By Curt Nettinga
HOT SPRINGS – To say that Dan Cullen’s path to become the Veteran’s Service Officer (VSO) for Fall River County has been somewhat circumferential could be an understatement.
Cullen, 52, has been the VSO since being hired from a list of applicants by the Fall River County Commission this summer. He has hit the ground running and really enjoys his positions – in the veteran’s community and in the Southern Hills.
“It’s been a good four months,” he said recently in his basement office of the Fall River County Courthouse. “I am grateful to be able to do this to help my fellow veterans.”
Cullen said that the main function of the VSO is to assist veterans understand and access the benefits available to them. “There are many things,” Cullen said. “Educational benefits, I help them with questions about vocational rehabilitation, pensions and medical benefits, getting them the correct paperwork to make sure they receive the benefits that they have earned.”
Helping veterans is what Cullen does now, but early in his life, as many people are, he was unsure about what direction to take.
“I grew up in Thief River Falls, Minn.,” he said. After graduation he worked in the oil fields, on a farm and other part-time work until he reached a point where he decided “it was time to make a career.”
“I’m not sure why the Coast Guard came to the forefront,” he said. “I remember when I was in high school watching a Coast Guard helicopter making a rescue during a flood in Illinois on the news. That’s the only explanation I have.”
Cullen entered the Coast Guard with designs of becoming a bosun’s mate, a sort of jack-of-all-trades on a ship, but that changed early in his career.
“I had been on a ship for about a while and was not really loving it,” he said. “I noticed that there was a regular helicopter crew that dropped off batteries and such and asked where it was they were based.” Cullen said he was told that instead of sleeping in cramped quarters on a base – or on a ship - the crew slept in hotel beds.
“Well, that sealed it for me,” said Cullen, who tops out at 6-feet, 6-inches and found shipboard accommodations somewhat cramped.
He transferred to the aviation wing of the Coast Guard and became a hoist operator, transferring supplies and rescuing people. “My first chopper was an H-3, which is actually amphibious,” he said. “We could land if the water was calm enough. Otherwise, our rescues were done with the hoist.”
He said that he remembered one rescue where a boat sank in the Gulf of Mexico with eight people on board. When the chopper arrived, Cullen was able to reach out and pull a pregnant woman, who was holding a baby, aboard the chopper.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” he said. “They had no lifejackets or anything.”
A 30-year career led him to different postings around the country. His final duty station was in Alaska, flying on rescue missions over the Aleutian Islands.
On a trip through the area several years ago, Cullen and his wife Brenda happened to stay overnight in Hot Springs. “It was one of those really gorgeous evenings, you know? Mid-70s, light breeze and we could see the entire town from our cabin. I remember thinking that this was really a beautiful place.”
They purchased land near Angostura, but with no firm house plans, wound up purchasing a fixer-upper in Edgemont. “Edgemont is such a warm and friendly town too,” Cullen said. “The goal is still to build near Angostura, but Edgemont is a fantastic town.”
For now, he continues to help his fellow veterans navigate the Veterans Administration’s benefits landscape. Each Thursday he makes it a point to attend a meeting at the Hot Springs VA, where new veterans are oriented to the area, making contact and introducing himself; explaining what he does.
“I want them to know that there is someone to help them if they want help,” he said, “and at no charge to them.”
He fields calls from throughout the country, some from veterans who have passed through the area and contacted his office before, some from family members who have established a relationship with the Fall River County VSO office.
As Cullen can attest, sometimes it’s about the destination as much as the journey.