Veterans gather in Mitchell as community hosts South Dakota VFW convention for first time

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Jun. 10—MITCHELL — It takes nearly 45 minutes to read the names.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars memorial tribute ceremony Friday morning, June 10 at the First Presbyterian Church in Mitchell, district commanders from around South Dakota recited the names of fellow organization members who died over the course of the last year.

It is a quiet, somber moment during the ceremony, but an important one, said Barbara McKean, a Parkston resident and state commander for the South Dakota Veterans of Foreign Wars, who was in attendance at the proceedings.

"It's very humbling to hear the names of our veterans read. It makes me appreciate what we do," McKean said.

McKean was one of dozens of VFW members present for the memorial service, which was part of the 92nd Annual South Dakota VFW and Auxiliary Convention, which is being hosted by the Mitchell community for the first time in history. The event has attracted about 150 registered members and guests from VFW posts around the state, all here to remember and discuss important issues related to veterans and the issues that affect them.

Having the convention in Mitchell for the first time is a great opportunity to show off the community to colleagues from around South Dakota.

"It feels great having it in Mitchell. It's a great community and it has great resources. We're happy to bring some veterans and their family members into Mitchell, and we're hoping they partake in all the stores and businesses," McKean said. "So far, everything has been really nice."

The convention itself is a time to conduct organizational business, discuss issues important to organization members and prepare lobbying efforts and well as remember their fellow members and reflect on their service and its importance.

McKean said important issues are a considerable part of the dialog that goes on at state conventions, and this go around is no different. One such issue is veteran health problems associated with military burn pits. Until around the mid-2010s, burn pits were commonly used in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas locations to dispose of waste collected on military bases.

Those burn pits have been suspected to be the cause of respiratory illnesses in veterans in recent years, and it's something the VFW would like to see addressed.

"We talk about a lot of this during our sessions. We talk about legislative issues and resolutions," McKean said. "In July, we go to (the VFW National Convention) and our legislative representatives will take our voice from our meetings. That is what we bring forward to represent how South Dakota feels on those types of issues. Naturally, it's very important to us. That's one of the reasons we exist."

There are other aspects to the convention, as well. The camaraderie brought about by the shared experience of their service is strong among attendees, both those among the VFW itself and its auxiliary members, who are also convening at the same time.

The Davison County Fairgrounds is acting as headquarters of sorts for the convention, and includes several displays that are open to the public, said Martin Christensen, quartermaster for for VFW Post 2750 in Mitchell.

"We do have exhibits out there. We have a Korean War display, which is really nice, as well as a display from the South Dakota National Guard Museum in Pierre," Christensen said.

He noted modern new vehicles, such as an electric Ford F-150 truck will be on display, as well as vintage automobiles like a World War II-era Jeep. Those exhibits are open to the general public and are usually open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. through the end of the convention, which runs to Sunday.

Christensen said the convention serves many purposes, including as a recruiting tool to help the VFW fill out its membership and leadership ranks. The organization is always looking for new people to get involved in programs and leadership, and having a mass of members together in one place can be a good way to encourage non-members to consider joining up.

"We're also working to recruit new members to the VFW and getting the younger veterans, so it can be passed down," Christensen said.

Both the past and the future were on the minds of those in attendance at the memorial service Friday morning. Just prior to the traditional rifle salute and performance of Taps that would conclude the ceremony, Mel Olson, a longtime Mitchell educator and former state legislator, gave the address at the service. In that address, he reflected on service members in his own family, as well as reflections on the sacrifices those in uniform have chosen to make in protection of freedom and their fellow Americans.

"We have to remember that these men and women who have passed were complete people. They were men, they were women. Fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. They were asked to serve, and they could have done what other people did. They could have faked an injury or gotten a doctor's note or run to a foreign country," Olson said. "But they didn't. They heard the call of the country."

As those military members heard the call, so must everyone honor their memory, he said.

"We owe them everything," Olson said.