CHARLESTON, W.Va. - House Speaker Rick Thompson will leave the Legislature for a cabinet position in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration.
Tomblin made the announcement Thursday at the state Capitol. Thompson, D-Wayne, will serve as cabinet secretary for the Department of Veterans Assistance. The appointment will be effective upon the retirement of current secretary Keith Gwinn.
"For those of use who know Rick personally, he's very passionate about the things he does," Tomblin said after the press conference.
"And the veterans and their well-being is one of those things that he has a real passion for, so I think that he'll be an excellent addition to my administration and do everything he can for the veterans of West Virginia."
Gwinn has led the department for the past 13 years, but the position was not cabinet-level until 2011. He said he's proud of his accomplishments during that time.
The department grew from 86 employees to more than 300 during Gwinn's tenure. It built a nursing facility in Clarksburg and secured $221 million in federal funding.
Gwinn, 59, cited health concerns as a factor in his upcoming retirement. The U.S. Navy veteran has chondrocalcinosis, a condition that leaves painful calcium deposits in the joints. He's had eight operations in the last six years and needs at least two more.
"I feel like I can no longer give 100 percent to this job. If I can't do it at 100 percent, I don't need to be there," Gwinn said.
"I feel sad in a way that I can't do anything. I'll still try to help them, work on issues with them while I can. But right now, we need a strong leader in the department and I can't be that right now."
West Virginia is home to about 180,000 veterans, one of the largest numbers in relation to its population in the nation. Thompson is one of them, having served on active duty in the Army from 1972 to 1974 as a military policeman. He also served in the Army Reserves from 1974 until 1978, when he was honorably discharged.
A lawyer by trade, Thompson is a life member of American Legion Post 93 in Kenova.
His grandfather also served in the military. Thompson said he saw him struggle with issues that many other veterans face.
"I saw the pain that he went through in dealing with the VA, trying to get his disability in later years," Thompson said. "I saw a lot of the issues he had personally."
Thompson said he always has strived to protect veterans in the state, and Tomblin agreed. In his press release, Tomblin noted Thompson pushed for a bill during the most recent legislative session that would have provided veterans with more flexibility in finishing college courses after being called up for active duty.