BROOKINGS – As he works toward earning his own degree at South Dakota State University, Marine veteran David Shepherd helps his fellow veteran students via a work-study program.
“What we do here, we basically brief any service members or dependents of service members who have education benefits, what benefits they do have, what’s available,” he said.
He noted that the SDSU Veterans Affairs office is not affiliated with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. “We are the go-between.”
In brief, the office functions as a one-stop shop for veteran students to find out what education benefits they qualify for.
“We know about some of the other benefits from our experiences, but we focus on education,” Shepherd said. “However, the office staff can refer veterans to other points of contact for specific issues and benefits, such as disability.”
A native of the Omaha, Nebraska, area, he graduated from Valley High School there in 2003. He went to college for a year and enlisted in the Marine Corps in March 2005 and went to boot camp in San Diego. He followed that with an additional month of combat training before attending Flight Equipment Technician training at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida.
Shepherd explained that a flight equipment technician is responsible for “all the safety equipment for pilots and aircrew, all the stuff that goes into the planes: life rafts, life preservers, parachutes. For pilots themselves, it would be the vests they wear, the helmets, the oxygen masks, harnesses, everything.”
Traveling, heavy lifting
During nearly 12 years of active duty, Shepherd’s military assignments had him traveling a lot: by air, sea and land. One deployment as a member of an MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) had him flying from San Diego to Okinawa, Japan. He was there for about a month accepting the unit’s aircraft; next on a ship to Thailand for two weeks, followed by a stop in Singapore; then to the Philippines for two weeks to train with Filipino armed forces; back to Japan; and finally back to San Diego.
Six months later, in January 2011, he deployed to Afghanistan for six months. While there he worked on Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift cargo helicopters.
“We basically did a lot of heavy lifting,” he said. “Resupply missions of forward operating units, dropping off food, water and ammunition. At one point we took a bulldozer out somewhere to where they were doing some work.”
On a couple other occasions, Super Stallions picked up Chinooks (also helicopters) that were having mechanical problems.
“Mine was really routine,” Shepherd said of his tour in Afghanistan. “That base that I was on actually got attacked like 15 months later. I left in July. In October of the following year, or somewhere around there, they actually got attacked. They destroyed six planes and killed three Marines.”
Recruiting in Minnesota
Shepherd was later transferred cross-country to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, North Carolina. Next came the final assignment of his nearly 12 years in the Corps: recruiting duty in Rochester, Minnesota, from January 2014 to November 2016.
“Recruiting wasn’t the most fun,” he said. However, he liked the travel and “met some pretty cool guys.”
He signed up about 60 recruits; 45 to 50 of them graduated from boot camp and earned the right to be called Marine; two of those who made the cut are now SDSU students.
“For some of them it was family tradition,” Shepherd said, when asked for some of the reasons people enlisted in the Marine Corps. “Some of it was to be different than their families. I had one girl whose brother was Air Force, one was National Guard, and she wanted to do something different than them.
“I had some people tell me that the perception is that the Marine Corps is the most difficult branch, so they wanted the challenge of that.
“Some people used it as a reason to get away from home, get out on their own, move forward.”
As to why he joined the Marines, Shepherd said he had family members and a family friend who had served in the Corps.
He considered a career in the Marine Corps; but he “had kind of figured out what (he) wanted to do school-wise, move onto school.” Interestingly, he was still a Marine when he started SDSU.
“Technically my second day of classes was my last day in the Marine Corps,” Shepherd explained. “I had two months of vacation time (leave). My first two days of class I was still active duty.”
Also of note is his educational tie between SDSU and the Marine Corps: “I don’t have any school debt whatsoever,” Shepherd pointed out, citing his GI Bill educational benefits.
Looking to work outdoors
Shepherd is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in natural resource law enforcement, “geared toward being a game warden. I grew up hunting and fishing. It’s more of a changing job field every day. It’s not the same thing over and over again. It’s not just sitting in an office all the time. It’s nice to have that change.”
As to his decision to attend SDSU, Shepherd said “A family friend who’s a game warden in Nebraska, I was talking to him. This was the one that’s closest to home.”
The jobs are out there in South Dakota and other places for those willing to move. And while he’d be willing to move, he likes the area where he’s now living.
“I bought a house in Estelline,” he said. “I bought a house up there because it’s a lot cheaper than Brookings. The perfect scenario is to just stay there. But the game warden there has been there for a few years; he likes it, his wife likes it.”
Shepherd would also welcome the opportunity for a federal position, such as in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement.
He started SDSU in January 2017 and will graduate in May 2020. And he’s ready to go to work.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]