As I write this, the 2016 Legislative Session is just four days away. It will be a busy week at the Capitol as lawmakers return to Pierre to start filing their bills and considering proposals. It’s also going to be a big week for South Dakota veterans.
Three years ago, the Legislature passed a bill to build a new State Veterans Home. We had some challenges, and establishing the new home in Hot Springs has not been easy. Our first request for a federal grant was rejected. Then the federal government changed standards midway through our design process, forcing us to redesign the building. Then the bids came in too high.
Lt. Gov. Matt Michels and the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs spent many months reviewing our costs and working with the VA. Ultimately, the federal VA agreed to extend our grant, which gave us time to redesign and simplify the building, to reduce the cost of the project without sacrificing quality.
Though we’ve encountered many hurdles along the way, the State Veterans Home is finally finished. It has been completed on time, under budget, and it’s debt-free. Move-in day is Wednesday, Jan. 13, and staff will be holding a grand opening event in the spring.
On another front, for the past two years, the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs has been on a mission to contact all veterans in South Dakota. With over 70,000 veterans, this has been a challenging undertaking.
Operation Reaching All Veterans garnered national recognition and was awarded the National Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award. Then in 2015 Operation Ketchup was launched, with hopes of locating still more of South Dakota’s veterans. More recently, the Department has been working on a new effort – Operation Korea – with the Republic of Korea.
Over 60 years have passed since an armistice was signed to allow United States troops to come home from the Korean War. Wedged between World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War is many times referred to as the “Forgotten War.”
In an effort to thank our heroes and to let them know they are NOT forgotten, the Republic of Korea began dedicating Ambassador of Peace medals to all U.S. Veterans who sacrificed for South Korea’s democracy. After I conclude my State of the State Address on Tuesday, the state Department of Veterans Affairs will be holding a Korean Peace Medal ceremony where hundreds of South Dakota veterans will be receiving the “Korean Ambassador for Peace Medal.”
With the first week of session coinciding with these two big events, I am reminded it is because of the men and women who have served that we are a government of the people. Although there’s no way to fully compensate for the service these individuals have given, we must always remember those who have fought for our freedom.