Antelope Valley veteran, hero laid to rest

An honor guard member presents the U.S. flag to Megan Hilzendeger during the funeral service for Vietnam veteran and Antelope Valley resident Tom Hilzendeger, who passed June 7. (Photograph by Tony Tortolano )

Antelope Valley resident, Vietnam War veteran, and founder of Vets 4 Veterans, Tom Hilzendeger, was laid to rest June 29 at Riverside National Cemetery.

Hilzendeger was born Dec. 23, 1949, in Long Beach, Calif. He passed June 7, 2020. He is survived by his wife of 39 years Megan, his children Nicole McBride (Thad), Jenny Leite (Tony), Adam Hilzendeger (Chauncey). Tom and Megan share six grandchildren: Ezra, Devin, Addison, Charlotte, Bryce, and Charlize and two great grandchildren Kadence and Waylon.

He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1970, spending 13 months in Vietnam as a Water Treatment Plant Operator. During his service he earned the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal. After returning home, Tom continued his work with water purification at Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts until his retirement at age 58.

It was after retirement that Tom participated in a PTSD group at his local Vet Center, a community-based branch of Veterans Affairs. Here is where he was introduced to the idea of altruism. Altruism is defined as the selfless concern for the well-being of others.

The honor guard prepares to fire a salute in honor of Tom Hilzendeger during services at the Riverside National Cemetery June 29. Hilzendeger was the founder of Vets 4 Veterans, a non-profit dedicated to helping and supporting veterans in the Antelope Valley. (Photograph by Tony Tortolano

Recognizing a need, Tom wanted to apply this concept to help veterans in the community and thus Vets 4 Veterans was born. Just over 10 years ago Tom, along with friends and family, started with a car show to raise funds to donate to veterans who needed more help. Vets 4 Veterans, a non-profit comprised of volunteers, has grown to include many services available to veterans in need, at no cost to them. From art therapy, clothing drives, food distribution, scholarships to local colleges, and hardship relief to Operation Restart, a transitional housing program, Vets 4 Veterans grew to be Tom’s passion. Tom was adamant about all donations and fundraising going directly to veterans. His passion was evident just a few days before his passing, as he participated at a food distribution for veterans and their families.

Tom had many more dreams for Vets 4 Veterans and his family and friends will continue his legacy. A scholarship has been endowed in his name at Antelope Valley College, which will be awarded in perpetuity.

“My hopes are that we can help vets. If we can stop one vet from getting a divorce and save a family, if we can stop one vet from living on the streets, if we can save one vet from suicide, then all the hard work has been worth it.” — Tom Hilzendeger

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