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One-third of SD vets reached in operation

South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Zimmerman has so many stories regarding Operation Reaching All Veterans, he can't keep them straight.

During one recent outreach event, in which he meets with local veterans and notifies them of their military benefits, about 30 people were in attendance. Following that meeting, the county's veteran's service officer was contacted by seven veterans who were not on the county's list.

He doesn't remember which county that happened in, but Zimmerman says that is proving the state's outreach campaign is working. The state is trying to reach all 75,000 veterans in South Dakota, and so far, more than 25,000 veterans have been contacted, he said.

Zimmerman calls 100 veterans a month. In larger counties, veterans are being contacted at a rate of around 500 per month.

"It really has been fantastic," he said earlier this week in an interview with The Daily Republic. "We're discovering hundreds of stories."

About 25 of the state's counties are considered to be complete in Operation RAV, meaning the county VSO has attempted to contact all registered veterans in those counties. Zimmerman said the state is calling veterans up to three times to try and make a contact before moving onto the next veteran.

Typically, a veteran will file a claim with their local veterans service officer for a variety of potential benefits, such as health care, education funding, home loan guarantees, compensation claims and pension plans. Those claims are forwarded to the federal level, where benefits are distributed to qualifying veterans.

Davison County Veterans Service Officer Steve McClure said he's noticed in particular a ripple effect from contacting veterans. The county, which has 1,500 veterans, had a local event in April at Mitchell Technical Institute, with about 20 veterans in attendance. McClure hopes to hold another event this fall.

"You'll have a veteran down at Cubby's talking to the guys, having coffee and they'll start talking about benefits or claims, and that will get some of the others thinking about that," McClure said.

McClure said he feels the project is making an impact.

"The veterans I've dealt with feel more service connected," McClure said. "They've never pursued this before."

Zimmerman said some of the connecting with veterans and their families has involved diffusing some of the local concern about what is being done at U.S Department of Veterans Affairs facilities around the country.

Government officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., allegedly hid how long veterans were waiting for care, in many instances much longer than the two- to four-week window the VA requires. Investigations have been launched at 26 other VA locations.

Zimmerman said South Dakota's facilities have had few problems and believes part of that is because the federal and state arms for veterans services work in close contact. He said in Sioux Falls, those two offices are across the hall in the VA hospital.

"It's a continuing story and from what I understand, South Dakota has been pretty honest with their care," he said. "We've always been one of the top states for answering what veterans need."

That said, Zimmerman said the state has a duty to make sure veterans' needs are being met and that's the reason for the statewide campaign. There's not any extra money being allocated from the state to contact veterans. The job requirement is being added to the traditional duties of a VSO.

Zimmerman said he made contact with a Vietnam veteran and his wife in the western part of the state. When the veteran suffered a fall soon after, Zimmerman said the wife called him up and asked about hospitals and options for care.

He said the largest population of South Dakota veterans are those of the Vietnam War, where a major concern is related to Agent Orange, which is herbicide that was used heavily in Vietnam. If a veteran has a type of cancer or respiratory issues, Zimmerman said identifying those available to get benefits is among the most important things the VSOs can do.

Zimmerman said the pensions of those who served in World War II or those left for widows is also one of the more frequent issues the campaign is revealing. McClure said he's worked to get some of those veterans or their spouses into local nursing homes, if possible.

"We have good facilities locally and if we can take advantage of those for veterans or their spouses or widows, we want to," McClure said.

South Dakota received about $480 million in aid for veterans last year. If more veterans begin taking advantage of the services and benefits for which they're eligible.

"We're going to be done with this mission at the end of the year, just like a typical military mission," Zimmerman said. "But the work is never done."