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Veteran hopes to connect former service members to resources

Rebecca O’Neil
Special to the Sierra Sun
Matt Hillock said COVID-19-related restrictions precluded traditional Veterans Day celebrations this year. Regardless, Hillock said the holiday is an invitation to foster and grow personal relationships with veterans, and embody the spirit of compassion, gratitude and respect touted during parades.
Submitted to the Sun

Matt Hillock, commander of Truckee’s American Legion, said the motto of the 10th Mountain Division is “Climb to Glory.”

For many veterans, the climb gets harder after their period of service, he said.

Hillock said COVID-19-related restrictions precluded traditional Veterans Day celebrations this year. Regardless, Hillock said the holiday is an invitation to foster and grow personal relationships with veterans, and embody the spirit of compassion, gratitude and respect touted during parades.

Hillock highlighted his concern for younger veterans and his desire to offer Vietnam veterans recognition. Hillock said there is so much to be done for former military.

“We need to create a better benefit system and connection to opportunity for the generation that’s been in the longest period of conflict in our country,” Hillock said. “That’s our generation.”

Hillock said connecting directly with more veterans with varied levels of self-awareness helps institutions like the Nevada County’s Veterans Affairs Office conduct targeted and effective outreach.

“We need to prepare for the numbers that will need those services,” Hillock said.

Hillock said the wider community needs to take proactive responsibility for helping identify the needs of their former defenders, even if the veterans themselves do not want to admit what they are struggling with.

“I guarantee everyone has struggled with the same thing,” Hillock said. “There are answers and solutions out there in our veteran community, but we need to at least have those connections made.”

Hillock said that may be as simple as making or accepting a phone call.

Hillock said his dedication to connecting veterans with their benefits comes from his own experience. Hillock served with the Army’s 10th Mountain Infantry in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 before an injury concluded his career abroad.

Even though Hillock is considered a “disabled veteran,” the legion commander said he did not receive some of the benefits meant for him until over a decade after he was discharged.

That’s part of the reason that led him to devise a revitalization project for the Veteran’s Memorial Center that was approved last year, something he has been working on since last fall.

“The project, essentially, it turns the memorial property into what it should be,” Hillock said, “which is full of memorials of our local veterans, their service and all their stories.”

Hillock, who served in the Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion and 22nd Infantry Regiment, said the center ought to be a place that benefits veterans, their families and their community.

“It’s for us,” Hillock added, “It’s for the future. We’re taking a building in town that looks like it’s neglected the most, we’re going to turn it into the heart and the heartbeat of Truckee.”

Hillock said he is eager for all veterans, regardless of their discharge status, to use the Truckee Veterans Memorial Building as a conduit for professional resources — whether seeking mental health assistance or job referrals.

“I want the veteran community to know whatever their discharge status says, no matter what happened, it’s their right to talk about what benefits they’ve earned,” Hillock said. “We can help veterans turn that around, to change their lives and change their perspective so that they no longer look at themselves as the soldier who didn’t get the right send off.”

VETERANS AND MOUNTAIN LIFE

Hillock said although he is not a Truckee native, his soul is tethered to North Lake Tahoe. Hillock said he only learned of the 10th Mountain Infantry’s history in the region recently, but was unsurprised.

“Truckee is full of military grade achievements, whether they’re actually military or not,” Hillock said. “Living in this climate at this altitude even today requires a strength not a lot of people can maintain.”

Landen ‘Lou’ Blair is Northstar Ski Resort’s assistant manager for lift operations, and he uses that strength every day. The 27-year-old Carson City native served four years in the military conducting trainings on domestic terrain at Fort Irwin National Training Center.

Blair said trainings there focused on desert warfare, as opposed to a place like Fort Polk in Louisiana, where trainings focus on jungle warfare.

Blair is entering his third season at Vail’s Northstar resort, and said part of the reason he has stayed is the similarities between mountain culture and military life.

“The culture and the people up here will give the shirts off their back for you if you need,” Blair said. “Whether it’s a place to stay or warm layers — what’s mine is yours and yours mine. It’s a little mountain tribe.”

Blair joined the army out of high school, and said the awareness required and enforced by his military training is well exercised by his current role in lift operations.

“There are so many moving parts,” Blair said. “Even though we’re not in a combat environment, I constantly have my head on a swivel because I have to make sure my team is safe.”

Blair said his concern for his team’s wellbeing is for their own sake, but extends to their ability to maintain a secure environment for “civilians,” or in this case, resort guests. Blair said his job requires a wide scope as he also handles logistical questions posed by other departments.

Hillock said it makes sense many former military would eventually become police and firefighters, and in a mountain environment, ski patrol and operations, but ultimately, heroes are human.

Hillock said the Veteran’s Memorial Center has potential to provide less essential, but more human, social-based needs.

Hillock said he hopes to connect veterans with team sports and other “extracurricular” activities — possibly those sponsored by Veteran Motorsports and the nonprofit Infinite Hero.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.


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