Dwight Bradham Jr. doesn't know every veteran in Aiken County – yet – but he's getting close.
Since he became the director of Aiken County Veterans Affairs in January 2016, the number of veterans and their family members the office serves annually has nearly doubled.
“We had just over 8,000 veterans and their families we were assisting when I came on board,” said Bradham, a U.S. Army and Army National Guard veteran, at his office in the Aiken County Government Center. “We're now over 14,000 – pushing 14,500. We get new veterans coming in every day. Right now, for the office overall, veterans in Aiken County are receiving over $30 million in compensation services.”
But Bradham knows more veterans who need to be reached.
“The biggest thing right now I still need to do is find those lost veterans who haven't come in yet. Those are the ones I'm still trying to reach,” Bradham said.
The Veterans Affairs office provides professional counseling and assistance to more than 15,000 veterans and their 40,000 dependents living in Aiken County who apply for various state and federal benefits available to them for honorable service in the United States Armed Forces, according to the office's website. Benefits might include medical care or college tuition and textbook stipends for veterans and their families.
“Our motto has always been: serving those who served. It's doesn't matter if they served in wartime or in peacetime,” Bradham said. “For all of our veterans who were willing to stand in the breach and defend this nation and everything that it stands for, for us in this office, that is our mission and our primary goal. One of my other goals when I came on board, I wanted to make Aiken County as veteran friendly as possible.”
To achieve that goal and to reach even more veterans who might not know they are eligible for benefits and services, Bradham developed partnerships with Aiken County's 28 veterans services organizations and other community groups. Those organizations include what Bradham called the “big six”: the American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Marine Corps League, Military Officers Association, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
He also contacted Area Churches Together Serving, or ACTS, and Forces United, formerly the Augusta Warrior Project.
“They're a local grassroots organizations in the CSRA that provides things to veterans that don't fall within the scope of VA programs,” Bradham said. “They're able to provide assistance and resources to veterans who are in need.”
Bradham also connected with veterans organizations at Aiken Technical College and USC Aiken, which, for the fourth year in a row, recently was named a “Best for Vets” university by “Military Times.”
Last summer, the Aiken County Public School District was named a Purple Star School District that welcomes and supports military families and students of servicemen and women.
All of those connections helped create a local network Bradham's office and veterans can tap into for services and support.
“Now that those things are in place, if I have a homeless veteran who comes into the office or veterans who might be self-medicating due to issues they may have encountered during military service, pretty rapidly we can look at getting them some assistance,” Bradham said. “My biggest issue is not having the ability to expand my staff as of yet. I've definitely talked to County Council and the legislative delegation, and they're working to help us.”
Bradham works with a staff of two, Laurie Rollins and Christina Quarles. Quarles, who is in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, is the office manager and the Veteran Service Officer for Aiken County Veteran Affairs. Her grandfather served in World War II, and her siblings have been in the Army, Marines and Coast Guard.
“Their passion for serving veterans runs very, very deep,” Bradham said.
Bradham's family has military roots, too, and he calls himself a “third-generation soldier.”
Bradham's great-uncle served during World War II, and his father, Dwight Bradham, served in the U.S. Army and did two tours in Vietnam.
“I've got pictures of my dad from 3 years old up in his little Army uniform,” Bradham said.
After Bradham's father left the military, he missed it and joined the S.C. Army National Guard.
“He ultimately came here as a recruiter from 1978 until 1989 or 1990,” Bradham said.
Bradham, who graduated from Aiken High School in 1982, initially planned to pursue soccer scholarships to college.
“That was my senior year,” he said. “We made it to the state playoffs, and I got kicked in the face as a soccer goalie. The scholarship opportunities dried up, and I found myself enlisting in the National Guard. I joined when I was 17 and on Nov. 7, 1981, was sworn in.
“I figured I'd go in, do my time and then look at getting out and moving on with my life. But the more I got involved, the more I enjoyed it. I ultimately ended up going on active duty myself.”
Following his dad's career path, Bradham became a recruiter in Aiken working at Aiken High, his alma mater.
Today, some of those recruits have become veterans he and his office assists.
“I'm still taking care of them,” Bradham said. “I'm on the other end now, saying, hey, I want to make sure we're doing what we can for you.”
Bradham also had planned to follow his father through the ranks as an enlisted soldier, but when Stanhope Spears, the former Adjutant General of South Carolina, came to Aiken to be the marshall of the city's annual Memorial Day parade, he asked Bradham why he had never gone to Officer Candidate School.
