by Dennis Andersen, special to Aerotech News
PALMDALE,Calif. – Tom Hilzendeger, who made every day of the last 10 years of his life count as an advocate and supporter for veterans in need across the Antelope Valley, has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Hilzendeger, a Vietnam War veteran, started a small classic car show a decade ago, creating the group Vets4Veterans and transforming it into a robust non-profit group in community support of veterans in need.
He died on Sunday night, June 7, at the age of 70.
On hearing the announcement of Hilzendeger’s death, tributes, both official and unofficial poured in on social media. The tributes came from city and state officials across the Antelope Valley, and friends, and mostly from the veterans that he supported with the efforts of the non-profit group. He remained proud that “nobody in the organization makes a dime from this. It all goes to the veterans.”
He remained active in his community efforts until the last two weeks of his life.
“He fought so very hard to beat this,” Megan Hilzendeger, his surviving spouse of 39 years said in a statement. “He truly knew that you loved him. The kids and I were all with him when he went home to our Lord. He was so very grateful to each and every one of you.”
Hilzendeger wasn’t old enough to drink a beer legally when he served in a combat engineer unit that was attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
Hilzendeger was honored earlier this year as Palmdale’s Veteran of the Year, and received similar honors in 2019 from state Sen. Scott Wilk as 21st District Veteran of the Year. On Lancaster’s BLVD, Hilzendeger was honored with a banner as a Hometown Hero for Lancaster.
“We were like brothers,” said Jack Woolbert, the Navy veteran of Vietnam who succeeded Hilzendeger as President of Vets4Veterans earlier this year. “I am going to miss him.”
John Parsamyan, owner of Armed Services Auto Body in Palmdale, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, recently became Vets4Veterans vice president, and said, “Whoever brushed shoulders or high-fived elbows with Tom would be considered a blessed person, as Tom has a beautiful outlook on life and especially veterans.”
As recently as Memorial Day, Hilzendeger joined with Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer, Wilk and Assemblyman Tom Lackey on stage at Poncitlan Square, for socially distanced observances on the holiday. Two days earlier, with his wife, Megan, he attended a food distribution for veterans in need. The food distribution garnered support from Palmdale city leaders, American Legion Riders, Patriot Guard, Blue Star Mothers, Coffee4Vets and other veterans support groups across the Valley.
“Sometimes you are just lucky enough to be in the company of greatness,” said Palmdale City Manager J.J. Murphy, an Air Force veteran who deployed in the Global War on Terror. “I will always remember Tom’s unwavering dedication to veterans, and it will inspire me.”
Vets4Veterans began in 2010 with a small classic car show hosted in the VA Veterans Center in Palmdale to raise some money for veterans causes, recalled Gerry Rice, a Vietnam combat veteran who ran a group therapy session for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, one of the most recognized mental health challenges from armed service.
“We talked about altruism, and Tom picked it up and ran with it,” Rice recalled. “The idea is that we help ourselves heal by helping others.”
The car show raised about $1,700, but the group aspired to higher goals and purpose. In the decade since, the organization has underwritten tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for veterans attending Antelope Valley College, and provided even more in resources for needy and homeless veterans, ranging from groceries, to housing and appliances. In 2018, the group opened Operation Restart in Lancaster, a transitional home to assist a veteran family with temporary housing while the veteran transitions to civilian employment.
“I am so sorry,” Lancaster businessman Barry White said. “He was just in my store to raise money for veterans.”
Memorial plans were pending, with Hilzendeger’s interment planned for Riverside National Cemetery but no date set, Megan Hilzendeger said.
“We are not sure yet about how to make plans for a larger memorial,” she said, owing to restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.