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Gov. Henry McMaster has assembled a panel of 12 military advocates to interview applicants to head the state's new Department of Veterans' Affairs. File/Staff

Applications are flooding in to lead South Carolina's newest Cabinet post: secretary of veterans' affairs. 

Since the announcement of the creation of the S.C. Department of Veterans' Affairs, 17 applications have poured in to Gov. Henry McMaster's advisory board created to review candidates who wish to lead the new agency.

While no names for the position have been revealed yet, lawmakers and veterans' advocates are excited for the names they've seen.

"We're getting a vast pool of applicants," said state Rep. Bobby Cox, a Greenville Republican and former Army Ranger. "Whoever the governor picks will be great." 

The Palmetto State's creation of an independent VA program comes from legislation passed in May. In a July 2 announcement, McMaster announced a panel of 12 members to help interview and nominate the agency head. The choice would then be approved by the governor. 

"This is one of those things we don’t need to study any longer," McMaster said during the announcement in July. "It is important to the Pentagon. It is important to our defense. It is important that our veterans, through a Cabinet agency, have the status, attention and focus they have earned through their service to our state and country.”

The new agency is designed to advocate on behalf of veteran needs and protect the military's presence in South Carolina. Its creation underscores the significance of the military in the state. A recent Post and Courier analysis of five years’ worth of spending data from the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment shows $13.1 billion worth of Department of Defense contracts were performed or awarded in South Carolina.

One out of every 12 jobs in the state can be traced back to the military. 

But it also comes at a time when a statewide advocate for the military and veterans is necessary. 

Half of the private companies responsible for housing at five of the Palmetto State’s military installations have been scrutinized by advocacy groups for providing substandard housing to active-duty military families.

Additionally, it comes at a time when suicides at the South Carolina's Shaw Air Force Base have seen an alarming uptick. 

Cox said he believes the new agency will be more in touch to assist with those needs. 

"There's a great excitement for the potential in this department," Cox said. "I have a hope that this will help with homelessness and suicide prevention in the military."

The Defense Department is one of the largest employers in South Carolina. With eight military bases throughout the state, it spent nearly $2.7 billion on paying men and women in uniform in 2017. 

The new department would also be an advocate if the federal government mandated to close or consolidate military bases in the state. 

“In the not so distant future, we may have another round of base closures,” said Sen. Ronnie Cromer, a Newberry Republican and former lieutenant colonel in the S.C. National Guard. “Consequently, we have a lot of veterans that retire here.” 

Perhaps the most notable move that came from the creation of the department was moving the S.C. Base Task Force, a state agency that aims to protect the interests of Palmetto military installations, from the Department of Commerce to the new Department of Veterans' Affairs. 

“It’s a logical place for us to land," S.C. Base Task Force Chairman Bill Bethea said. "We look forward to working with the new organization and we hope to be a meaningful part of the new department." 

Cox said there isn't an exact timeline for the head of the new department to be selected, but he estimated sometime in November. The next meeting of the advisory panel is on Sept. 30. 

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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