Looking back over his entire career, Larry Zimmerman finds the highlight was becoming a noncommissioned officer in the South Dakota National Guard.
It was that moment that he was truly in a position to lead and look after his fellow soldiers, said Zimmerman, whose career reached another milestone this week.
“The NCO becomes a person that can manage people, and work with soldiers and taken care of soldiers and provided for them in any capacity – physical, mental, spiritual,” Zimmerman said.
In 2009, as State Command Sergeant Major, Zimmerman’s charge was the 2,900 enlisted guardsmen in South Dakota.
On Tuesday, his charge became the 70,000-plus South Dakotan veterans as Zimmerman became the state’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The state Senate unanimously confirmed Zimmerman last week, following his appointment by Gov. Dennis Daugaard to the newly created post in September. The department separated last year from the Department of Military Affairs, where it had been a division since 1973.
Zimmerman said he
submitted his resume for the post because the announcement of the department’s creation in 2011 had sparked an interest in him. Since he was on active duty and recently returned from Afghanistan, helping veterans have a stronger voice in government appealed to him, he said.
“I’m almost 60, but I’m not ready to completely quit working. If I can do jobs that I love, that’s what I’m going to do,” Zimmerman said.
Lt. Gov. Matt Michels said Zimmerman stood out from other candidates, as a leader, military officer and “just a basic South Dakotan.”
“The governor and I are stunned by his stellar record, his compassion and his capabilities,” Michels said.
At the time Zimmerman still had more than a year left of National Guard service, and Michels said he and the governor decided to wait for their candidate. In the meantime Michels served as the interim secretary.
From that experience, he said the biggest issues Zimmerman will face is connecting veterans with all the organizations and benefits that can support them. It will also be a tall order geographically speaking.
“His biggest chore will be traveling around the state quite a bit,” Michels said.
Zimmerman said he has looked at the department’s core function and is building a strategic plan. But for now his rallying cry is “Voices for Veterans,” in conjunction with a mission statement to provide veterans and their families with all benefits due them, he said.
“Just show that we are caring for veterans. Help them, guide them and give them paths to all the services and resources provided for them,” Zimmerman said.
He wants to not just deal with the number of veterans but also to know their names and ensure they are supported.
“My goal is to watch, and observe and find a way to touch each of those 70,000 veterans,” he said.
A native of Belle Fourche, Zimmerman’s first taste of military life came when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1973. Describing himself as “a bit too young for Vietnam” – he recalled going through basic training with the last draftee from Iowa – he served for three years and eight months at Fort Carson, Colo.
He became a mail carrier after returning home, and spent 34 years working for the U.S. Postal Service, notably serving as Postmaster in Pierre, Spearfish and Sturgis.
In 1989 he joined the National Guard. The motivation, he said, was threefold: patriotism, the Postal Service’s willingness to grant military leave, and his need for the extra money to provide for his wife and three children.
He earned a Bronze Star medal for a tour in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 helping train Afghan military and police forces.
Maj. Anthony Deiss, a spokesman for the South Dakota National Guard, said his organization is excited to have Zimmerman appointed as to the position. He has a tremendous amount of experience, coming into the position fresh after nearly 30 years of service, Deiss said.
More than that, Zimmerman understands veteran issues and while with the guard would daily give up time to counsel and advise soldiers, airmen and veterans, Deiss said.
“It demonstrated how invested he was in making sure we took care of people,” he said.