MVAA presents first-ever awards to veterans and veteran advocates

An Ann Arbor grandfather did a "buddy check" on more than 100 of his fellow veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic, paying special attention to the homebound.

A National Guard member and mother of four uncovered and cleaned veteran headstones in an Owosso cemetery over Fourth of July.

And the son of Grand Rapids veteran started a Michigan nonprofit that has contributed more than $100,000 to support veterans and dependents.

These remarkable people are just three of 11 recipients in the first-ever round of awards from the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency that recognize veterans, veteran advocates and, in one case, a veteran-friendly county. In the week leading up to Veterans Day, the awards represent an opportunity for us to honor and celebrate our veterans and those who advocate on their behalf for their continuing service and sacrifices.

The awards will be presented Nov. 6 at the inaugural Michigan Military & Veterans Gala at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Here is more on the awardees, who were chosen by an independent panel of judges and will be featured in the Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth for the next year:

Veteran of the Year: Dave Draper

As commander of the American Legion post in Ann Arbor, Dave Draper supports patients at the local VA Medical Center by distributing food twice a month, holding monthly bingo games and annual steak dinners, providing gift cards and other volunteer efforts. 

"Please note," writes the person who nominated him, "Dave is not only the leader and coordinator of these events but attends them all himself."

Draper, a Vietnam War veteran, also raised more than $10,000 in the past year for local organizations including Food Gatherers food bank, Toys for Tots and Hope Clinic, often working weekends and after hours to gather and deliver donations.

But "most admirable," his nomination form says, "is Dave's commitment to all individual veterans." During the COVID-19 pandemic, he called all 100-plus members of his Legion post for a "buddy check" and personally checked in on homebound veterans. When a veteran needed a home repair or had a special need, Draper alerted Legion membership to get whatever was needed - and even delivered a recliner chair himself.

"You will not read about Dave in the newspaper or see him featured on TV," his nominator says, "because he is one of those humble, dedicated and committed veterans that seldom will make himself the center of attention. He takes his leadership position as one of responsibility and selfless service."

Draper, a former staff sergeant in the Air Force (1966-1970), says he is "humbled and truly honored" by the first-ever Veteran of the Year Award. The married father of two Marine Corps veterans (Jason and Jeremy) enjoys fishing and "doing anything" with his three grandchildren.

Veteran Employee of the Year: Andrew Graham

As a child, Andrew Graham knew he'd serve in the Army, like his father and grandfather before him. He calls his seven years as an infantryman - which included multiple deployments following 9/11 - the best job he ever had.

"I traveled the world multiple times and fought alongside men who became my brothers," says Graham, who rose to the rank of sergeant. "The military instilled in me a sense of pride in myself and my country that I apply to my current employment and also as a father and a husband. "

In his current position as a Genesee County Sheriff's deputy, Graham understands the difficulty veterans can have finding good jobs and works diligently to help them land employment. Overseeing the office's veteran onboarding program, he meets with veteran applicants to build resumes, provides interview tips and keeps track of applicants' status through the hiring process. His efforts have been largely responsible for the Genesee County Sheriff's Office employing 29 veterans since 2018 and becoming a Silver-level Veteran-Friendly Employer through the MVAA.

As a member of the Sheriff's Office Elder Abuse and Exploitation Task Force, Graham has handled 1,333 cases of elder abuse and, as a court liaison, accompanied more than 30 victims to court proceedings, ensuring they have a firm understanding of their cases. He and his team also provide outreach and education to nursing homes and senior centers.

The Frankenmuth man is married to his "best friend and coworker," Kiona, and they have three daughters, ages 2, 10 and 11. He's an active dive team member for the Sheriff's Office and enjoys going to the shooting range as well as music, cinema and spending time with family.

"Being chosen to receive this award is an incredible honor," Graham says. "I am proud that I am able to use my prior service and knowledge in my current employment. As a veteran I make connections with so many other veterans, whether it be coworkers, victims of crime or applicants that I assist through the hiring process. I am honored that I am able to give back and represent all veterans who are in the workforce."

DMVA Employee of the Year: Erika Hoover

As the MVAA's first Women Veterans & Special Populations Coordinator, Erika Hoover is charged with connecting to and supporting underserved and underrepresented veteran populations in Michigan.

And the Navy veteran is flourishing in the new role.

