Now serving three counties, the Davison County Veterans Service Office is growing with the goal of becoming a regional hub for those services.

In December 2020, Davison and Sanborn counties reached an agreement for Davison’s veterans service officer Craig Bennett to serve veterans in Sanborn County. On Tuesday, the Davison County Commission voted to approve a similar agreement with Jerauld County.

Bennett’s department now includes Alexander Kraus, who was reclassified Tuesday from part-time to full-time, giving Davison County two full-time employees in that department, a rarity among counties in South Dakota.

Next up in the regional affiliation could be Hanson County, Bennett said, where talks have been had about joining the Davison-based veterans service group. He said an agreement with Hanson County could be in place by the end of 2021.

Long-term, Bennett said the goal is to develop the regional hub out of Mitchell to provide veterans services to a seven-county area, which could include Aurora, Hutchinson and Miner counties in the future, as well.

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“We see this as something that will only grow and improve over time, because we know we can do a good job,” Bennett said, noting the office has worked hard to provide good customer service.

It is made possible with the addition of Kraus, a native of Alaska, who served in the U.S. Army for 11 years with a combat tour in Afghanistan and active duty service in Kuwait, Qatar and South Korea, and is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.

Prior to joining the office as an administrative assistant in January, He has recently been a student at Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell Technical College, and said he’s eager to help make connections with potential students on those campuses who are veterans.

Both Jerauld and Sanborn counties will pay Davison County $7,500 per year for contracting the veterans service duties. Bennett said that Sanborn County has about 200 veterans, while Jerauld has about 150. More than 1,300 veterans are served in Davison County, as of 2019.

The largest grouping of counties served by a single veterans service office — which files disability claims for veterans, pension and burial benefits, along with headstone requests — in the state is three. Hughes, Stanley and Sully counties are served by a single office, while the same is the case for Jones, Lyman and Mellette counties. In much of rural South Dakota, small counties that have their own VSO employee only have office hours for a handful of hours in a week or in a month.

The regional philosophy taking off pleases Davison County Commissioner Denny Kiner, who has been a longtime advocate of Mitchell being a center for veterans services.

“I think the regional approach is one that we’ve been looking at for three or four years now. With the rural areas that we have in South Dakota, a number of the regional counties are only represented for a few hours a week or one day a week,” Kiner said. “What we think we can provide here with a regional office to provide day-to-day activity for any veteran that needs assistance with a two-person office.”

Kiner, a 28-year military veteran who has served on the commission since 2009, said he can personally attest to the impact local veterans service assistance can provide working with the Veterans Administration for veterans to receive benefits that they have earned.

“I think it’s well overdue and I know it’s worth it, being a veteran myself and seeing the help I’ve got, I know it’s beneficial for veterans around the area as well,” Kiner said. “I want them to be able to get the same help that I was able to receive in this county because I live here.”

One primary concern from the rest of the commissioners was regarding making sure the veterans service office doesn’t overextend itself and become stretched to the point where the quality of service diminishes. Bennett said he’s committed to making sure that doesn’t happen, and has grown to work strongly with Kraus.

“We work very well together,” Bennett said. “We’ve made some changes to improve our process, we are able to pick up each other from one task to the other. It’s a good yin and yang thing.”