FRANKFORT — Former Miss America Heather French Henry, who has been active in veterans' issues, will become commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Veterans Affairs on July 1.
Henry, 39, will replace former U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, who has been asked by Gov. Steve Beshear to work on a part-time basis to oversee completion of the construction of the state's fourth veterans' nursing home in Radcliff. It is expected to open in September 2015.
Lucas, 80, was appointed commissioner in 2009 by Beshear. His current annual salary is $89,250, but he will start receiving part-time pay at the same hourly rate with no benefits.
Henry's salary will start at $85,000, with a 5 percent raise in six months.
Henry is married to former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, a Louisville orthopedic surgeon.
In making the appointment Friday, Beshear said, "Heather is highly motivated and has vast experience assisting and creating programs for veterans throughout the commonwealth and the nation.
"As the department's new commissioner, she will continue our mission to raise awareness and offer services to our veterans."
Henry, who was raised in Maysville, won the Miss America 2000 title in September 1999.
Her Miss America platform initially focused on homeless veterans, but she soon became a multifaceted veterans advocate and has received numerous awards for her work.
Her inspiration was her father, Ronnie French, a wounded Vietnam War veteran.
Henry started the Heather French Foundation for Veterans in December 1999. Her foundation partners with public and private organizations to assist veterans and their families.
In 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Assistance Act, bipartisan legislation focusing on the eradication of homelessness among veterans nationwide, especially homeless female veterans.
"Honoring our veterans has been and will always be my life's mission, and I am honored that I can serve them in this way," Henry said in a statement.
In an interview, Henry said it's too early to say what reorganization might occur in the department.
Often mentioned as a political candidate, Henry was asked if she has any political aspirations.
"Right now I will focus all my energy on the department," she said. "I can't get involved in politics."
The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, established in 1998 by then-Gov. Paul Patton, helps veterans and their families obtain all federal, state and local benefits they have earned.
It offers free services and benefits counseling, provides representation before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs during formal and informal hearings and operates three veterans nursing homes.
It has opened four state veterans cemeteries and is planning a fifth, possibly in Leslie County. In 2004, the department established a program to help homeless veterans.
The department's annual budget is about $52 million, and it has about 800 employees.