Before any patrol or battle, service members will often establish a Rally Point, a safe place to reassemble if they have a problem, need to refit, or just need rest. Similarly, I believe the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs (SDDVA) should operate as a Rally Point, providing resources, support, and guidance to the state’s 72,000 veterans. Like many aspects of state government, South Dakota does a lot right in this area, but there is room for improvement too.
OPERATION: RALLY POINT
Prioritize customer service within SDDVA. While our nation has promised veterans certain benefits, such as healthcare, retirement and education, the systems created to deliver this assistance are often complex, counterintuitive, and slow. Most of these programs are under federal jurisdiction, but states can play a powerful role in representing veterans and ensuring each receives the benefits to which they’re entitled. That’s why it’s critical we continue to have a stand-alone SDDVA. Additionally, with efficiency and service in mind, my administration will:
- Employ pro-active Veteran Service Officers (VSOs), providing them with sufficient training and instilling a culture of customer service;
- Better educate County Commissioners and Tribal Councils of the resources offered by VSOs and the responsibilities County Commissioners and Tribal Councils have in supporting VSOs;
- Work to ensure the SDDVA is connecting veterans with the mental health resources they are eligible for; and
- Foster greater collaboration between VSOs and the congressional delegation, each of whom employ caseworkers that specialize in navigating the VA and other federal bureaucracies.
Expand employment opportunities for veterans. Most service members take up second careers after their military service. As we grow the state’s economy, we must work to help veterans find their place in the private sector. As governor, I will:
- Lead by example. The state of South Dakota already employs more than 1,000 veterans. I will continue to seek out qualified veterans, as well as members of the National Guard and Reserves, to serve within the state government.
- Actively support veteran hiring programs. In part because of legislation I fought for, employers can receive benefits for hiring veterans or supporting those serving in the National Guard and Reserves. The South Dakota Department of Labor must continue to help employers and veterans better understand and utilize these programs.
- Give credit where credit is due. The South Dakota Board of Regents has been active in giving graduation credit to veterans for the training they received during their time in the military – something I will continue to support and encourage.
- Recruit veterans to fill South Dakota employment needs. Many industries face tremendous difficulties recruiting skilled labor. In many cases, veterans can fill those gaps.
- Review licensing requirements. As outlined in my Kickstarting the Economy proposal, my administration’s review of state licensing requirements must explore, among other things, options to fast-track veterans and military families, letting their experience count so it’s easier to work in South Dakota.
Support public-private collaboration to address transportation shortfalls. Especially in rural communities, transportation to and from appointments is a challenge for veterans. While most areas cannot support a robust public transportation network, we’ve seen multiple partners successfully band together in some areas of the state to offer more reliable options. More specifically, the same system that gets veterans to appointments at the VA, takes kids to after-school programs at the Boys and Girls Club; it also assists disabled and low-income individuals in getting to and from work. We must encourage alliances like this. Additionally, my administration will work to continue leveraging South Dakota’s tremendous volunteerism rate, actively encouraging folks to fill remaining transportation gaps.
Expand digital literacy among veterans. The average age of an American veteran is 61 years old. While many are tech savvy, some struggle with computer skills that could make accessing benefits and resources easier, particularly in rural areas where it’s difficult to get to Pierre or Sioux Falls. As governor, I will work to build partnerships between local libraries, schools, and veterans groups to improve digital literacy among veterans.
Maintain Hot Springs as The Veterans Town. There is no community in America so dedicated to delivering what our veterans have earned than Hot Springs. Tucked in the Black Hills, the Hot Springs VA Hospital provides a level of serenity that aids in the healing process – especially for those facing post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and similar illnesses. Despite all this, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was incrementally depleting the services offered in Hot Springs and pushing forward a plan to close the facility altogether. Alongside many South Dakota veterans, I’ve battled the VA to keep the facility open. While we’ve made significant progress, this fight is far from over. As governor, I’ll be just as committed to saving the Hot Springs VA Hospital. Additionally, I will continue to ensure the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs is a world-class facility for South Dakota veterans and their families, making certain The Veterans Town can continue delivering the services veterans have earned.
Preserve a final resting place for South Dakota veterans. In May 2018, President Trump signed legislation I helped write to triple the Black Hills National Cemetery’s size. The mere fact that the cemetery needs expansion is a testament to the astounding number of South Dakota patriots who have answered the call to serve. But more can be done. More than two-thirds of South Dakota veterans live on the eastern side of the state, yet the closest cemetery to the area is more than 200 miles away in Minnesota. I am deeply supportive of the state legislature’s efforts to establish an East River Veterans Cemetery and will work as governor to bring the project to completion.