PROGRESS 2022: A stabilizing force — New IVH commandant brings innovative ideas, energy to position
When Matthew Peterson was approached about taking a new job as the commandant at the Iowa Veterans Home and uprooting from his life with his wife and kids in the Austin, Texas, area, he chose to think of it in military terms. It’s just another deployment, after all.
Peterson, who retired from the Marine Corps as a Major in 2019, has earned rave reviews in his first year at IVH with his willingness to go the extra mile and for a series of innovative ideas he has proposed. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Peterson’s boss, has taken notice: in May, it was announced that he would be appointed as the director of Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs while the VA and IVH were combined into one agency, and Reynolds praised Peterson’s “extraordinary leadership” during his first 10 months on the job then.
In a recent statement, Reynolds reiterated previous sentiments of support for her commandant.
“As Governor of the State of Iowa, it is important to me that our veterans receive the high-quality care they deserve for selflessly serving our country and fighting to protect our freedoms. Thanks to two decades of leadership in the Marines, and an impressive post-retirement career, Major Peterson’s unique set of qualifications has greatly benefited the lowa Veterans Home,” she said. “He also brings deep appreciation for the military service of the veterans whose care he oversees. His experience and dedication has paid dividends for the home, its staff, and its residents.”
It’s been quite a journey from what Peterson described as “being a cowboy” and teaching in Texas to overseeing Iowa’s largest nursing home, but he’s done his best to take it all in stride.
“Those were not things that I was necessarily called to, and I didn’t know, necessarily, what I was called to, just that those were things I was interested in. But I didn’t feel like they were the next career for me,” Peterson said of his prior jobs. “(IVH) just felt like something I was called to. It felt like that thing that I wasn’t just interested in, but it felt like a true calling.”
An important connection
Although he grew up all over the country as the son of a career military man, both of Peterson’s parents’ roots are in Iowa — his father, who now works at IVH, is from Red Oak, and his mother is from Spencer. Because of that, he came into the orbit of veteran turned U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst — herself a Red Oak native — during his final duty station in Washington, D.C., and the two kept in touch periodically afterward.
Last summer, as Peterson was preparing to head back for another year of teaching in Texas, Ernst reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in the commandant role at IVH. In May, Gov. Reynolds had removed his predecessor, Timon Oujiri, and an eventual investigation by State Auditor Rob Sand revealed over $100,000 in improper payments to Oujiri.
A difficult decision faced Peterson for several reasons beyond the aforementioned controversy surrounding his predecessor. For one, he would be entering a completely new industry and a huge organization full of new people, and secondly — and even more important to him — his two children, a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, had spent most of their lives moving every two to three years due to his career in the military.
It led Peterson and his wife to make a tough choice: she and the kids would stay in Texas, and he would fly back to Texas to spend time with them every other weekend. They talk on the phone or Facetime almost every day, and the family visits Marshalltown on holidays.
“The decision to take this job had to be balanced against what was in their best interest, so it was my wife who said ‘Let’s just treat it like a deployment,’ which is certainly nothing new for us… So that’s what we do,” Peterson said. “They love Iowa, but Texas is where they planted some roots at a pretty delicate time in their lives, and that’s what we’re trying to facilitate. It’s a burden a little bit, but the truth is, honestly, as much as I work, even if they did live here, I wouldn’t see them much more than I already do… There’s some struggles, but it works out.”
Penny Cutler-Bermudez, the division administrator and licensed nursing home administrator at IVH, saw stability as paramount in making a hiring decision, and she appreciated Peterson’s willingness to stay long term and turn the job into a career.
“Matt’s joined the Chamber of Commerce, the 13th Street District, the Kiwanis (and) military organizations. Everyone knows Matt in our community in such a short time, and it makes a difference,” Cutler-Bermudez said. “People are coming out and excited to be part of this, and we needed that as a facility. We also needed someone who had a history of leadership that was strong and wanted to build a team that could be encouraged to be autonomous in their leadership but also collaborative.”
Peterson said he has received an outpouring of support — from the governor, the Marshalltown community and the residents and staff at IVH — since taking the job, and once he felt it, he knew he was in the right place. From the very beginning, he has operated under the mindset of “We’re not going to fail.” The leadership team may make mistakes along the way, but they’re not going to fail.
A fresh set of ideas
Early in his tenure, Peterson identified what he considers the three fundamental issues facing IVH — recruiting, retention and admissions.
