After decorated military career, Antioch vet continues service in the community

After a decorated three-decade military career that included five tours of combat duty and dozens of medals and commendations, Paul Hettich is back home for good in Antioch.

But the retired Army colonel keeps a busy schedule — most of it doing unpaid, volunteer work — holding true to his philosophy of being a selfless servant.

“Working 14- to 16-hour days — that's what we do. That's the way we lived,” said Hettich, who rose through the ranks to become a commanding officer until his mandatory retirement in 2017.

“I love being busy,” he said. “It's my way of giving back to the community that's given me so much.”

Take, for example, last Wednesday — his off day from his job as a part-time deputy ranger for the Lake County Forest Preserves. After a morning of meetings as an executive board director on the Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission, by noon Hettich was back at Antioch VFW Post 4551, where he's senior vice commander.

He was there the night before, too, for a meeting of the Cub Scout pack for which he's Cubmaster. He's also a Boy Scouts district chairman and was given the National Eagle Scout Association's Outstanding Eagle Scout Award in 2018.

Later Wednesday night, he would attend his monthly meeting on the Antioch Parks and Recreation Commission.

And in his role as a U.S. Army Reserve ambassador for Illinois, Hettich serves as a conduit between veterans who need assistance and programs that can help them.

It often means navigating through layers of government when vets are having problems getting anywhere. Or, as at an event in Peoria earlier this month for a unit set to deploy to the Middle East, it can mean providing support and encouragement.

Much of Hettich's interest these days lies in promoting and volunteering for organizations such as K9s for Veterans, which rescues dogs from kill shelters and trains them as service animals for those with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

He learned of the group last year and started to get involved after a local veteran asked if he knew of any organizations providing animal assistance.

That led to a March fundraising event at the Best Pets store in Antioch. Hettich is serving as honorary chairman of a communitywide effort, in which dry dog food, dog treats and donations will be collected throughout the month to help the nonprofit organization.

“I've been able to see firsthand how these animals can really help the veterans,” said Hettich, also speaking of his involvement with Operation Wild Horse in Bull Valley.

Antioch Mayor Larry Hanson, who has known Hettich since their days at Saint Peter School, called him the town's local hero for his service to the country and community.

“Paul is all-American,” said Hanson, who is organizing the dog fundraiser with him. “I'm kind of glad he's not overseas because now we have him all to ourselves. Now he can make a difference for returning vets who have PTSD.”

From his days as a student at Saint Peter and Antioch Community High School, Hettich knew he was going to join the military. His dad and brother are also veterans, and members of every generation of family also served.

Hettich was there for the initial invasion into Iraq in 2003 — for which he received his first of two Bronze Stars. He returned two more times, in between deployments to Kosovo and the Horn of Africa. Though always a reservist, Hettich averaged being gone even when not on active duty at least 100 days a year on training exercises, whether as close as the Army Reserve base in Arlington Heights or as far as South Korea.

Now, Hettich is focused on other ways to serve. “If I can be of any help or assistance to soldiers or veterans organizations, then that's my priority,” he said.

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Paul Hettich
Paul Hettich meets a boy in Basra, Iraq, in April 2008. Hettich and other troops had just finished an assessment of a hospital to get the city's infrastructure and services back in operation. Courtesy of Paul Hettich
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