Retired ‘Brothers in Arms’ Still Serving Those in Need

Mike Zylstra and Jessie Neff are not brothers. At least not in the biological sense. But you wouldn’t know it by talking to them.

“We’ve done so much work together, it’s like we’re brothers,” Jessie said. “We’re in constant communication with each other, coordinating work activities.”

“We have different skill sets so we work very well together,” Mike said. “If there’s something I can’t solve, Jessie takes care of it for me. And vice versa.”

Much of the work Mike and Jessie refer to is helping the 3,000 veterans in Butte County, California – a vast majority of whom are disabled – get the treatments they need at the Veterans Administration hospital in Sacramento.

Aiding Fire Victims

As time consuming as that task is, it’s far from the only thing these two veteran volunteers do for their community. In 2018, they spent countless hours assisting victims of the devastating Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California.

Recently they’ve been working around the clock to help those displaced by the Bear Fire. Now known as the North Complex Fire after merging with the Claremont Fire, it has killed at least 15 people across three northern California counties.

The fire, which was started by lightning and aided by high temperatures and high winds, has consumed nearly 320,000 acres. It has also destroyed more than 2,400 buildings and resulted in at least a dozen people going missing.    

Mike is the commander of the Chico, California chapter of Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Jessie is the commander of the Chico chapter of the American Legion. Both are members of each other’s organizations.

Both Men Paid Their Dues

Each fully understands the plight of disabled veterans, having been injured multiple times during their service to the country. Mike was shot in the back of the head during Desert Storm. Jessie cracked bones in his ankles, knees and back, and has had 14 surgeries.

Both Mike and Jessie received Outstanding Community Service Awards in 2019 from California Congressman Kevin Riley. Mike also received a plaque from Chico VVA582 for volunteerism that same year, as well as a Quilt of Valor from the NorCal Quilt of Valor Society for his Camp Fire relief efforts. 

Both men are married. Their wives have learned there is no slowing either of them down when it comes to trying to help other veterans.

“You take the two most disabled people our wives know and they can’t stop either one of us,” Jessie said.

25-Plus Years of Army Service

Mike, who grew up in Pipestone, Minnesota, went overseas as a tourist following high school graduation.

After returning, he joined the Army for a 16-year career (1984-2000). He was stationed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and served during Desert Storm. After returning to the States, he drove a truck for 17 years before retiring.

Jessie grew up on the rough streets of Oakland, California. “I was a punk on the street and figured if I’m going to die, I’ll die for my country,” he said.

“I knew I needed more discipline and I wanted to see the world, so I joined the Army. I was a Vietnam-era veteran and spent almost my entire 9½-year tour (1975-84) in Germany.”

Coordinating VA Hospital Rides

With only one daily bus taking disabled veterans to the VA hospital in Sacramento, 90 minutes away, Mike and Jessie spend significant amounts of time arranging for rides and sometimes making those drives themselves.

“We’re hoping to get a handicap-friendly van donated to us so we can assist other vets, but it’s tough because the VA has shut down a lot of our services due to COVID,” Mike said.

“We also help veterans file claims to get the money they need. We opened a new Chico veterans clinic and we’re just now getting it fully staffed.” 

“Some of these veterans are 80 years old and their appointments are at 8 a.m., so they have to sit there until 4 p.m. waiting for the bus home,” Jessie said. “The average person goes once every two weeks – some every week – so that takes its toll on them. That’s why we coordinate as many rides for them as possible.”

Loaded for Bear

In addition to their work with disabled veterans, Mike and Jessie have been very active helping victims of the Bear Fire.

“The displaced people are so gracious and thankful,” Jessie said. “All they have are tents or trailers to live in after losing their homes. It’s going to take time until they can rebuild or get assistance from FEMA.”

“We also made up 30-day supply kits for five military families, some of whom have numerous medical issues,” Mike added. “We went through a vetting process to determine who had the greatest needs.

“There’s still a lot of need for food up there. We pass out what we have to evacuees, but we could always use more.”

DAV’s Centennial Year

Created by the U.S. Congress 100 years ago, DAV has more than 1 million members.

Since its founding, this nonprofit charity has been dedicated to a single purpose: building better lives for America’s disabled veterans and their families.

Annually, the organization provides more than 600,000 rides to veterans attending medical appointments and assists veterans with well over 200,000 benefit claims. In 2019, DAV helped veterans receive more than $21 billion in earned benefits.

DAV’s services are offered at no cost to all generations of veterans, their families and survivors.

The organization is also a leader in connecting veterans with meaningful employment. It hosts job fairs and provides resources to ensure they have the opportunity to participate in the American Dream their sacrifices have made possible.

American Legion Still Serving Vets

The American Legion is a nonprofit organization of U.S. veterans. It was established in 1919 in Paris, France by approximately 1,000 officers and men of the American Expeditionary Forces. 

The American Legion played a leading role in the drafting and passing of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. It is more commonly known as the G.I. Bill.

With a motto of “For God and Country,” the American Legion is active in politics, lobbying on behalf of the interests of veterans and service members. This includes support for benefits such as pensions and the Veterans Health Administration.

Members provide assistance at Department of Veteran Affairs hospitals and clinics. They also organize commemorative events. 

The Reward Is in the Work

If any people have already paid their dues in life, it’s Mike and Jessie. And yet they carry on, day after day, serving their fellow man with no tangible rewards. The obvious question becomes, why?

“For me it’s the look on people’s faces after we’ve helped them,” Jessie said. “Knowing that somebody cares means so much to them. And we care not just for the vets, but for all the people in our communities who need help.

“For 13 or 14 years I’ve been saying how much I love being in the American Legion and watching Mike. If Mike can do it while going through chemotherapy, then I know I can. That’s what motivates me – watching him.

“Everybody in Butte County has Mike’s phone number,” added Jessie, whose wife makes American flag masks for those who don’t have them. “He has put in countless hours since this fire started, getting volunteers together and putting together donations and packages. He’s up in front pushing everything.”

A Big Believer in Karma

“We just like helping people in this community,” Mike said. “The food banks are stretched thin and local agencies are stretched thin.

“So we’ve had to look to other outside sources for help. Such as 4Patriots, which has been so generous.

“I’m a big believer in karma. It comes back to you tenfold. I see it as an act of random kindness.

“This is the way we try to help our community. We act as a little village and hopefully it will spread, one act of random kindness after another.”

4Patriots Lends a Hand

In 2019, 4Patriots donated 55 pallets of survival food after the Camp Fire. This allowed Mike and Jessie to help feed more than 8,000 people in need.

In response to Mike’s and Jessie’s relief efforts connected to the Bear Fire, 4Patriots donated some 800 servings of survival food and two air purifiers. One of the air purifiers allowed the DAV hall to reopen in Chico, while the other was given to a veteran family with COPD and asthma issues.

As we’ve stated many times, it’s only through your purchases of our products that we are able to make these types of donations. So, thank you very much.

Anyone wishing to contribute to Disabled American Veterans can visit www.dav.org/donate.  Or, send a check to Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 125, 22 Sunflower Court, Chico, CA 95926.

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