The agency's "She is A Veteran" awareness campaign, which was Hoover's brainchild, has been highly successful in reaching women veterans and inspiring them to tell own stories, identify as veterans and ultimately connect to support networks and the benefits they earned for their service. Since the campaign launched in mid-2020, nearly 5 million people have watched the video stories of the six women veterans profiled and more than 1.5 million people have engaged with the stories.

While "special populations" is a broad category for a one-person focus, Hoover has taken on the challenge of supporting veterans and veteran advocates in many categories, including veterans experiencing homelessness, caregivers and LGBTQ+ and tribal veterans. As a tribal liaison for MVAA, she worked to improve the connection of tribal veterans to the agency and to veteran resources and benefits. She also serves as a key contact on homeless veteran issues, from offering broad policy input on coalitions and committees to helping the MVAA's Veteran Resource Service Center with individual cases and referrals.

Hoover, who spent four years in the Navy, rising to the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class, says serving in the military "was both an honor and one of the hardest things I ever did. Now, I get to serve those who have served and bond with people that I never would have shared that common experience with."

Residing in rural Newago County with her wife, Vicky Fautanu, Hoover is quick to credit her MVAA colleagues and community partners as a key to her success. "While I am grateful to receive this award and so proud of how far we have come, we still have a lot of work to do," she adds. "I look forward to continuing the good work that our entire community has been doing and connecting ALL of our veterans to the services and benefits that they need and deserve."

Veteran Hero Award: Erin Stacks

Disabled veteran Erin Stacks has spent more than 15 years rehabilitating sick, injured and orphaned wildlife - from foxes to owls to fawns.

As a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Stacks takes in more than 300 animals a year, nursing them back to health before setting them free.

"Erin has partnered with Consumers Energy to release wildlife on their property, giving the animals she releases a vast amount of private land to make a great start in life," writes the person who nominated her. "She is the only wildlife rehabber in St. Clair County. Without her efforts, the wildlife would not have anywhere to go."

It's for this positive impact on her community that Stacks was presented with the MVAA's first-ever Veteran Hero Award.

"I'm very honored to be recognized for something I do daily and I am very passionate about - helping wildlife animals," she says. "I'm privileged and proud to be honored along with fellow veterans and military."

Stacks lives in Fort Gratiot and enjoys four-wheeling in her free time. Her family includes husband Jimmy, son Zach and daughter-in-law Meghan.

Stacks enlisted in the Air Force in 1992 and rose to the rank of senior airman upon her discharge in 1996. "I felt great pride in knowing I was serving my country and ready to help in any way when called upon," she says.

MVAA and Trust Fund Exceptional Service Award: Katie Carroll

In her role as the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund (MVTF) agent for Macomb County, Katie Carroll does a little bit of everything to serve veterans and their families.

She helps homeless veterans find housing and stability. She assists veterans with everything from food assistance to financial coaching to transportation. And she sits on the boards and committees of county-level and veteran organizations to better support veterans.

Carroll also works hard to make sure the process to apply for a Trust Fund grant goes as smoothly as possible. The Trust Fund is an arm of the MVAA that provides eligible veterans and their families emergency aid for an unforeseen situation causing temporary hardship. That aid may include mortgage and rent assistance or funding for home or vehicle repairs.

"There are many counties in Michigan with agents working hard every day to ensure the Trust Fund application process is clear and smooth for our veterans who are experiencing some sort of financial hardship," she says. "I am thankful that my processes have been recognized as excellent service and I will continue to ensure veterans have a great experience with me as their agent regardless of the outcome of their application."

The Mount Clemens resident, who is married and has "one human child and five furry children," said she doesn't have much time for hobbies.

"I work two jobs, own a resale shop and go to school," Carroll says. "However, I do love to do crafts, travel and spend time with my furbabies and family."

Warrior Citizen of the Year: Jessica Green

This past Fourth of July weekend, Jessica Green, a staff sergeant in the Michigan Air National Guard, led a team of volunteers in honoring deceased veterans at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens Cemetery in her hometown of Owosso.

The team uncovered headstones that had been grown over, raised headstones that had sunk and cleaned headstones so these veterans could continue to be known and remembered.

In her civilian life, Green recently started a new position as a department technician with the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund. Prior to that, she served as program manager for the MVAA's successful Food4Vets program, which has provided nearly $200,000 in food assistance to more than 1,900 veterans and their families across Michigan this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For her efforts, Green was presented with the Warrior Citizen of the Year Award, which honors an active National Guard member who demonstrates service and commitment through citizenship and volunteerism while out of uniform.

Green, who has served in the Guard since 2013, said she is "humbled" by the award and calls her service "a way to give back to our state and country."

