Mitchell's Thomas recognized with 2023 Veterans Service Officer of the Year Award

Sep. 11—PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs (SDDVA) recognized five of their partners for outstanding commitment, leadership, and dedication to serving veterans and their families, including TJ Thomas, veterans service officer for Davison, Hanson, Jerauld and Sanborn counties.

The award ceremony was held in Sioux Falls during the Department's annual veterans' benefits training conference for county and tribal veterans service officers (CTVSO).

Thomas was awarded the 2023 Veterans Service Officer of the Year Award. He was honored for his excellent customer service, his dependability, his willingness to mentor new members of the team and for completing tasks in a timely and accurate manner. Thomas' offices serve over 1,800 veterans.

"Providing quality and effective service to veterans and their dependents is, and always will be, our number one mission," said Greg Whitlock, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs. "Our staff and our county and tribal veterans service officers advise, counsel, and assist veterans and their families in receiving their rightful benefits. Our inspiration and direction comes from the rich history of American veterans and their unique contributions to our nation."

Lisa Schenzel, veterans service officer for Union County, received the 2023 New County Veterans Service Officer of the Year award. Schenzel was recognized for her desire to grasp and utilize information to assist her veterans and for her outstanding ability to communicate with veterans and their families. Schenzel's office serves over 1,200 veterans.

Kevin Bowen, SDDVA veterans field service officer for east central South Dakota, was awarded the SDDVA 2023 Outstanding Department Staffer of the Year award. Bowen received this award for his cheerful attitude, his knowledge, his pride in helping veterans, and his willingness to always assist a coworker or CTVSO.

David Huntimer, SDDVA appeals and training manager, was named the 2023 South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs Outstanding Leader, Mentor, Advocate of the Year. Huntimer was honored for promoting a culture of learning and understanding, and for his dependability and willingness to work hard.

The Sioux Falls VA Regional Office was presented the 2023 SDDVA Partner of the Year Award. The VA Regional Office have a legacy of cooperation, dedication, reliability, openness, accessibility, flexibility, and commitment.

"These awards are a testament to the power and collaboration of great associates," said Whitlock. "As long as we continue to work together and support each other, we will continue to do amazing things for our veterans."

The South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs and its partners assist South Dakota veterans in receiving over $1 billion in annual benefits. The department's mission is to provide comprehensive care to veterans and their families regarding healthcare, education, disability benefits, long-term care, and burial honors. Visit the Department online at

The South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs will host a State Bridge Dedication Ceremony to honor U.S. Army Lieutenant Peter H. Monfore, son of Howland and Gertrude Monfore of Springfield and Sioux Falls.

The ceremony will be Saturday, Sept. 16 at 2 p.m. at the Community Services Center in Springfield, located at 605 8th Street. The Emanuel Creek Bridge on South Dakota Highway 50 west of Tyndall will be dedicated to Lt. Monfore.

On Sept. 19, 1951, Monfore's company was ordered to lead a night assault on Hill 851 during the battle of Heartbreak Ridge in North Korea. His company was successful in capturing Hill 851. Monfore was killed in action that day while defending his position on Hill 851.

Naming bridges in honor of our combat veterans who died while serving their country is an initiative of Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Departments of Military, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.

"Whenever and wherever this nation has been called, in times of darkness and danger, as well as in times of peace and prosperity, veterans have been there and have proudly carried the torch of liberty for all to see," said Whitlock.

Whitlock said such ceremonies are a chance to remember and reflect on fallen heroes.

"Our fallen heroes are no longer with us, but their memories live on in the hearts of their loved ones and our state," said Whitlock. "Naming our South Dakota bridges in honor of our fallen gives us the opportunity for remembrance, reflection, and respect — for honoring the men and women who gave their lives in service to this nation. They cherished liberty and loved freedom enough to lay down their lives to preserve our way of life."

Noem also partnered with the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs to proclaim Friday, Sept. 15, as "POW/MIA Recognition Day." The recognition will be a chance for South Dakotans to pay special honor to the Americans who have been prisoners of war, to those who remain missing in action, and to the families and friends of these valiant servicemembers.

"We are grateful to all of those who have served our nation. On POW/MIA Recognition Day, we take extra time to remember and recognize the sacrifices endured by those members of the Armed Forces of the United States who were held as prisoners of war or remain missing in action," said Whitlock.

Whitlock said remembrance is one of the best ways to honor those individuals.

"There are many ways to honor the men and women who have defended our liberty in our military service," said Whitlock. "We honor them by remembering them and their accomplishments, and by pledging to never stop trying to build the world for which they sacrificed so much. We honor them by cherishing with all our hearts the freedoms they paid such a price to defend. We honor our veterans by meeting our part of the solemn compact we have with every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman to find them and bring them home if they are captured, missing in action, or fallen on the battlefield."

Whitlock said the sacrifice made by POWs and those gone MIA is significant and worthy of such honor.

"In their service to our country, former prisoners of war and those missing in action have sacrificed mightily to maintain the promise of liberty that we hold dear. POW/MIA Recognition Day gives us all a great opportunity to reaffirm our vow to never forget the courage of our nation's staunchest defenders — our POWs and MIAs. They led lives of great consequence," said Whitlock.