HURON – On a breezy, unseasonably cool August morning, thousands of South Dakotans who answered the nation’s call to defend her were formally thanked in a Salute to Veterans program at the State Fair.
Two of their own – Walter “Red” Wilk of Huron and Lance Carson of Mitchell – received special recognition for all they have done for others for many years.
“No matter where and when veterans have served, they’ve always served with distinction and their service to this country is a bridge that was built on courage, dedication and patriotism,” said Veterans Affairs Secretary Greg Whitlock.
Since 1775, more than 41 million individuals have served the country during war time, he said.
“Whether in peace or at war, the important role of our veterans cannot be denied. They are men and women from all walks of life that have one thing in common – a love for this great country.”
But he said it’s important that South Dakotans work together to connect veterans to the right resources, programs and benefits.
“They deserve loyalty and respect for all they and their families are asked to bear in the name of the American people,” he said.
“We need to ensure our veterans are not slipping through the cracks.”
A 39-year member of the military when he retired from active service in 2015, Whitlock joined the 153rd Engineer Battalion in Huron in 1975. A decade later, he began his full-time military career.
He said the Department of Veterans Affairs works hard every day to make sure veterans have a seamless transition from uniformed service to productive employment and independent living.
Whitlock is encouraging veterans and their families to visit the department’s booth in the Veterans Building on Flag Avenue during the State Fair.
He is especially encouraging Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans to stop by in light of this year’s passage of legislation entitling them to a presumption of service connection for conditions related to Agent Orange exposure.
“Let this team of experts assist you,” Whitlock said.
Sharing the speaker’s podium was Gov. Kristi Noem, commander of the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard. She said she spoke with veterans services officers about the needs of veterans at an event in Pierre Wednesday.
“We must never forget what one of our greatest presidents told us – Abraham Lincoln – he said we must always honor those who have fought the battle,” she said.
When she visits with school children, Noem said she always talks about veterans because there’s no way to inspire the next generation to step up and serve unless they’re shown that today’s veterans are being honored for having done that.
“We, every day, must talk about our veterans, the sacrifices that you made, the hard things that you went through, what you did to make this country what it is today and show that we still respect and honor that,” Noem said.
The United States is one of only a few countries where men and women volunteer to risk their lives to protect freedoms and liberties, she said.
To assist veterans, legislators have increased the property tax dedication for those who are 100 percent disabled, she said. Professional licensing for spouses of military members moving to a base in South Dakota has been streamlined, and after hearing about it from veterans service officers on Wednesday she said she will introduce a bill in January so veterans no longer have to pay an extra fee to get their vehicle license plates identified as belonging to a veteran.
“We should have you proudly displaying the fact that you served this country and we should have those on your vehicle so that we can honor and respect you wherever you go throughout the state of South Dakota,” Noem said to applause.
Wilk was honored as recipient of the 2019 Chet Sorenson Veteran of the Year Award by the South Dakota Veterans Council.
The award is presented annually to recognize an individual who has gone above and beyond in assisting and advocating for veterans and their families in South Dakota.
A marine who served two tours in Vietnam, Wilk started the Red Wilk Construction American Hero program in 2003 and to date has honored more than 150 veterans from all wars.
The recognition comes during the Bull Bash at the State Fair.
Wilk has also donated financially and with his equipment and crew to assist many veterans memorials in South Dakota and surrounding states.
Carson, who was unable to attend the program, was presented with the Bob Duxbury Award, which since 2006 annually honors an individual for years of service benefiting the State Fair.
Carson is a former state legislator and former chair of the State Fair Commission. Duxbury, the first award recipient, was a farmer, state legislator, secretary of agriculture and chair of the State Fair Commission.
The Duxbury award recipients are chosen by the State Fair Commission, administration staff and the Duxbury family.