A mother of four, Green is enrolled in a bachelor's program in human services at Baker College. She enjoys photography, hiking and outdoor adventures with her children. Green says her faith is a very important part of her life, leading her to complete a course in discipleship.

VA Employee of the Year: Tara Consolino

Although Tara Consolino didn't serve in the Armed Forces, she grew up in a military family and has worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the past 14 years - currently as a Suicide Prevention Program Manager.

"Growing up with a Marine Corps father, and presently working with veterans, when I thank someone for their service, I am thanking them for the sacrifices they may have made when they enlisted, but also for the ignorance I am afforded as a civilian," Consolino says. "Ignorance meaning recognizing those hardships and unknown stressors that accompany a life in uniform. The strength, discipline, character and qualities that all individuals serving in the Armed Forces possess and the resiliency they personify ultimately reflects to me their selfless service in all aspects of their lives."

For her service to veterans, Consolino was named this year's VA Employee of the Year. Working in veteran suicide prevention with the Veterans Health Administration, an arm of the VA, she has been instrumental in the success of the Michigan Governor's Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families.

"Tara truly encompasses all the values of the VHA and is a leader in her field," her nomination form says. "Regardless of what is needed or if it is outside of her scope of practice, she will assist with making the appropriate connections within the VA to ensure that our veterans are served at the highest quality possible. Tara is a leader, full of energy, presents innovative ideas, and is a true team player."

Consolino, of Farmington Hills, enjoys photography, running, hiking, yoga and writing. Her family includes husband Todd Peltier, daughter Cye Consolino, Chloe the dog and Elena, Coco and Big Larry the cats.

"I came to the VA fourteen years ago to fulfill the VA mission to serve those who served," she says. "This is an honor to receive this award recognizing the work that myself and our teams have been completing, supporting that mission. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to have been selected to receive this award and I am humbled, appreciative and invigorated to continue this work."

Educational Veteran Advocate of the Year: Jill Hinton Wolfe

In less than two years, Grand Valley State University has built a truly veteran-inclusive campus, experienced an increase in military-connected student enrollment and landed on several publications' "Best Colleges for Veterans" lists.

And Jill Hinton Wolfe is the driving force behind that success.

Wolfe, who served three years in the Army, became the university's first Military and Veteran Resource Manager in June 2020. In the short time since, the university has initiated a host of veteran-centric efforts including Veteran's Promise, which promises a spot at GVSU for high school graduates who enlist in the military.

"I started this position after losing my own business to COVID, and it would've been very easy to become cynical and despondent," Wolfe says. "But I applied for the position in the same spirit that I joined the military - seeking service and humility. I also needed to continue my own story of what it means to be a veteran. Every day these students inspire me to work harder, to laugh more often and to care not who gets the credit, only that somebody, somewhere, feels like they matter and becomes inspired to do the same thing for others. This is what got me out of my bunk when I was 19 years old in BDUs and still gets me out bed today."

Wolfe received several nominations for the Educational Veteran Advocate of the Year Award. Among the accolades from her colleagues, she was described as a "steadfast problem-solver, extraordinarily committed leader and community builder" and was praised for her "intellectual curiosity, strong work ethic, creativity and compassion."

The married mother of two children and three stepchildren lives in Grand Rapids and enjoys backpacking, books and writing. Of serving in the military, she says: "I grew up in a privileged household where I had everything handed to me, yet I never really felt necessary. The military gave me that feeling. Through my military service, I became necessary to protecting not just my fellow citizens, but to a whole new military family. They came from every small town, every big city, every skin color, every religion, both immigrants and born in the U.S. And they are still my family today, a family created out of both hardship and the knowledge that above all, we are necessary."

Veteran Friendly Volunteer of the Year: Tom Antor

In 2014, Tom Antor recognized a gap in veteran services in Kent County and stepped in to fill the need.

Antor, a Kent County Commissioner, business owner and former police officer, had entered a local veterans' facility to visit his father, who had Alzheimer's disease. Struck by how alone and vulnerable his father and the other veterans were, Antor dedicated himself to bettering the quality of life of West Michigan veterans.

Antor created the Finish the Mission Veteran Relief Fund with an all-volunteer board as a way to assist veteran or dependents in need when no one else could. To raise funds, he started Freedom Cruise, a classic car and motorcycle cruise through West Michigan to bring awareness of the sacrifice of our service members with Gold Star Families leading the 30-mile procession.

