‘It is a tremendous honor’

'It is a tremendous honor'
Being a captain in the South Dakota Army National Guard and receiving a prestigious national honor is one thing.

But nothing can be compared to being praised in a personal, face-to-face meeting with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

It's a memory that will never fade for Dennis Bickett of Vermillion.

It's an experience that is so extraordinary that at times it seems to be the stuff dreams are made of.

"It was surreal," Bickett said when, last May, he and 27 other esteemed members of the military watched as a door swung open and they were beckoned to enter the chief executive's office.

"When I saw President Bush standing in his office, it was just the oddest feeling," he said. "It was like – oh, my God, I'm here, and that's the president, and I'm going into his office to meet him.

This elite group of soldiers had each earlier received the MacArthur Leadership Award during a formal occasion at the Pentagon.

The ceremony, held May 16, featured Gen. George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff, U.S. Army; and Rear Admiral (Retired) Jake Tobin, MacArthur Foundation, Norfolk, VA.

"An officer will receive the award based on how they live the ideals of Gen. MacArthur, which is duty, honor, country," Bickett said.

Bickett currently serves as personnel officer for the 153rd Engineer Battalion in Huron.

"But at the time of this award, I was a company commander for Charlie Company

down in Parkston and Platte," he said.

The selection process for this honor is multi-layered. A battalion will select a person for the award, and his or her name continues to the next level, he said. Bickett was selected at each level, and in Washington, he was chosen as only one of six National Guard officers to receive the award.

A similar selection process took place within the Army Reserve and the active duty Army.

Bickett and his wife, Angie, who teaches at Jolley Elementary School in Vermillion, flew to Washington together. Bickett's dad, who works as a truck driver, arranged his routes so he would be in the Washington area in mid-May. The family was also joined by Bickett's brother and a nephew.

At the time the awards were presented, none of the selectees had a notion that the president also wanted to meet with them.

During their trip to the Pentagon, the selectees were told to change their plans because the president wanted to meet them in his office.

Turn to HONOR on Page 14

Two days later, the award winners found themselves gathered in the White House's Roosevelt Room.

"We just assumed that we were far removed from the Oval Office," Bickett said. "And they had us line up alphabetically in the Roosevelt Room. They opened the door, and across the hall you could walk into the Oval Office.

"It almost seemed like a dream-like state," Bickett said. "It was fabulous. It was just amazing."

Each award winner was introduced and entered the Oval Office one at a time.

"We shook the president's hand and said hello, and he gave us each a presidential coin," Bickett said. "We then stood along the wall, and we just assumed that we would walk back out. But he talked to us between 30 and 40 minutes."

There was no media present. The president's purpose was solely to talk to speak, on a personal level, to each award winner.

"He talked to us about the history of the room, decision making in the presidency," Bickett said, "and his feelings on what it was like to be president on Sept. 11, 2001."

The president also talked about foreign policy, and why he felt it was important for the U.S. military to be in Iraq, he said. "He said that even though his approval ratings aren't high in the polls, he felt a moral obligation to continue what we started there. It was amazing."

The guardsman's journey from South Dakota to the nation's capital had its start nearly 20 years ago while Bickett was growing up in Howard. He enlisted in the South Dakota Army National Guard while a junior in high school.

"It seems like it has gone really fast, and it also seems like it has been a long time, Bickett said.

Two decades ago, the perceptions of what was going to be expected of a National Guard member were significantly different.

"My dad had been in the National Guard, and my grandfathers were both in the Army," he said. "The biggest driving force for me getting in the Guard is I'm one of nine kids, and my mom said if you want to go to college, you better find a way to pay for it."

Initially, Bickett had planned to serve a six year hitch while completing his education.

"It was enjoyable, because you had friends in the Guard, but at some point, it just became a lot more than that," he said.

Bickett had achieved the rank of staff sergeant with increased responsibility and increased leadership.

"I think it was at that point that I decided to put in the 20 years and put in the time I need to become successful at this," he said.

Bickett served as an enlisted soldier for more than 12 years. In 1999, at the urging of a National Guard officer, he decided to seek a commission with a goal of eventually becoming an officer himself.

"I decided I would go through a boarding process to get a direct commission so then I became an officer in 2000," Bickett said.

Along with photos and mementos, Bickett and the other award winners each received a 15 pound bronze bust of Gen. MacArthur.

Bickett is the first officer from South Dakota to receive the award.

"It is pretty amazing. I really couldn't believe it at the time," he said. "Sometimes, I'm not sure how I was selected, but I am sure glad I was because it is a tremendous honor and it sure was a lot of fun to go out to Washington, DC."

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