“He said we really need you,” Bradham said. “He must have been a recruiter, too, so I found myself in Officer Candidate School.”
He graduated with honors and was commissioned Aug. 16, 1999. He also graduated with honors from signal officer basic training at Fort Gordon in Augusta. He also earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a focus in business and administration from Excelsior University in New York.
After 9/11, Bradham deployed overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. Bradham returned to South Carolina in a recruiting command.
“I was responsible for standing up our recruit sustainment program, which essentially gave new enlisted folks in the S.C. National Guard an opportunity to make sure that they are mentally, physically and administratively prepared so, when they go to their active duty training, they're going to be successful.
“I was the grandfather for that program to get it started up. When I took over the initial program, we had about 600 new enlistees. When I handed it off, it was over 1,800 enlistees, and South Carolina has always ranked in the top 10 for that program.”
In December 2011, Bradham volunteered to be part of an agribusiness development team deploying to Afghanistan and “do some nation building.” He stayed until April 2013, and the assignment became the culmination of his military career.
“I had to apply the recruiting salesmanship I had learned through my military service, the planning, everything I learned as I moved through the ranks,” Bradham said. “Everything had to be applied there.”
In the Helmand province, a desert area in southwest Afghanistan, Bradham trained Afghans to teach other Afghans farming and marketing skills that had been abandoned, often because of the Taliban. The assignment had a personal connection for Bradham.
“In the '70s, Afghanistan was a very, very successful country when it came to exporting. They've got cotton that has a higher tensile strength than here. My family was cotton farmers, so I know,” he said.
Within six months, Bradham and his team engaged with local civilians and helped them develop cooperatives. The team developed four training sites and, working with Clemson University, introduced six different hybrid crops, one that grew as fast as Kudzu.
“First thing, all the farmers held out their hands,” Bradham said, “but we told them we're going to teach you and give you the knowledge to stand on your own two feet as a proud Afghan. You will be able to continue to support yourself and your family and earn a living.”
Bradham still keeps in touch through LinkedIn with a friend he made in Afghanistan.
“He tells me that over 40,000 farmers and their families have trained using this same technique,” he said.
Bradham felt connected to the Afghan farmers, but he also volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan for another reason: to ensure the future safety of his family, his wife, Heather, and two daughters, Emily and Isabella.
“The second deployment to Afghanistan, I volunteered for that one because I didn't want to see another 9/11,” he said. “If through the United States' ability to work with different countries and allies to look at minimizing or neutralizing a terrorist situation, my daughters aren't going to have to worry about airplanes flying into buildings or getting on the subway and getting gassed. They're not going to have to worry about going to a major sporting event or going to an amusement center and all of a sudden being targeted.”
At 50, Bradham retired from the military after 32 years of service – 28 on active duty – and went to work as a logistics supervisor for a local private company, but he missed working with servicemen and women and veterans.
Bradham then worked through Operation Palmetto Employment, an organization launched by then S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley to help “the state's military service members, their family members and veterans find meaningful civilian careers,” according to its website.
“More and more, as I continued to help veterans with jobs, I was helping them with benefits. I was getting veterans calling me who asked me to help them file claims,” Bradham said.
Toward the end of 2015, Bradham got a call that Col. Jim Harris, the former director for Veterans Affairs for Aiken County, was retiring and would he apply.
Bradham did and was chosen from more than 100 applicants.
Bradham is a members of South Aiken Presbyterian Church, the American Legion and the Military Officers Association.
He is the veteran service officer for American Legion Post 71 in North Augusta and VFW Post 5877 in Aiken.
Bradham's military awards include The Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Achievement Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Meritorious Unit Commendation and the NATO Medal.
When he's not engaged with veterans, Bradham finds time for this hobby: music. For many years, he played guitar and sang with The Revolaters, a local band that performed covers of beach and shag songs, classic oldies from the '50s and '60s and '80's music. But even his avocation engaged him with veterans.
“We played at the VFW Post 5877 every Friday night,” Bradham said. “With the money they had from when we played, they reinvested in the building. They put a new roof on it. They paved the parking lot. They made all of these improvements.”
On some nights, the post's commander would bring in veterans from VA hospitals to give them an evening out.
“We would play for free on those nights,” Bradham said. “We had one Vietnam veteran who had been so shell-shocked that he had no emotion on his face. You couldn't get him to smile or laugh.
“He would come in. They would sit him down and put the food in front of him. He would eat, but that was it. He didn't talk. But when we would start playing, we'd see his foot tap, and we knew we had something good there.”