Strong in Service to State & Nation: A Plan to Give Back to Our Veterans
South Dakotans have historically served in the military at a higher rate than most states. Consequently, a significant percentage of our population, 7.5%, are veterans. About 10% of those are Native American and 10% are women. Virtually every South Dakotan knows or is related to a veteran or to someone currently serving on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserves.
While South Dakota, both our people and state government, have been supportive of our veterans, there remain several meaningful issues that demand the attention of the Governor’s office.
The impacts of military service are immeasurable. Generations of veterans have applied their military leadership and occupational skills in their civilian lives. Families, businesses, communities, churches, non-profits, service & fraternal organizations and all aspects of society have benefitted from their post-service contributions.
At the same time, veterans from across the generations have suffered the ill effects of their service, including PTSD, homelessness, Agent Orange, traumatic brain injury, burn pit exposure, addiction, suicide, unemployment and more. The impacts of these conditions and their collective toll belong to all of society. The state must be an active partner with the public and the private sector to assist our affected veterans and their families when the need arises.
As a state senator, I have supported veterans causes and will continue to do so as governor. Their service and sacrifices must be recognized and honored.
- Senator Billie Sutton
State Veterans Cemetery
South Dakota has three national cemeteries, but only one - the Black Hills National Cemetery - is conducting new interments. The other two are the Hot Springs National Cemetery and Fort Meade National Cemetery.
We also have three state cemeteries, all of which are West River, including the South Dakota Veterans Home Cemetery in Hot Springs. The other two, Sicangu Akicita Owicahe Tribal Veterans Cemetery on the Rosebud Reservation at White River and Akicita Owicahe Lakota Freedom Veterans Cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Kyle are notable as the first two tribal veterans cemeteries in the country, partially funded through the VA’s Veterans Cemetery Grant Program. On the strength of those successes, three other tribes around the country have followed course.
South Dakota has lacked a veterans cemetery East River, but that’s about to change. The 2018 South Dakota Legislature approved construction of a state veterans cemetery in Minnehaha County on land donated by the city of Sioux Falls. Sutton was a proud sponsor of that effort. The state is currently engaged with the VA on both design and federal funding component for the project.
As governor, Sutton will work with the VA, the South Dakota Veterans Commission and veterans service organizations to ensure the timely completion of this important project.
Michael J. Fitzmaurice South Dakota Veterans Home
The State Veterans home has been located in Hot Springs since 1889, the cornerstone having been laid nine days after South Dakota achieved statehood. That building is still in use and houses the Home’s administrative offices. In 1998, Governor Bill Janklow fittingly renamed the Home in honor of South Dakota Medal of Honor recipient Michael J. Fitzmaurice.
In 2016, a newly-constructed, 100-bed Michael J. Fitzmaurice Veterans Home opened in Hot Springs to better serve the diverse and changing needs of South Dakota veterans by providing both skilled and unskilled levels of care. The 130,000 square foot facility was desperately needed to replace an aging and outdated Veterans Home. Today, residents of the Home enjoys private rooms and all the social and quality-of-life amenities of a modern nursing facility.
South Dakota’s aging veterans will continue to receive the high level of quality care they need and deserve under the Sutton Administration.
With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, coupled with ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been an influx of both older and new veterans into the VA healthcare system. These new patients have created increased pressure on an already overloaded system.
While the VA’s Veterans Health Administration is responsible for the majority of our veterans health care needs, South Dakota still plays an integral part. One example is the service our state and tribal veterans service officers (VSOs) render when veterans need assistance with paperwork and coordination of transportation to medical appointments at VA health care facilities.
The emergence of the VA’s Community-based Outpatient Clinic model has been beneficial in our expansive and largely-rural state by bringing healthcare closer to our veterans. As governor, Sutton will work with our Congressional delegation and the VA to support the further expansion of that clinic system.
Women make up an increasing percentage of our nation's veteran population each year and South Dakota is no exception. South Dakota is home to over 6,500 female veterans.
The state already employs a number of female veteran service officers (VSOs), but more can and must be done to ensure female veterans enjoy the inclusive and welcoming culture they deserve when they present for services and benefits.
Through legislation Sutton co-sponsored, the 2018 legislature created a special classification of vehicle license plate honoring women veterans, an appropriate gesture in recognition of the thousands of women veterans in South Dakota. Those plates became available this July to qualifying vehicle owners.
Sutton will continue his advocacy for policies, programs and practices that ensure our state’s women veterans are respectfully represented and served.
Native American Veterans
Tribal VSOs are present on all of South Dakota’s reservations to assist Native American veterans with their benefit and transportation needs. In addition to the range of services they offer, the TVSOs are valuable sources of information that help to connect veterans with resources such as the Native American Direct Loan Program for qualified Native veteran homebuyers.
It’s notable the first two tribal veteran cemeteries in the nation have been built in South Dakota within the past seven years. The fact that two South Dakota tribes took the initiative to seek grant funding through the VA is indicative of the status afforded veterans and military service in the Lakota culture.
In keeping with that spirit, the 2017 legislature created a special classification of vehicle license plate for tribal veterans. Sutton sponsored the bill. Qualified applicants can select the tribe they wish to portray on their plates. That tribe receives the special plate application fee from the state.
There has been an effort underway for placement of a Code Talker memorial to honor the World War II contributions of those Lakota Sioux soldiers who conveyed battlefield communications in their native language to confuse the enemy. The statue is proposed to be located near Capitol Lake in Pierre. This has been a private effort, and fundraising is underway. As a citizen, Sutton appreciates and agrees with the proposal. As governor, he will support and assist in the effort to bring the project to completion.
While most veteran education benefits are provided through the federal government, South Dakota does provide some state-specific benefits.
In addition to those federal programs, South Dakota veterans, as well as those in the National Guard, are entitled to free or reduced tuition at any state university. Qualifying family members of service members who were prisoners of war, missing in action or killed in action are also eligible for free tuition
Sutton has supported these education benefit programs in the legislature, and will continue to do so as governor.