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For Swift County VSO, a firsthand perspective

BENSON -- Fresh from a deployment near Iraq, Dave Barrett is back at his job helping Swift County veterans apply for benefit programs.

Barrett, the Swift County veterans service officer, said he has a "new appreciation" for his family, community and country after returning home last month from active duty.

The veterans he serves also seem to have a new appreciation for Barrett.

The first things the World War II, Korea or Vietnam-era veterans say when they walk into the office is "welcome back and thank you," said Barrett. "It's very humbling."

Being a military veteran is a requirement for working as a veterans service officer. But it is rare for a veterans service officer to be an active member of the military.

Barrett, 27, is a technical sergeant with the 934th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserves based in Minneapolis.

He'd been deployed before, from 2003-2005, and spent about 4½ months in Oman.

When he took the county job in January of 2008, he knew a second deployment was possible. But he was still a little surprised when he got the word in February of this year that he would be deployed again for seven months, including 4½ months in an unnamed country south of Iraq.

Since his first deployment he had gotten married, had a child and had taken his new job serving the veterans of his county.

But Barrett, who was born in Germany while his father was serving in the military there, had the support of extended family to make sure his home and young family were taken care of while he was deployed.

He also had Sandy Rodahl, who has worked in the veterans service office for 38 years, to take care of things in the office during his absence.

A representative from the Minnesota Veterans Affairs Department came to the office a couple times a month and other veterans service officers from neighboring counties pitched in to help with cases, he said.

Services for veterans were maintained without a hitch while he was gone. "I kind of hate to say that," said Barrett with a grin.

Since the warm welcome home extended by the community, Barrett said it's possible that word of his second deployment could bring more veterans to the office.

Soldiers who have served during wartime share a common bond no matter the age difference, he said. That commonality makes it easier for veterans to sit across the desk from Barrett to discuss options for veteran benefits.

Barrett said he's eager to talk to veterans to let them know about the new programs that are available, whether it's medical care for older vets or the GI education bill for new veterans. Not only do the benefits improve quality of life for veterans, the benefits also show that "their service is recognized."

Barrett enlisted in the military when he was 17 and a senior at New London-Spicer High School. He's contemplating another 10 years in the Air Force Reserves.

That could mean future deployments that would require him to once again leave his job in the basement of the Swift County Courthouse.

If that happens, he knows the county veterans will still be taken care of while he's gone and he'll return home with an even deeper appreciation for his home and the veterans who served before him.