Lake County’s new veterans service officer (VSO) doesn’t need to be told to put himself into the shoes of those he will serve. He has already walked in those shoes.

Matt Pillar, who served with the South Dakota Army National Guard for eight years, became interested in becoming a VSO after receiving assistance himself.

“It wasn’t a job I was aware of before becoming a veteran,” he said. “I worked with several since becoming a veteran. It seemed like a fascinating job.”

Pillar returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with what is known as cumulative trauma. The human body wasn’t designed to wear 50 pounds or more of gear or to spend 10 hours or more in a vehicle that offered little in the form of comfort.

“They weren’t thinking about posture or ergonomics when they designed those vehicles,” he observed, but getting out to take stretch breaks really wasn’t an option. “You stay behind the armor as much as you possibly can.”

Pillar joined the National Guard after graduating from DeSmet High School in 2005 and was initially with the 153rd Engineer Battalion out of DeSmet, which later became part of the 211th Engineer Company based in Madison. The unit was deployed in 2009.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, we were preparing for the 1% of the time when things could get interesting,” he said. “Our job was to clear the supply routes of IEDs. We would lead convoys to smaller outposts and bases.”

As he describes the work, it sounds almost like a zoo. Huskies with metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar led. These were followed by buffaloes which could unearth and move any explosives detected.

He was in the MRAP – mine resistant ambush protected vehicle – which followed.

“Our platoon was direct support for the 101st Airborne,” he said, referring to a light infantry unit of the U.S. Army. “When they had a mission, they told us and that became our mission. We were also on call, so we were a quick reaction force as well.”

Prior to his deployment, he had trained as an electrician, but the recession had made that a difficult profession to enter – especially when employers knew he was scheduled for deployment. Later, a VSO helped him enter a new profession.

“He let me know about vocational rehab,” Pillar said. He is now a certified occupational therapist assistant working for Good Samaritan nursing homes in DeSmet, Howard and Canistota.

His experience taught him that working with the VA can be overwhelming due to the amount of paperwork required to get services, the number of departments involved in obtaining services, and all of the various regulations. Being a veteran simply isn’t enough sometimes.

“I did a lot of my own advocacy, and I’ve had friends – we help each other out,” he indicated. In his case, knowing the medical terminology has been especially useful in helping others.

Those experiences spurred his interest in serving as a VSO, and he began to watch for openings. In working for Lake County, he hopes not only to provide tangible assistance to veterans but also to provide a listening ear.

“There’s got to be a lot of Afghan veterans hurting over the way it ended,” Pillar said. “A lot of veterans who served in Afghanistan sacrificed more than I did, lost more than I did. I want to be part of the solution.”

Although he lives in Lake Preston, he hopes to become involved in community activities involving veterans and plans to continue some of the programs started by former VSO Courtney VanZanten.

Scheduled office hours are Monday and Friday 8 a.m. to noon; Wednesday 1 to 5 p.m.; and by appointment on Tuesday and Thursday. Pillar is looking forward to meeting and serving Lake County veterans.