Freedom Cruise profits go to Finish the Mission, which in turn partners with Kent County Veterans Service to assist veterans who are in the gap of not having any benefits from the federal, state or local government.

The Sept. 11, 2021 Freedom Cruise brought together over 2,000 patrons to honor Army Sgt. 1st Class Rick Herrema of Grand Rapids, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.

To date, Finish the Mission has granted resources, assistance, grants and partnerships with other local veteran organizations to the sum of over $100,000.

Antor, of Sparta, has been married to Beth Antor for 34 years and the couple has three daughters and six grandchildren. He likes to fish and hunt in his spare time. Of winning the MVAA's first-ever Veteran Friendly Volunteer Award, he says, "I am honored to be chosen among so many honorable and dedicated supporters of our nation's heroes. I started Finish the Mission Veteran Relief Fund in honor of my father, who served in WWII. I cannot express how appreciative I am for the past six years of support that Michigan veterans, their families and patrons of veterans have given us at Freedom Cruise."

Community Outreach and Regional Engagement Award: Michael J. Scott

Service has remained a constant throughout Michael J. Scott's career. After high school, Scott joined the Army in 1988 and served as a combat engineer for nine years, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. Deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, he was awarded the Bronze Star for selfless service during combat. 

 "Serving in the Army taught me to think outside of myself, to stand up for others in times of need and to live for a purpose much greater than my own aspirations," Scott says. "Sharing the deepest of sorrows with others or celebrating unbelievable victories forms eternal bonds with those you serve alongside of - a bond that you will rarely experience in the civilian world."

After discharge, the DeWitt resident served his fellow veterans. He worked as a Veteran Mentor Coordinator for the Ingham County Veterans Treatment Court, training veteran mentors and liaisons in the court system and developing treatment plans for veterans within the tribunal system. 

Scott, whose family includes wife Patricia and daughter Megan, reenlisted in the Army Reserve and was deployed to Africa where he served as manager for psychological operations. After his second honorable discharge, in 2016, he began a master's program at Michigan State University with a concentration in human resources concentrated in military relations; he now works as a human resource training specialist for a nutritional company.

Beginning in April 2018, Scott served as one of the first Veteran Navigators through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, helping shape this program to where it is today. Veteran Navigators across the state serve veterans as the expert in their community and help with housing, mental health needs and connections to federal, state and local programs. Scott also served on the Veteran Community Action Team (VCAT) in the Lansing region and helped bring together a network of veteran-friendly local and regional agencies.

As an integral part of the veteran community in Michigan, Scott has tailored his efforts to breaking down barriers, improving access to care and bolstering the livelihood of the patriots who have served our nation. Of winning the Community Outreach and Regional Engagement Award, he says, "Many veterans struggle to reintegrate after being on active duty or deployment. The comradery and social support that comes from being around other like-minded veterans is critical for someone who does not feel like they fit in anymore. I have been greatly honored to work alongside people who are passionately working to improve the lives of veterans in the great state of Michigan. To be chosen for this award among these tireless and amazing individuals who continue to serve is truly an honor."

Veteran Friendly County of the Year: Macomb County

Macomb County Veterans Services, which employs 15 people and offers a host of innovative services and resources, is the MVAA's first Veteran Friendly County of the Year.

Through the years, the county has had a significant impact on its veterans and their families. Macomb has about 45,100 veterans, the third most of any county in Michigan.

Nearly 400 Macomb County veterans have benefited from the county's free financial coaching since April 2019. More than 675 veterans and spouses have participated in the county's Employment Camp - a weeklong session that covers resume-building, cover letters, interviews skills and more, and has a 62% employment rate.

For 14 years, the county has provided $25 gas cards and bus passes to help veterans look for jobs and get to VA medical appointments and Veterans Treatment Court; more than 1,600 gas cards and 260 bus passes have been issued since 2015. The county also operates a van that offers door-to-door service to and from VA medical appointments.

Since 2016, the county has provided free income tax preparation for veterans and their families, and now offers the service from seven locations. Thirty volunteers prepared more than 2,000 tax returns for veterans this year.

Among its other services, Macomb County provides assistance for homeless veterans, hearing loss exams, access to a specialist for diagnosis of PTSD and a dental day for free dental exams and cleanings for uninsured veterans.

Finally, in a unique agreement between the county and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, changes were made in how veterans are identified and ultimately helped. As a result, the state has identified 927 Macomb County veterans in its system, 36 veterans have filed benefit claims they didn't know were available and 21 veterans now receive either service-connected disability benefits or non-service-connected pension.