Four years ago, in March 2020, news broke of several deaths among veterans living in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home — what would become one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in a long-term care facility anywhere in the country.

Jon Santiago was sworn in as Massachusetts' secretary of veterans services three years after that, the first person to hold the role after a reform package inspired by the Holyoke outbreak elevated it to a member of the governor's Cabinet. An emergency room doctor, U.S. Army Reserves major and former state lawmaker, Santiago stepped into the post with the goal of rebuilding veterans' trust.

"We've put these two institutions in a better place," Santiago said of the state's two veterans' homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. "And although we can't forget the past, we can shape the future."

Santiago sat down with GBH News to reflect on his first year in office and future plans for tackling weighty issues like homelessness and mental health among veterans.

One part of the job that's surprised him, he said, is the volume of phone calls he gets informing him of deaths in the military and veteran communities, some by suicide.

Santiago says he feels passionately about preventing veteran suicide — and he and his team are working on a plan to help the state do just that.

"Every veteran is a life worth saving, and we're looking forward to getting folks in a room over the next couple months and coming out with a plan," he said.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at

Watch the full interview here.

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