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Operation Reaching All Veterans spreads its message to S.D. vets

MITCHELL, S.D. — These days, Earl Nebelsick has trouble hearing.

Nebelsick, 81, was in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955, and worked as both an artilleryman and a paratrooper, though he was never deployed overseas.

"When I got out they really did a poor job of checking the hearing," he said.

Nebelsick, of Mitchell, recalled a hearing test he was given as he was leaving the Army. He was taken in a room and asked to turn his back to another person, who dropped a pin to the floor.

"If you heard it, you raised your hand," he said.

Nebelsick, who now wears hearing aids, said he now believes his hearing was impacted by his time in the military.

Nebelsick was at Mitchell Technical Institute on Thursday, along with about 20 others, to attend an event hosted by the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs as part of a veterans outreach program known as "Operation Reaching All Veterans."

"I just wanted to find out what benefits veterans have that I may be interested in," Nebelsick said.

South Dakota Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Zimmerman said the events are meant to give the state's veterans the opportunity to learn about services they may not have known about and benefits they may not have received.

"I have veterans from every era that might have been missing something for decades, or we have these new veterans that just haven't had the time to go in and check," Zimmerman said in an interview by phone Thursday with The Daily Republic.

There are about 75,000 veterans in South Dakota and, according to Davison County Veterans Service Officer Steve McClure, about 1,500 veterans in Davison County.

"The goal is to see each and every one of them either eye-to-eye or speak to them on the phone," Zimmerman said.

Kevin Bowen, a South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs Field Officer, was the primary speaker at the event Thursday. Bowen answered a variety of questions from veterans on a range of topics, including veterans health care, pensions, compensation for service-related injuries and death benefits.

Bowen said a common issue, and one that has only recently been addressed, is compensation for veterans exposed to agent orange, a chemical used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, who have since suffered from heart disease, Parkinson's disease and certain types of cancer.

There will have been similar Operation Reach All Veterans events held in 29 of the state's 66 counties by the end of the month, according to Zimmerman. In addition to the events, the department's staff are contacting thousands of veterans by phone each month.

"We are going to try to call them and touch base with them, and see if they're aware of their rights as a veteran," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, who described the Operation Reach All Veterans as a "vast undertaking," said he has personally called more than 200 veterans as part of the initiative.

There have been a handful of complaints from veterans who have had problems with VA in the past, Zimmerman said, but responses have been largely positive.

"Every one of them has thanked me," he said. "I think the vast majority have been that same way."

The much-publicized backlog of veterans' claims at the federal level has not been a problem at the state level -- at least not in South Dakota, Zimmerman said. South Dakota has been among the best in the nation in getting veterans their benefits in a timely manner, he said.

"We have just nil to nothing as far as year-old cases in South Dakota," he 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, that amount could go up, Zimmerman said.

Still, the initiative would be worth the effort no matter the amount of aid the state receives or the number of veterans who are helped, he said.

"The numbers are not as important as being able to get that one person, or family, possibly life-changing benefits," he said.
 

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