Changing of the guard as SD general retires

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By Steve Young
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) April 2011

The young boy standing in a garden with weeds hanging from his hands stared at the fighter plane roaring overhead and dreamed of flying one day.

Steve Doohen never imagined sending young South Dakota men and women off to war back then. He never considered that he might be debating budget cuts with old soldiers someday.

He simply thought it would be cool to fly, like the World War II heroes – Joe Foss and Duke Corning – soaring across the Sioux Falls skies in their P-51 fighters above him.

It’s a good memory, an older Doohen says recently as he talks about the dream that propelled him from boyhood in southeast Sioux Falls 50 years ago to the job he is retiring from now – as head of the South Dakota National Guard with a rank of major general. The job oversees both the state’s 3,400 Army National Guard members and 1,050 Air National Guard men and women.

Brig. Gen. Timothy Reisch, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, is replacing Doohen as head of the South Dakota National Guard.

Few men who have held the title of adjutant general of the South Dakota Guard have faced the challenges Doohen has in his 31/4 years at the top.

He not only sent hundreds of South Dakotans off to Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s also presided over a Department of Military and Veterans Affairs that has taken significant budget hits during the economic downturn.

He has had to console the families of those killed in action. He’s seen the hurt of communities where he’s had to close armories.

Former Gov. Mike Rounds sensed Doohen would handle all that well when he appointed him to be his adjutant in September 2007.

“What caught my attention with him was his interest in the men and women,” Rounds said. “His focus was always on manpower and the people involved, how they were treated, and compassion for them and their families. I knew then he was the right man for the job.”

There is nothing like standing on a platform at a mobilization ceremony and staring out at soldiers and their families, said Doohen, who turns 62 today. A fighter pilot learns early not to show his emotions, but that’s not as easy for an adjutant general gazing into the faces of those going off to war.

“I had a tough time being up there, keeping my composure as I looked at their faces,” he said. “It is very humbling.”

Nor is it easy to stand over the caskets of South Dakotans killed in action. It’s a small state, and Doohen was still months away from becoming adjutant general when Staff Sgt. Robb Rolfing of Sioux Falls was killed in Baghdad. Rolfing had played soccer with his sons, Doohen said.

“It hit very close to home,” he said, “when the Rolfings lost Robb.”

Today, the Rolfings can’t say enough about the Guard support they got at the time of their son’s death. And it didn’t end after the burial, said Rex Rolfing, now a city councilor in Sioux Falls. A banner program initiated through Doohen’s wife, Gloria, continues to honor those with South Dakota ties killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, including his son, Rolfing said.

“What a wonderful couple,” he said. “They made sure that others know how important these guys’ memories are, not only for us, but the state and country and people of Sioux Falls as well.”

It wasn’t unusual for the Doohens to show up at a Guard family’s house at Christmas with gifts for children who were missing their father and maybe didn’t have many presents under the tree.

And when Gloria Doohen found dozens of World War II coins in a storeroom at the Soldiers and Sailors Building in Pierre –  left over from a ceremony honoring that generation’s veterans – the Doohens visited numerous nursing homes and communities to present coins to World War II vets who had not received one.

“There were some very touching moments,” Steve Doohen recalled. “It was amazing how much World War II veterans appreciated these small coins.”

Of course Doohen, who rose through the ranks of the Air Guard in Sioux Falls to become its wing commander, then assistant adjutant general in charge of the Air Guard for the state, has his detractors as well. Under Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s mandate to cut state government 10 percent, Doohen said he had to cut back or eliminate spending in several areas, “though I don’t believe any of the cuts directly affected the benefits that veterans receive.”

Money was cut that helped the Disabled American Veterans transport vets to VA hospitals and clinics with their 27 vans. Money to supplement the travel by and salaries of county and tribal veterans service officers also was cut. And DAV director Gene Murphy said a loan program for needy veterans was eliminated in recent years, too.

“I’ll say we disagreed on issues,” Murphy said of Doohen. “But I still think we’re friends.”

Doohen said he hopes counties will pick up the shortfall in county and tribal officers’ salary and travel costs. And he thinks his department can help the DAV again when the economy improves.

“Veterans will still have access to the vans,” said Steve Harding, deputy secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs. “They might just have to make them run an extra year.”

There have been larger discussions as well - on building a veterans home East River, on the wisdom of replacing the century-old veterans home in Hot Springs, on a controversy over the military discharge record of former Veterans Affairs Director George Summerside, and on splitting the Military and Veterans Affairs Department into two.

“I can’t blame the general for all that,” said Rick Barg, state adjutant for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “But he hasn’t always been the most user-friendly for veterans in my mind.”

Others who know Doohen well disagree. Thanks to his efforts, Hot Springs is scheduled to get a new veterans home. And Doohen’s push to partner with a private nursing home East River should create a 50-bed wing for veterans on this side of the state someday.

“Steve was always a kind guy, a forgiving guy, turning the other cheek even in these disagreements,” said Mike Birnbaum of Rapid City, chairman of the South Dakota Veterans Commission. “He always respected what the others were saying, even after the conversation ended.”

His leadership helped the Air Guard in Sioux Falls land 22 newer F-16 fighter jets a year ago, said Col. Russ Walz, commander of the 114th Fighter Wing. That gives South Dakota an advantage over other state Air Guard units when it comes time to secure the next generation of fighter jets – the F-35s.

“He really did give South Dakota a leg up,” Walz said.

Of course a boy dreaming 50 years ago never pondered such things. He probably never even imagined that, given the chance to fly, he would hang in the sky more than 4,500 hours in a variety of single-engine fighter jets.

The truth is, as Doohen makes his way through retirement parties in Sioux Falls and April 1 in Rapid City, his dreams these days are about time spent outdoors, and telling his sons how the fish are biting instead of having to call them for reports while he sat in some meeting.

“I never dreamed that I would end up this way,” he said. “But you know what, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. It’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.”




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