Milhelcic touts importance of National Guard, veterans’ care
By Steve Ranson, Nevada News Group
This story was originally published by the Nevada Appeal.
SPARKS–Although the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars had a whirlwind tour of various programs and groups in northern Nevada, Matthew “Fritz” Milhelcic emphasized Jan. 7 the military service organization remains vigil in the need to support veterans and their local posts.
Milhelcic attended Nevada’s Mid-Winter conference in Sparks Jan. 6-9 that was hosted by VFW Post 3396 in Sparks. The Sparta, Illinois, resident said the VFW is here for the veterans, families and communities. Additionally, he showed a strong affinity to the National Guard.
While visiting the Nevada National Guard’s Military and Family Support Services with several state VFW officers, Milhelcic learned of issues facing the Guard and how assistance can reach more veterans.
The stop at both the Nevada National Guard’s Plumb Lane Armory and the Nevada Air National Guard Fire Department at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport revealed Milhelcic’s early roots in the military. He was a security policeman with the Air National Guard’s 131st Tactical Fighter Wing from 1989 to 1999 and also deployed to Southwest Asia as part of the Desert Shield and then Desert Storm callup. When he spoke to firefighters, Milhelcic said he’s a firm believer in the National Guard.
“People don’t understand how much the Air Guard does for their country,” he said.
Milhelcic said the Air Guard’s fire station is connected to a busy airport, but remarked firefighters are doing a civilian mission as well as a military one. During his stop at the airport, fire Capt. David Morris, who is also a tech sergeant in the Nevada Air Guard, provided Milhelcic with a tour of the facility and took him aboard one of the C-130s.
“You’re coming together. That’s the whole idea of citizen soldiers,” Milhelcic pointed out after his visit. “That’s why I really enjoyed being in the National Guard. I could continue my day job, but I could give back to my country.”
Milhelcic said to the firefighters they weren’t drafted but chose to join the military. As a VFW member, Mihelcic said he was here for the veterans.
David Sousa, a retired Army soldier who served with Nevada’s 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion and as a past Nevada VFW commander, was committee chairman for the mid-winter conference. He augmented Milhelcic’s comments by saying the VFW, American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans all fight for the state’s veterans through the legislative process. Every two years, the military organizations receive feedback and then decide which bills they will bring to the Nevada State Legislature.
“That stems from all of us working together to make it work,” Sousa said.
During the last decade, Sousa said the military organizations made the construction of the state veterans home a priority in northern Nevada, and with the help of former Gov. Brian Sandoval, he provided the extra funding from the state budget to build the facility that opened in December 2018.
The final event Milhelcic attended was meeting families and fellow veterans at the Gold Star Family Tree at the Atlantis Casino Resort and Spa. A Gold Star family has lost a family member in service to their country. The Nevada Army National Guard has a number of fallen soldiers and airmen who had their photos hanging from the tree.
Since he became national commander, Milhelcic seeks to change the perception of VFW posts and encourage the younger veterans to become more involved. Although their predecessors joined the VFW for camaraderie and that connectiveness, Milhelcic lamented the newer generation doesn’t belong to many groups.
“This newer generation,” he said, “are not joiners, but this is occurring in all of our organizations.”
Instead of insisting the VFW posts increase their membership by 10 to 25%, for example, Milhelcic said he would prefer posts increase their community projects by 10%.
“They (the VFW) partners with other community groups,” Milhelcic pointed out.
For example, he said members from the VFW post could work an hour or two instead of a full day with the local Rotary Club on a community cleanup. He said this is one way to shake up what it means to be a VFW member.
Milhelcic is also a proponent on veteran care and wants his fellow VFW members to talk to other veterans.
“We need to reach out,” he said.
As part of his daylong itinerary, Mihelcic and a small group of state officers toured the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home and the Reno VA (Veterans Affairs) Medical Center. While at the state veterans home, Mihelcic and other veterans raised a new Gold Star flag at the Gold Star Families Memorial, which was dedicated June 29, 2019, and then toured the state home. Both Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, and Julie Dudley, liaison officer for Nevada State Veterans Home, gave the visitors an overview of the services provided at the veterans home and the care each veteran receives.
At the VA hospital, Mihelcic met with the director, Kevin Amick, and received a tour of the different services that are provided to the veterans of northern Nevada and eastern California.
“We were so excited to have him visit us,” said Glenna Smith, public affairs officer for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. “It gives us the opportunity to demonstrate and show all the amazing things our staff departments are doing for veterans.”
Smith said the staff was grateful that the national VFW commander was taking time to visit them and learn more about their programs. She said Milhelcic could see how excited and passionate the employees are about their jobs.
“The director loved meeting him, and they had a nice conversation,” Smith said, adding both men discussed veterans’ issues and improving healthcare.
Smith said Milhelcic enjoyed experiencing the virtual reality technology, learning more about the care veterans receive and visiting the women’s exhibit featuring those who had or are currently serving in the military.
Milhelcic also touted the strength of the VFW at the national level but encouraged veterans to become involved no matter where they live.
“I invite all of you to come to a VFW post and see what’s going on,” he said.