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New veterans’ services director has ambitious agenda

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Commonwealth’s new secretary of veterans’ services is a Marine who served two tours of duty, earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered as a tank commander in Iraq, and has a record of improving and expanding services to veterans in Lawrence and in Boston.

As Governor Charlie Baker’s pick to oversee the state’s provision of benefits and programs for military veterans, Francisco Urena, 34, entered office this month with an ambitious agenda that includes making the agency more accessible, using partnerships to extend its reach, addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, and ending homelessness among Massachusetts veterans.

“The numbers are extremely attainable, to be able to address that need,” Urena said inside his old office in the Boston Veterans’ Services Department on one of his last days as its commissioner.

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“Many states have done it, and Massachusetts should definitely be one of them,” he continued. “There should be no reason why the words ‘homeless’ and ‘veterans’ should be used in the same sentence.”

Tall, broad-shouldered, and energetic, Urena projects confidence even when describing goals others might consider impossible. He also has a record of achieving difficult objectives.

In Lawrence, where he began working in veterans’ services as an unpaid volunteer, “he doubled or tripled” the number served by the department, according to former mayor Michael J. Sullivan, who hired Urena as veterans’ services director.

“The thing about him was it wasn’t just a job for him; he really lived it,” Sullivan said. “He was 24-7; he was always on.”

Sullivan, 58, said that during Urena’s tenure as director, veterans seeking assistance would line up outside the office before it opened. “He would have people waiting for him all morning just to see him,” Sullivan said.

In Boston, he streamlined operations in the veterans’ services department following the 2011 resignation of Commissioner Eugene Vaillancourt after a subordinate was indicted for accepting kickbacks and an independent audit found the department rife with potential for waste and fraud.

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Ernani DeAraujo, who served as East Boston neighborhood liaison for former mayor Thomas M. Menino from 2009 to 2012, introduced Urena to neighborhood leaders and influential members of the city’s Latino community.

“What really impressed me about him was . . . he just has this incredible work ethic,” said DeAraujo, 33. “I don’t know if military life drilled into him that discipline or if he was drawn to military life because of that discipline.”

DeAraujo said Urena showed up to every public event on time and spoke to each person he could, making a real effort to “connect with everyone in the room.”

“He’s very humble and just very respectful,” DeAraujo said. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about him . . . and I think that’s very impressive for somebody working in government.”

In Boston, Urena has mentored young people such as Charles Paizante, who came to the veterans’ services department as a summer intern in 2013 through the Mario Umana Fellowship in Public Service.

Paizante, 19, said that as a first-generation American whose family emigrated from Brazil, he found a role model in Urena, the son of a Dominican mother and a Bulgarian father who came to Lawrence from the Dominican Republic at age 4.

“Every day, he was very focused, very hard-working . . . and very precise in what he wanted to do, what he did do, and what he was looking forward to doing,” he said. “Every day, he was very productive, and I said maybe I can be productive like that.”

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Paizante was not convinced then that college was right for him. With gentle encouragement from Urena, he enrolled last year at Northeastern University, becoming the first in his family to pursue higher education.

“He was very considerate and said, ‘I really respect what you want to do, but you have to look at the pros and cons of every decision,’ ” Paizante said.

Tim Shields, a Boston firefighter and Marine Reserves veteran who became friends with Urena through their shared love of kayaking and surf skiing, said the key to his success is his irrepressible drive.

“The first time I met him, he was in the water, which was funny, because I said, ‘This kid’s never going to learn how to paddle these boats,’ because he was falling out of them,” recalled Shields, 44. “But falling out of them, you learn really quickly how to stay in one.”

That drive was with Urena in Iraq’s Anbar province, when he was hit in the jaw by flying shrapnel during a clash with insurgents but completed the mission before seeking medical attention.

“You want to stay in the fight,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is leave my crew behind with one man short, or having to supplement a person that’s not trained for that role.”

Urena said his values come from his early experiences rising from a Cub Scout to an Eagle Scout and serving in the JROTC.

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“The aspect of ‘cheerful service,’ ” he said, invoking a Boy Scouts slogan, “that’s something that I remember clearly, because that’s something that we learn in the Scouts. Paying it forward, or doing a good turn daily, is something that I still to this day think about often. What did I do today . . . to make somebody else’s life better?”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.