By Managing Editor Teri L. Hansen
McPherson celebrated its local heroes once again this year on Veterans Day with food and ceremony. The morning began with breakfast at the McPherson American Legion Post No. 24, provided by Kindred Hospice. The day continued with a program at the Park Department building where music was played, food was eaten, and honors were rendered to the nation’s veterans. The keynote speaker of the program was U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Zach Mills.
A McPherson raised, home grown boy, Zach Mills is the son of Peggy and Bill Mills. He graduated from McPherson High School in 1990 before going on to Kansas State University, where he received his bachelor’s in biology and bachelors in life sciences in 1994. He continued on with the Cats and in 1997 received bachelor’s in veterinary science and the in 1999 his doctorate in veterinary medicine.
“To stand in front of everybody today in my hometown of McPherson means more than anything,” Mills said. “This is a tight knit community. It’s one in which we know each other. It’s one in which we look out for each other.”
A veterinarian is not a profession that is generally associated with the military, but Mills is in fact a veteran veterinarian. He took his passion for animals and medicine into the uniform. In 2003 he donned the green camo of the U.S. Army as a member of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. He has used his skills across the country and world, serving both stateside and in Baghdad.
Established by an act of congress in 1916, this corps’ necessity had been a long time coming. As early on as the Revolutionary War, animal specialists have been necessary in the military both in a time of war and peace. The mission of the corps has evolved over time. Mills and others like him, have worked with dogs, sheep, goats, horses and even dolphins.
It was the Spanish American War that can be credited (or blamed) depending on how you look at it, for the evolution of the role of veterinarians in the military. The “embalmed beef scandal” allowed for low quality, adulterated beef to be given to soldiers. Various factors played into the death and illness of thousands of servicemen. The positive was a call for better quality assurance measures and who better than the folk who work with animals every day? That is how food inspection became a veterinary initiative.
While the Air Force had their own veterinary corps for a time, they were disestablished 1980, leaving the Army to be the sole providers for animals in the service.
Time has changed the art of war significantly. So, while the military still needs veterinarians, the missions have adapted and changed with the times. A large function is now what is known as civil affairs. These animal specialists now find themselves guiding policy and guidance. Their expertise being utilized by ministries all over the world.
“The civil affairs mission to me is outstanding because it gives us an opportunity to leverage our skills in a different way,” Mills said. “We become an asset, we become somebody that they want to turn to, we become their trusted advisor.”
While deployed Mills was a sought-after subject matter expert. His knowledgebase provided much needed direction in establishing new procedures and strategies for a country trying to rebuild. He worked side-by-side with other branches of the U.S. military as well as the Iraqi Army.
“I will say with 100% conviction that they loved having us. They knew who we are. We were their partner and that we were there to do go,” Mills said. “Our role is to help. We make a difference to the lives of the people on the ground.”
While speaking to the residents of McPherson, Mills stated that he would be asking at the end of his presentation, for a call to action. With many veterans in the audience who had served, one was left wondering what more they could do?
“A call to action that I implore you to work with me and everybody that’s in this room to make a difference. As Kansans as we stand here today as we look forward from a military perspective,” Mills said. “We want to continue to drive the message home to the children of today. That this is a career option and it’s a good career option. It gives people purpose gives people training and it allows people to give back to society.”
This request isn’t difficult, nor does it require anything but time. He asked that those veterans out there have a chat and share their experiences with the younger generations.
“We were at breakfast at the Legion, the stories that I heard the pictures that I saw the memories that were conveyed, they touched lives and people want to hear those,” Mills said. “They want to be a part of it. But they will never hear those if we don’t do our job.”
This call to action included a request to educate and to inform youth of the opportunities within the military. To tell them about the hundreds of jobs that may never occur to them are available within the armed forces.
“This call to action is about what we do and what the possibilities are that are out there. It’s because of the military and my civilian career that it has given me something that many people around me will never see,” Mills said. “The ability to touch lives and the ability to change lives and it started here in McPherson.”