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Home » Disabled Marine veteran recognized for unwavering support of Chicago’s finest

Disabled Marine veteran recognized for unwavering support of Chicago’s finest

Disabled Marine veteran recognized for unwavering support of Chicago’s finest
Terry Hillard

All eyes were on Terry Hillard as he told a room packed with Chicago civil servants why he waited half a century to file his first Department of Veterans Affairs claim. The Marine Vietnam veteran and former Chicago police superintendent explained that he feared termination if the police department discovered a documented disability.

“You know, policemen, you must be the specimen of doggone physicality,” said Hillard. “Just like with firemen, going up and down stairs with all those oxygen tanks and equipment.”

“I wanted to keep my job because I got a family to support,” he added.

That Saturday meeting in April was the latest gathering aimed exclusively at the city’s police, firefighters and emergency medical service workers who have served in our nation’s military. The bimonthly meeting of the Chicago Police and Chicago Fire Department Veteran Club—designed to inform, encourage and represent cops and firefighters—was born in 2022 when Hillard sought to serve those who put their lives on the line every day for the Windy City and ensure they wouldn’t wait like him.

Terry Hillard speaks at an April meeting of the Chicago police department and fire department veterans club. He shared his experience as a Marine who waited decades to file his first claim for veterans benefits.

The program has become the gold standard for “meeting veterans where they are,” and Hillard’s role in its creation has earned him the honor of being named the 2024 Disabled American Veteran of the Year.

“We don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” said Hillard. “If you were in Afghanistan or Iraq, any war or no war, and you feel you have a legitimate claim, we want you to talk to the DAV national service officers here who will guide you through the process.”

It started with Hillard sitting down with DAV benefits advocate Carlo Melone, the assistant supervisor of the DAV national service office in Chicago, and three chapter service officers: Eric McLean, Matt Breen and Emily Pecoraro.

The initial meeting was 50 veterans curious about receiving their earned benefits. The program has now grown to over 200 receiving DAV representation. The program has also included some Illinois state and county police. It is a potential model for other American cities of what is possible for those who take off their country’s uniform only to put on another in service to their local communities.

Today, Hillard is an institution among Chicago’s first responders. Having served as the 58th, and later as interim superintendent of police, the city’s highest law enforcement official, he commands respect among the rank-and-file police, firefighters and emergency medical first responders.

Breen said that Hillard lends the credibility other first responders seek when navigating the sensitive waters of VA benefits.

“He was probably one of the most liked superintendents we’ve had,” said Breen, an Iraq War veteran and Chicago police sergeant. “He was a Chicago policeman and rose through the ranks.”

Before rising as the city’s top cop, Hillard served on the Gang Crime Unit, a citywide task force of select officers. He worked undercover buying firearms, the heroin substitute “Ts and blues,” and other illicit drugs off the streets. That’s where his career started taking off, but his success did not come without bloodshed.

During a raid in 1975, he was shot in the left wrist and right elbow while engaging a suspect. Hillard’s injuries took him off the task force for nearly a year before he was able to return to duty.

The raid wasn’t his only battle.

Hillard joined the Marine Corps in 1964 as a machine gunner and was swiftly sent to Da Nang, Vietnam.

“We went straight to the field on the second day believing we were ‘He-Men,’” he recalled. “That’s when I saw the first person I’ve ever seen get killed.”

Hillard is pictured next to fellow Marines of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Hillard spent a year in combat in Vietnam before becoming a Chicago police officer.

He spent 13 months in Vietnam with Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. There were many firefights throughout his time in the country—too many to count—and several casualties, including Marines he knew personally. Despite the treacherous days and sleepless nights, he returned home to Chicago physically unscathed and found himself gripped by a new sense of service.

About six weeks after coming home, he passed the entrance exam to become a Chicago police officer. As the years went by, Hillard never thought to file a VA disability claim, even after reuniting with a fellow Marine from Vietnam who was just beginning his career as a DAV benefits advocate: Jesse Brown.

Brown later served as executive director of DAV Washington Headquarters and secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1993 to 1997. Despite that familial connection, Hillard resisted submitting a claim.

That changed in 2016, when the realities of combat reemerged, threatening his life. Hillard was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a presumptive illness associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

“I had never heard of it in Vietnam,” Hillard said of Agent Orange. “I never knew that I was being exposed. We’d see the big planes flying around but didn’t know what it was.”

In August 2022, based on the passage of the PACT Act, Hillard was further service-connected for colon cancer, which he had been diagnosed with in 1993, based on his exposure to contaminated water during his service at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Although Hill currently has no detectable cancer, he does live with some residuals from both diagnoses.

In the years after receiving service connection for those diseases, Hillard has made it his mission to bring the mission of DAV to those in occupations least likely to seek VA benefits.

“When it comes down to it, we don’t want them to go through what I went through,” said Hillard. “I waited to file a claim. Why? Because I was afraid to.”

Meetings are not publicized, and information is spread by word of mouth. Police Sgt. Terry Smith heard of the club through Breen.

“We were both in patrol, and he called me up, and he said he was involved with this organization called the DAV, and he invited me to one of the meetings at the Fraternal Order of Police Hall,” said Smith.

Hillard begins each meeting by sharing his experience to diffuse anxiety among the attendees. He also includes other veterans who, like Hillard, waited decades before considering filing claims.

“He wants everyone to know,” said Melone. “He doesn’t want anyone to do what he did. And that’s not file claims when he could have.”

After introductions and remarks, Melone and other DAV national service officers see each veteran to assess their military records and file any appropriate paperwork. He said many attendees have the same mentality as Hillard once had.

“If you were with the 82nd Airborne, and you have 50 jumps and you got problems with your back, it’s OK to file a claim,” said Melone.

Hillard rose through the ranks to become the 58th Chicago Police Superintendent. A well-respected leader among the rank and file, Hillard continues to serve his fellow officers by helping them secure their earned veterans’ benefits.

Hillard’s connections with the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police helped him find a welcome venue that offered security and camaraderie. Being surrounded by their brothers and sisters diffuses anxiety among attendees. And if any officer, firefighter or paramedic walks into a meeting while on duty, they get to skip the line—an understanding among everyone in the hall.

Smith filed a claim on the spot at a meeting in 2023 and went through an appeal for a separate condition that came back favorably. Smith stresses the importance of having someone like Hillard to legitimize the process with those who are skeptical.

“There’s a stigma with some of the diagnoses you may get from the VA,” he said. “You really don’t want that, especially if you’re a police officer. But with Terry, you know it’s the real deal.”

“This program couldn’t exist without Terry Hillard, and we need more Terrys out there in other cities to expand this program,” added Melone.

“Terry is an example of a DAV leader who continues to serve and richly deserves the title of Disabled American Veteran of the Year,” said DAV National Commander Nancy Espinosa. “He already left his mark on Chicago, and now he’s ensuring the next generation of civil servants will get what they are rightly owed and earned. We are immensely proud to have him in our ranks.”

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