“They all overlap each other, and I knew that in order to affect those things, we had to affect the community,” he said. “So community involvement became kind of a tertiary supporting priority of those three primary priorities.”
He hasn’t been afraid to share ambitious ideas and long-term goals, whether they fall into the category of community engagement or solving the labor shortage: one of Peterson’s first major proposals was to launch a large child care facility on the IVH campus, and he’s also brought in low-risk inmates from the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville to perform foodservice labor. He has successfully recruited Marshalltown Community Theater (MCT) to perform at the Whitehill Assembly Hall, and with some help from the Quaker Oats Valor group, he recently oversaw a massive renovation of the IVH baseball field with the intention to host little league games again in the future.
On top of those initiatives, Peterson has led the charge to establish a new American Legion post comprised exclusively of IVH residents and staff members who are veterans. Last fall, he obtained his CNA certificate so he could help out on the floor as a result of staffing shortages. He has implemented various recruitment bonuses and raises to attract more employees, and the northside cottages are currently in the process of being remodeled, which he hopes will bring in workers from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago.
“If you’re tired of working in these big metropolitan areas where traffic is horrible and people are just kind of stacked on top of each other and cost of living is outrageous, come to Marshalltown for three days out of the week,” he said. “Work 12 (hours) on, 12 off, and while you’re here, I’ll pay for your lodging. You can live right across the street from where you work, and then you can go back to wherever you live for the other four days out of the week.”
In his interim VA director position, he’s already started an outreach line and is working to communicate with veterans wherever he can find them, whether it’s via the radio or social media.
Not every idea can be implemented overnight, and Peterson is still consistently facing down more immediate threats like COVID-19 at a facility whose residents are almost all at a higher risk due to other health factors. Even on that front, however, he’s seen major progress: last month, 17 residents out of the almost 400 who live at IVH tested positive for the virus, and only five were symptomatic at all. Of those five, four experienced mild symptoms, and only one faced serious illness (she has since made a full recovery).
Through it all, he’s kept his nose in the data and done his best to protect residents and keep the spread of the virus under control, pointing to an infection rate five percent lower than the rate among the general public in Iowa.
“This is literally the most vulnerable population demographic that there is for COVID, and we’re pretty concentrated,” Peterson said. “So for us to have beaten the rest of the state in terms of infection rate is just a testament to the diligence of the staff that on a day-to-day basis are showing up, putting on their masks, putting on their goggles, sanitizing (and) testing.”
Cutler-Bermudez noted Peterson has launched a resident council to ensure they are involved in decision making, and she expressed optimism that he’ll be the longest tenured commandant since the late Jack Dack, who served in his post for 33 years.
Before Dack, there were 11 commandants between 1887 and 1969, and since he retired, there have been 10 more between 2002 and the present.
“Frankly, he’s the gold standard,” Peterson said. “Whether it’s 33 years or whatever it ends up being, the key that I think Penny hit on is just stability… It’s not so much about one person’s tendencies or style over another, it’s just about what the entire organization can expect.”
Looking over the horizon
Despite all of the challenges Peterson, his residents and his staff have faced over the last year, he feels IVH is well-positioned for the future with plenty more excitement to come. Marshalltown has weathered storms both literal and metaphorical over the last four years, and the commandant is proud to be a part of the recovery process.
Peterson keeps a literal map of his short and long term objectives at his desk in the commandant’s office, and he refers to an old but still useful adage — your goals should be so big that they scare you.
“It’s ambitious, and some of those things sometimes feel out of reach, but your goals should scare you a little bit. Those are some ambitious, intimidating goals that are on there, and they do scare me a little bit,” he said. “And they do scare me a little bit, and sometimes I think ‘Man, I’m fooling myself. We’ve bitten off way too much here.’ But then you see things like the baseball field coming together.”
In those moments, all of the hard work, toil, trouble and nights spent mulling over life-changing decisions seem worth it for Peterson, and so far, the Marshalltown community has embraced him with open arms.
“It’s been a difficult couple years for us, and to have Matt come in and acknowledge how hard it’s been but (also) where we can move in the future and look at ways to bring people in through or housing or whatever we haven’t thought about with fresh eyes, there is an excitement,” Cutler-Bermudez said. “We’re seeing change in our whole openness to looking at things differently, and I think it’s exciting.”