Last Wednesday, I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs. As I spoke with veterans, their families and local leaders, I was reminded again of how important it is to honor and serve those who have fought for our freedom.
In South Dakota, we have a history of taking care of our veterans dating back to the Civil War. Thousands of Union veterans came to South Dakota after the Civil War, along with a few Confederate veterans, and seven Civil War Generals were buried in our state. In 1889, the Dakota Territory became the first of all the territories to provide a home for its veterans, but not without struggle.
In 1886, Dakotans and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization for Civil War veterans, persuaded the territorial Legislature to pass a bill for construction of the soldier's home, but to their dismay, territorial Gov. Louis Church vetoed the bill. The Dakota GAR spent three years discussing the proposal with the Governor in an attempt to change his mind. The GAR thought their lobbying efforts had been successful until Gov. Church surprised them by vetoing the bill again. The debate continued for several more days until finally, the Legislature overrode the veto.
Just nine days after South Dakota became a state, on Nov. 11, 1889, the cornerstone for the first State Veterans Home was laid in Hot Springs. Ironically, that cornerstone was laid on what we now know as Veterans Day -- twenty-nine years before the date gained its significance with the armistice that closed the First World War.
Just as it was a challenge for the first South Dakotans to establish the first State Veterans Home, establishing the new home in Hot Springs hasn't been easy. Our first request for a $23 million federal grant was turned down. Then the bids came in too high. After the state engineer opened the bids for the project, it became apparent that the amount estimated by the architect would not cover the cost of the Veterans Home. We even planned a special legislative session to allocate more funds so the project would not be derailed.
To find a solution, I worked with the Lieutenant Governor, the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs and members of my staff. We spent many hours considering alternative designs and working with the VA. After months of long meetings, the federal VA agreed to extend our grant, which gave us time to consider alternative designs and bring down the cost of the project without additional state funds.
Before the construction of the first State Veterans Home was complete, Gov. Arthur Mellette told the South Dakota Legislature, "It becomes your duty to provide suitably for the maintenance for those who have so richly earned the gratitude of a patriotic people."
No matter the challenges, we must always work to take care of those who have fought for our freedom. Gov. Mellette never said it would be easy, but in South Dakota, we're known for choosing "the right" over "the easy." Through hard work and perseverance we will continue to give back to those who have given so much for us.