Kasim Yarn is RI’s first director of veteran affairs, a position that was raised to cabinet level in 2016. In his role as director, Kasim oversees several key initiatives, such as the Rhode Island Veterans Resource Center, Rhode Island Veterans Home and Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery, serving as a connector between the state and Rhode Island’s more than 61,000 veterans.
But the Jackson, Mississippi, native’s broader impact as a publicly visible member of the Raimondo administration — from his hands-on work with homeless veterans to sporting hilarious costumes at state functions — also caught my attention and serves as a portal into some of the specific work being conducted within the current administration.
Kasim has seemingly ubiquitous admiration and a highly respectable ground game, and I was curious about his background and how it informs his approach to serving RI’s veterans and their families, as well as his role in Governor Raimondo’s cabinet.
Kasim Yarn: Three years ago we didn’t have a state veterans affairs director. Now we do. Three years ago we didn’t have a new veterans home. Now we do. Three years ago we didn’t have a cemetery administrator whose priority is make sure that 34,000 of our men and women and their spouses call our cemetery their final resting place. So, we’re making some progress and I’m glad to be part of that part of the team.
Bill Bartholomew: In many ways your office is a connector. You’re really trying to piece things together.
KY: [Along with] the human health services director, we’re in the people business and so we’re all connected. As the governor said in her inauguration speech, “We are small state, and [connectivity] needs to be our strength.”
My office tries to connect veterans and family members to the services that they need based on what their requirements are.
BB: What are the main operations that you oversee? Obviously the Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, right?
KY: And everything in between. There are 13 categories that we are defined by. They’re anything from helping out with homelessness to education to employment, healthcare. The full spectrum.
BB: The governor introduced a $10 billion budget in her State of the State address and talked a lot about mental health. Do you feel that within the context of the overall budget and its mental health component that there’s going to be enough attention paid to veterans?
KY: [Last year] the governor signed an executive order asking her cabinet members to go out into the community to listen, to talk about mental health. And as a 25-year Navy veteran, six-foot-five, 300 pound guy who says, “You can’t cry in public.” Yeah, that’s considered weak. You’re soft or something’s wrong with you. That bravado, that machismo associated with that.
Well, the reality is that’s the wrong, that’s the wrong approach. It’s okay not to be okay. We live in a world now that we can come out and say, “I have an issue and I need help,” but it’s up to officials and leaders in any capacity, be it a coworker, a subordinate or a senior. If you see someone who’s struggling, it’s up to us to get that help that’s needed. The governor tries to allow us to provide those services.
BB: You seem to have a good working relationship with other officials, and you certainly seemed to be beloved among the RI political inside baseball people!
KY: I look at life that you can only control what you can control. What did you do today? I’ve got to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, “Kasim, you did your very best.” That means what am I controlling? Am I going to go be part of the team or I’m going to be a detractor?
I love working in public service. My door is always open to help others to do more, to champion those causes. That’s my job.
BB: Do you think you’d ever run for governor?
KY: When I first took the position [of director of veterans affairs], I got home at like 7:30 [one evening], finished up watching the news and my wife was washing dishes. I looked at her and I said, “Dear, if I ever come home and say to you, ‘I’m running for public office,’ I want you to come and take that frying pan, walk around the counter and hit me in the back of the head with it.” So the answer to that question is I have zero desire to run for public office in this state or any state.
BB: I look forward to experiencing your costumes this year!
KY: Stay tuned on social media!