Craig Bennett has been on the job as the Davison County veterans service officer for less than two years, but his impact has been noted.
Bennett was picked as the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs’ County Veterans Service Officer of the Year for 2019 during an awards program recently in Pierre. The department recognized Bennett for his “outstanding commitment to enhance the lives of veterans by securing their benefits in a timely fashion and submitting flawless claims.”
Bennett, hired as the county’s VSO in January 2018, said he does not do the job for notoriety, but appreciated the honor, given on Aug. 26.
“I don’t do this job just for me, because that’s not what this job is for,” he said Tuesday. “This job is to make sure that every veteran that I see, and their family and their spouses are all taken care of to the best of their abilities.”
Bennett — a native of Colorado Springs, Colorado — served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years as a senior enlisted member, and then was a retired Senior Chief Navy Counselor in 2001. Bennett also worked for the Federal Health Administration Center, helping administer benefits to eligible veterans dependents. In addition, he worked for nine years in the Veterans Administration regional office in Sioux Falls.
In his job, Bennett works with veterans and their families regarding applications for health care, pension information, missing military records, service-related benefits, compensation for dependents.
In his time in the job, Bennett has quickly built a reputation as someone who works both hard and smart for veterans. Multiple veterans have told the Davison County Commission in recent months they appreciated Bennett’s efforts on their behalf.
“I would say that from the 22 years I spent in the Navy as a senior enlisted person and a retired senior chief, the one that comes to mind that was never acceptable to me was that phrase ‘Well, we’ve always done it that way,’” Bennett said. “If we don’t look at alternative opportunities and we don’t change with the times and adapt and improve, nobody is going to go anywhere. I feel it is my charge as a senior enlisted (member) and as a veteran, to take care of veterans the best I can. That’s my charge and my big push.”
Bennett said he feels some of the out-of-the-box thinking has helped in both his office and around the state. He said programs like the Disabled American Veteran van program and its volunteers — which transport veterans to appointments in Sioux Falls multiple times per week — are examples of local programs that are working well.
“It’s starting to make an impact,” he said. “We’re making new programs available.”
Some of the programs Bennett is currently working the most on is the VA’s Care in the Community program, which allows a non-VA health care facility to provide medical care when it’s not feasible at a VA facility or if it can be done more economically or if another facility is more appropriate geographically. He also helps veterans with the federal eBenefits program, and the My HealtheVet program, which is the VA’s online personal health record program. Another main focus is the VA Mission Act, which was signed into law in 2018, which required the VA to consider criteria such as wait times, quality of care and distance from a VA facility in its access to health care.
“All of those things are a critical part to making sure that veterans across the state are being contacted,” Bennett said, adding the cooperation of state and federal agencies has helped get more opportunities in front of veterans.
Davison County Veteran Services and the Project 147 organization will host a veterans benefit and wellness fair on Sept. 21 at the Corn Palace upper gym, where veterans can learn more about various health care options.