The woman who helped make the Douglas County Veterans Service Office what it is today has returned to take the helm again.
Mary Newman-Keyes previously served as the county’s Veterans Service Officer from 2000 to 2013, when she left to take on the same role for Benton County. Last week, she returned to serve in her former position.
Over the last four years, Newman-Keyes has been staying in Benton County during the week, but commuting back to her Myrtle Creek home to be with her husband, Dave Keyes, and their two cats on the weekends.
So when Pat Plourd, who had stepped into the role about a year after Newman-Keyes left, accepted a job in Jackson County, Newman-Keyes felt it was time to return. (Plourd had been commuting from Grants Pass, so he has an easier drive to work now as well.)
Newman-Keyes said she’s very glad to be back working for Douglas County veterans.
County Commissioner Tim Freeman said while he’s sorry to see Plourd go, the county was lucky to get Newman-Keyes back.
“Mary comes back to Douglas County with a mountain of knowledge, and is one of the most respected VSOs in the state,” Freeman said in a written statement. “Douglas County is lucky to have someone who is so committed to our veterans in need.”
Her return was also welcomed by Douglas County Veterans Advisory Council Chairman and former Douglas County Veterans Forum President Jim Little, who said he has known Newman-Keyes for years.
“Her respect and dedication to veterans shows, as she has increased claim amounts to those veterans she’s helped over her decades of service. We’re really looking forward to having her back,” Little said.
During her previous time in the role, Newman-Keyes was credited with dramatically increasing the number of successful claims for benefits for Douglas County veterans. Under her watch, those claims rose from $3.8 million in fiscal year 2001-02 to $51 million in 2012-13.
All that impacted not only helped veterans, but is a huge benefit to the local economy, she said.
Newman-Keyes’s passion for the job grew out of her own life experience. She’s a self-described “Navy brat” whose father, Chief Petty Officer Stanley Senk, served in both World War II and the Korean War. And her first husband served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“That kind of kept me with my fingers on military things for a long time. It really put veterans and military people in my heart, to help them,” she said.
While Newman-Keyes was away, Plourd oversaw an office remodel. The office, in the basement of the Douglas County Courthouse, now features a large waiting room and enough space to interview veterans with more privacy, and Newman-Keyes has a nicer office than she had before.
“It’s just all around a better space. So that was nice to come back to,” Newman-Keyes said.
The office is still plenty busy, especially on Mondays when walk-ins are accepted. Even with the larger waiting room, Newman-Keyes said there was still a line out the door.
She missed all the activity when she was in Benton County, she said.
“I missed my veterans,” she said.
Newman-Keyes said Douglas County has a high proportion of veterans and estimates there are about 17,000 local veterans, about 16 percent of the population compared with about 12 percent statewide.
She said the support for veterans in Douglas County is really great. One thing that bothered her a bit in Benton County was that county officials called seniors receiving benefits “consumers,” and they tried to refer to veterans seeking benefits that way also. She wouldn’t allow it. She calls the veterans who seek her help “clients.”
Newman-Keyes is a county official, not part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Veterans Service Office is one of the few county departments that hasn’t seen staff or budget cuts in recent years, in part due to an increase in state funding. Newman-Keyes said she will divide her time between management and seeing veterans, particularly focusing on veteran clients with more complicated issues like appeals to unfavorable VA decisions.
Newman-Keyes didn’t serve in the military herself, but she was named an honorary Marine 10 years ago as thanks for her success obtaining benefits for the Vietnam veterans of the Delta 1/5 Marines, both in Douglas and Benton counties.
“I can say Semper Fi,” she said. “That feels really good.”