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A Veteran’s Veteran

Published: November 14, 2016

Peter Gravett in right with Gov. Jerry Brown during his time as Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs
PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER GRAVETT
Peter Gravett (r) with Gov. Jerry Brown during his time as Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

If anybody knows the meaning of Veterans Day, which was Nov. 11, it’s Peter Gravett.

“It’s an opportunity for Americans to pause and say, ‘We thank you for your service. We thank you for standing watch. We thank you for going into harm’s way. We thank you for standing up for those who could not stand up for themselves. And, we thank you for wearing the uniform,’” said Gravett, who graduated from CSULB in 1970 with a degree in criminology. “That kind of sounds patriotic, but I hope that it is.”

There aren’t many who have done their patriotic duty to the level of Gravett, who was appointed Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011. That appointment was the culmination of a distinguished 40-year career in the U.S. Army and in the Army National Guard, during which time he also served more than two decades in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

During his career he served in various countries in Asia, South and Central America, Western and Central Europe and the Pacific. In his final military assignment, he was the commanding general of the 40th Infantry Division where he was eventually promoted to Major General, becoming the first African American in the 225-year history of the National Guard to command a division.

During his tenure with the National Guard, he simultaneously served the LAPD in a variety of supervisory, management and police-support roles, his highest rank being that of Watch Commander.

In a way, his careers in the military and law enforcement were preordained.

“My interest piqued when I first saw my father in military uniform and it just kind of stayed with me and when I was a teenager I joined the military,” he said, noting he was one of nine siblings who went into the Army. “I always wanted to do two things. I wanted to be in the military and I wanted to be a police officer. I was very fortunate in that I accomplished both.”

His father, Clarence, was a Tuskegee Airman during WWII, though Gravett is quick to point out he wasn’t one of the famed pilots, but rather a corporal who served honorably in a support role. Still, he said, they all received the now-famous moniker of Tuskegee Airman.

The CSULB alum credits his parents—Clarence and Alice—for providing a solid foundation on which to stand strong, not just for him, but for his other 10 siblings.

“They had a great impact on us for their entire lives,” said Gravett. “Growing up, Sunday school and church was mandatory, dropping out of school was never an option and going to college was expected, and we all went to college on our own dime.”

Clarence Gravett generally worked two full-time jobs to support the family and Alice worked on and off when not tending to her large brood, according to their son.

“I’m proud to say we were never on welfare,” he said. “It would have been easy for them to get, but my parents didn’t believe in it as long as they could work and provide.”

Getting appointed to Gov. Brown’s cabinet was an extreme privilege for Gravett, who said it honored his family as well.

“It meant a lot. It meant that someone had recognized the work I had done on behalf of veterans for a number of years,” he said. “It meant that someone saw me as able to serve in a leadership role. I saw it as more of an honor for my family than as a personal honor for me.”

Surprised when he got the initial call, saying it came out of the blue, his appointment was of a whirlwind nature.

One of Gov. Brown’s cabinet member’s informed Gravett that the governor was interested in appointing him to his cabinet and asked if he would be interested.

“I said, ‘Yes’, depending on the position because I didn’t want to accept a position I was not qualified for,” said Gravett.

Told it would be as Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was interested.

A couple of late evening calls from the same member of the governor’s cabinet, followed by a meeting with Brown and his wife the next morning, was all it took.

“The following night, the same individual called and said the governor was appointing me as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, ‘And, oh by the way, you start tomorrow morning,’” chuckled Gravett. So, before even being officially sworn in, he was speaking before a veterans’ conference in Los Angeles.

In his cabinet role from 2011-14, he oversaw approximately 2,500 individuals, including two assistant secretaries and eight deputy secretaries. The job, simply, was to serve the veterans of California and their families in a wide variety of ways.

“When I was appointed as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I considered it like I was doing service for my family,” said Gravett, “so it was very personal with me.”

There are approximately 22 million veterans in the nation, with about 10 percent of those living in California. More than half of California veterans are located in three of the state’s 58 counties-Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego. The responsibilities are great, as are the challenges.

“It’s a big job,” noted Gravett, “but I had a lot of support from some really high-quality individuals.”

Similar to his careers in the military and law enforcement, Gravett’s path to CSULB was also somewhat inevitable. His family resided in nearby San Pedro and an older brother was a student on campus, so he visited often.

“I always wanted to go there,” said the 2016 Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Health and Human Services. “It was my school of choice.”

And, it was a good choice, providing Gravett with a good education and plenty of positive memories.

“I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. “I was working full-time and attending school part-time so my time on campus was limited, but I took advantage of it. What I really enjoyed was the TGIF where every Friday in the quad they had entertainment. They had bands playing and, as a matter of fact, I believe that’s where The Carpenters got their start. I also attended basketball and football games, so I had a lot of fun.”

His connection to the CSULB campus continues to this day as he and his wife, Blanche, a retired educator and Army National Guard colonel, take part in alumni functions which includes attending the summer Concerts at The Beach series.

“Those are very nice,” he said of the concerts, “and I like the new location.”

In addition to his military and law enforcement careers, Gravett has volunteered to a number of organizations, including his church, the USC School of Public Policy, Saint Mary’s Hospital and Mission Readiness, a group of retired generals and admirals who focus on fighting childhood obesity. He has been recognized with more than 20 military awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.