Orange County gets new VA service officer

Mark Hammer

The Orange County Commissioners Court appointed Mark Hammer as the new veterans service officer during a Monday, April 28, meeting.

Hammer, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve from 1989 to 1996, said he is “very excited and confident” about his new position with the county.

Hammer is a native of Garrison, a small town outside of Nacogdoches, and lived in Colorado for 14 years before moving to Orange.

“I love Orange,” Hammer said. “It offers me a lot of outdoor activities — hunting, fishing, etc.”

Hammer said Orange County veterans could expect dedication and respect from both him and his office.

“I’ll give it 100 percent,” he said. “This office will continue to support veterans and their families in any way possible. There are a lot of veterans in Orange County, and we are proud of this fact.”

Hammer, who had been an assistant in the VSO, replaces Gene Smith, a veteran Navy “Seabee” who was appointed as VSO director in July 2011 and was fired during a special court session April 21, 2014.

Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said Smith’s public contempt of the court via Facebook was one of the reasons for his termination.

Smith had requested the court to fill the position of VSO coordinator, which was vacated in February. The court told Smith he would need to wait six weeks for a replacement as mandated. He applied for a waiver of the hiring time limit but was rejected.

Smith took to Facebook, where he called the Orange County Commissioners Court “a kangaroo court with a stack deck to plot against the Veterans.”

Thibodeaux told Smith April 21 that his Facebook complaints significantly factored into his dismissal.

At the April 28 commissioners court meeting, Orange resident and Navy World War II veteran Robert Rothrock spoke up in favor of Smith, specifically addressing Judge Thibodeaux, telling the judge that he should be “ashamed of his actions.”

“They blew all their money and they were looking for something cheap,” Rothrock told The Examiner, referring to the county’s $3 million budget deficit and the firing of Smith. “Now, you got to hire a man and finish training him. You got to put somebody in Mark’s place, and then you got to hire somebody that can train Mark. That’s three people you are going to hire in the place of one. Gene is a good man and knows a lot. He knows every branch of the service and what we do. He makes home visits and hospital visits in Houston, working over 40 hours a week. He’s been trying to get help for a long time.”

In the same commissioners court meeting announcing Hammer as the new VSO Officer, office clerk Charlotte Burrell was reclassified as N3 Benefits Coordinator/Clerk 3 to assist Hammer in a larger capacity, Hammer said. It appears that Burrell will be handling both the jobs of secretary and benefits coordinator following Smith’s termination.

Hammer said, “They have cut down on coordinators out here. She’s TVC (Texas Veterans Commission) qualified as a benefit coordinator, so she has just as much training as we do. Instead of handing off (a claim) to another coordinator we had, she’ll be able to fill that position and help answer and fill out forms, if need be.”


Sharon Brooks contributed to this article.