Vets4Veterans started engines with a car show, and never looked back

Visitors to Poncitlan Square in Palmdale, take in rows of classic cars on display at the Vets4Veterans 10th Anniversary Classic Car and Motorcycle Show and Poker Run, Sept. 15. 2019. The afternoon event provided a fun-filled day with motorcycles, hot rods and classic cars, along with food, family entertainment and information booths providing direct support and services to local veterans. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

by Dennis Anderson, special to Aerotech News
The VA’s Vet Center for counseling had not been open all that long, but they had no problem finding customers.

A lot of Vietnam veterans were coming around to the idea that the shadow hanging over them for a generation might just be PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that often afflicts combat veterans. They have other issues too, like military sexual trauma, and generalized anxiety disorder.

That is why veterans headed into the newly opened Vet Center filling the place up. It’s a safe place that at once observes and respects the military, but first priority is to respect the veteran. Professional therapists, most of them with either military or combat time themselves, are the ones who work on those issues with their brothers and sisters.

“Tom Hilzendeger was one of them,” recalled Gerry Rice, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Like Hilzendeger, Rice was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Hilzendeger, who dodged rockets and mortars while running water to the troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, wanted to know “how to live better,” Rice remembered.

“We had a group, and they were trying to work this out, and he asked me about the word, ‘altruism,’ what did that mean?” Rice reminisced.

“If you want to live better, and feel better, do something good,” Rice said. “That’s what altruism is. When we do good things for others, it makes us feel good.”

That got Hilzendeger’s engine running. He gathered his veterans talking group together, and they talked about organizing a car show to raise some money for veterans in need of help.
Then the talk turned into action. That was 10 years ago.

The Vets4Veterans team got started raising money and taking donations with a little car show they held in the parking lot of the Vet Center at 38925 Trade Center Drive.

Hilzendeger died not long after Memorial Day this year after a long struggle with cancer. Nobody thought he would live so long because it was serious, but the man was tough as a G.I. boot. He left a legacy and big boots to fill.

Vets4veterans charter founders, Tom Hilzendeger and Megan Hilzendeger at Poncitlan Square, Memorial Day 2020. (Photograph by Dennis Anderson)

Before Hilzendeger died at the age of 70, he and his volunteer corps had raised enough money to buy and rehab a transitional house for veterans at risk for shelter. The group also underwrites tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for veterans transitioning from active military to attend Antelope Valley College. Additionally, they provide emergency grants for groceries and overnight stays. Their principal contributions to improving the lives of at-risk veterans is hope, and respect.

“I loved Tom Hilzendeger,” said Army veteran John Parsamyan. “He was a friend, a brother, and he was a mentor, and like a father to me.”

Parsamyan joined the organization, becoming its vice president recently, working closely with current Vets4Veterans President Jack Woolbert, and the late Hilzendeger’s wife, Megan.
With their volunteer board, they meet regularly, keep the books tidy, and help find shelter, security and education for a cohort of veterans who will remember them.

Recently, the Palmdale City Council recognized Parsamyan as “Veteran of the Year,” and it was a fitting recognition, as the honor previously went to Hilzendeger.

But both veterans — Parsamyan is a 9/11 veteran who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division — say the credit is not theirs. Rather, it is the team of volunteers, veterans and the friends and family who support them that make the organization hum.

Before the pandemic descended, regular as clockwork, the organization ran its annual Vets4Veterans Car and Motorcycle Show, usually at Poncitlan Square. Also a golf tournament, most years a 5K or 10K run, and the group’s annual fundraising dinner.

“We do it because of the veterans,” Megan Hilzendeger said. “They are the ones we do it for. They have already served. We are grateful for what they already did.”

A major regional non-profit, Homes4Families, is building a Veterans-Enriched Neighborhood of dozens of homes, built in the style of Habitat for Humanity. Like Vets4Veterans it is a veteran-enriched grassroots effort. One of the first homes to house a veteran family in the central Palmdale neighborhood will be named for Tom Hilzendeger.

That is how the group became recognized by the City of Palmdale as one of the beneficiaries for the Nov. 1-11 Field of Healing and Honor. Somewhere out there American flags will be flying with a lot of names attached honoring members of Vets4Veterans.

As Rice, the combat veteran turned therapist observed, they made their lives better by doing good things.

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