sense of accomplishment and purpose.  Like my NDVS teammates, I also know that what I am doing is important and makes a difference in the lives of Nevada’s heroes.  What would be more rewarding than that?  The other unique aspect about our department is that we never operate alone — as director I never felt that NDVS was carrying the load alone.  Decades before NDVS was created, veterans’ organizations accomplished the heavy lift of supporting their fellow veterans.  Working in collaboration with these great organizations gave NDVS the support and power to make great things happen.

How would you describe the Legislature in working with the veterans’ groups and NDVS?

With few exceptions, our Nevada legislators work very hard to understand issues affecting veterans and create helpful legislation. Their job is made easier by the work of the United Veterans Legislative Council who help legislators understand issues of concern and serve as a bridge between Nevada’s veterans organizations and the Legislature.

What future issues tend to have “urgent” written on them? Why.

I would offer four. 

First, while Nevada has made strides in the prevention of Veterans suicide, there is work to be done; no veteran — no person—should ever die by suicide.

Second, identifying veterans moving to Nevada after, or shortly after, military service remains a challenge, and finding these veterans early is critical to successful transition efforts. 

Third, while there has been significant progress in improving veteran employment outcomes, many employers still have difficulty understanding how the tremendous breath and scope of a veteran’s military experience can benefit their workforce, requiring continued emphasis on employer education. 

And last, but certainly not least, Nevada veterans are leaving millions of dollars in earned benefits on the table.  They may not think they are eligible for these benefits and services, or they may have become frustrated with “going it alone” with the VA — either way, we can help, and it is frustrating to know how much more could be done. Equally maddening is seeing veterans go to for-profit attorneys and claims managers who charge veterans for easily filed claims.  Our VSOs are awesome, and veterans should turn to these no-cost experts first. 

Kat Miller, retired Nevada Department of Veterans Services director, visits the Gold Star Memorial at the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks. Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group file photo
Kat Miller, retired Nevada Department of Veterans Services director, visits the Gold Star Memorial at the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks. Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group file photo

The two state military veteran cemeteries are a beautiful addition to the state. Now the VA is proposing one for Elko.  How important is it to have these cemeteries located in three sections of the state?

Extremely important.  NDVS and Nevada’s Congressional Delegation to get this cemetery for nine years (first under Senator Heller and most recently under Sen. (Catherine) Cortez-Masto who pushed the project successfully over the line).  Most families inter a loved one 75 miles or less from their home. The families of veterans in eastern Nevada have not had this important benefit — now they can visit interred loved ones without driving across the state.

The Veteran service organizations such as American Legion and VFW are, to an extent, prospering in the cities but slowly dying in the rurals. Is there anything that can be done to help these organizations?

Veterans Services organizations have been experiencing a decline for several years — both in cities and rural areas. One reason is the reduction in numbers of veterans and so we would expect to see some decline. 

Additionally, several national studies have validated those younger veterans socialize differently than previous generations, and Nevada’s veterans organizations are working hard to make their organizations appealing across generations. 

This is not a veteran-unique situation; organizations such as Rotary, Elks and Kiwanis are also experiencing declines. With that said, I do not believe that the success of these organizations should be measured just by the number of members attending a meeting, but by the positive impact veterans organization members have on their comrades and their community, and that impact in Nevada is incredible.

What advice to you have to your successor?  

Stay tight with Nevada’s veterans organizations.  They have a better understanding of what is happening on the ground and their experience and advice is invaluable.  And, as important as connecting veterans and their families to benefits, is the imperative to help ensure that as a state, Nevadans understand and celebrate the contributions of those who served our nation. 

Along the way, there have been those who have stepped up to help with veterans. Who, in your opinion, have gone that extra mile?

There is seriously no way to answer that question without reams of paper.  A good start would be to look on the NDVS website at the list of Veterans of the Month and Veterans Supporters of the Month.  Looking at the names and accomplishments of these great Americans will give you an idea of the outpouring of support for Nevada’s veterans and their families.

Are you completely retiring or are you going to be involved with the veterans in some capacity? After a short period of decompression, I plan on continuing membership with local veterans’ organizations to help advance the efforts of the leadership of these great organizations who support Nevada’s veterans and their families 24/7.