An elegant droplet-shaped emblem of a job well done, inscribed with the words “South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs Outstanding Veterans Service Officer of the Year Award 2022”, sits tucked into the corner of a small wooden table in front the office of Pennington County Veterans Services Officer Lee Borries – but what surrounds the award tells the real story.

The modest display of the award, more prominently flanked by informational brochures, business cards and resource materials for veterans, is indicative of a broader approach Borries takes to his work. The price is nice, but the real validation comes from the veterans it serves.

Borries, in his second year as a veterans services officer, sees his post as an opportunity to help veterans navigate a complex and often convoluted system, but also as an opportunity to listen. .

A 21-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Borries brings veterans a level of relatability, but also a humble dose of lessons learned.

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Borries grew up in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where her grandfather—whom Borries never met—had been stationed in the Air Force. Raised by a mechanic and a teacher, Borries said he was good with his hands and joined the Air Force six months after high school as a mechanic.

Postings took him to Rapid City, Missouri, and then to Rapid City, where he retired in 2020 and entered the maze of post-military life. He described his transition as difficult, taking it all on his own. He went through the VA, without using a VSO.

“I’m a perfect example of what not to do when you get out of the military,” he said. “I screwed up quite a bit, but this position showed me what I need to do to rectify that. And I think that’s good, because it benefits other people.

While Borries’ military and transition experience lent itself to a future with the VSO, the seed was planted when he participated in a transition assistance program while still on active duty. Perhaps the biggest influence, however, was a visit from a VSO from Pennington County, who gave a 30-minute presentation on the benefits available.

“I thought it might be a cool job,” Borries said.

Fast forward about a year after his retirement from the Air Force, and a position has opened up in the Office of Veterans Services. He applied, and out of some 40 to 45 applicants, the rest is history.

“It was a little shocking,” he said, but he was also confident in what he could bring to this position and to his fellow veterans.

In addition to his military experience, he brought the human skills acquired as an instructor. He learned to read a play, he said, to read people and to understand what he needed to do to get the most out of a conversation.

For many veterans who walk through the doors of Borries, they have never been listened to before, he said.

“They never heard anyone say, I’m here for you, to help you achieve your goals. And sometimes that’s the most important thing,” Borries said.

The position is part adjuster, part salesman and part therapist. Borries said the bulk of their work is disability compensation — VA health care claims, survivor benefits, processing burial benefits, addictions, and compensation for survivors of veterans who died of a service-related disability.

They make the whole process easier, Borries said.

“We spend the time necessary to get to know them. Not just one-on-one, but understanding what they’ve been through in their military careers and maybe giving them ideas about something they’ve never thought about,” he said.

Finding common ground and listening are central to Borries’ approach. While he brings relativity as a veteran, the nuances of different military branches, different military experiences, and different perspectives make Borries an eternal student.

“Treat them with respect, treat their situation with respect, don’t reject anything. Find a common bond and work together for a common goal,” he said.

The efforts of the VSO office often impact veterans’ relationships, quality of life, and even lasting friendships. Borries said he sees lives deeply impacted and many tears regularly. He told stories of veterans struggling to make ends meet, only to discover after a visit to the VSO that they no longer had to work.

Borries said appointments can last two to three hours and typically last two to three weeks. He acknowledged that the wait can be frustrating, but once they’re in the room, it makes all the difference.

“It’s not like when I walked by and applied for my disability, and a guy from VA came in and said, ‘Okay, what’s your list’ and I gave him the list, he said, ‘Okay, have a nice day,'” he said. “We get to know them, listen to their story, exchange and take away information that may be useful to them .”

Though he’s reluctant to dwell on it, Borries’ dedication to veterans is exactly why he was recognized by the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this summer.

Borries learned about the award at SDDVA’s annual benefit conference in mid-August, surrounded by hundreds of people and more than 50 VSOs. Hamburger in hand, hearing his name announced was the last thing he expected. In fact, he thought he was unloved.

“I’m very aggressive when it comes to veterans, and sometimes that ruffles the feathers,” Borries said.

The assault, which Borries described as not taking no for an answer and demanding accountability on behalf of his veterans, is exactly what Greg Whitlock, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, said he wanted.

“I just didn’t think they had a very high opinion of me. But you know, in the end, it’s for the best for the veteran. So it was surprising. It really was and I didn’t expect it,” Borries said.

The award, while sympathetic, won’t change its approach, he said.

“For every veteran, it’s the same level of care, which is the best I can give,” he said.

Pennington County currently has three VSOs serving Pennington County’s approximately 14,000 veterans – Borries, Tom Vallette and Heather Funk. The office added its third position earlier this year, following a banner month for the office.

“We keep breaking our record every month,” Borries said.

He hopes the growing number could, in part, represent successful outreach efforts, with more veterans being made aware of their services.

“If it only reaches one person and it has a profound impact on their life, then it’s worth it,” Borries said.

For more information about the Office of Veterans Services, or for those who wish to speak with a Veterans Services agent, call 605-394-2266 or visit pennco.org/veteransservices.

–Contact Laura Heckmann at [email protected]

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