BONNERS FERRY — One Vietnam veteran, despite having already served his country, still feels his work is not done. Ron McIlnay of Boundary County has dedicated his time to helping veterans in need.
“The military can be a real dangerous place,” said McIlnay. “The soldiers coming back today. I talk to them. They don’t know me and I just say if you ever want to talk, call me up, because I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”
McIlnay doesn’t stop there. His passion is helping veterans with any need, from batteries in an electric wheelchair to firewood for a veteran’s wife after she lost her husband. He doesn’t do it alone. He works with organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
McIlnay believes in networking, talking with as many people as he can and working with local businesses.
“The people here in Idaho, they will bend over backwards for you, if you just be honest with them and tell them what you are doing,” said McIlnay. “It doesn’t have to be monetary. It doesn’t have to be the dollar bill.”
McIlnay is protective over the vets who he has aided, explaining that it is hard for many of them to ask for help. He told a story about one veteran that had the batteries go out on his electric wheelchair, and that was the only mode of movement for the man. He was on oxygen from the side effects of agent orange exposure during his military service.
“So here is a vet now, that doesn’t have batteries, is living dangerously because if he goes down, when trying to walk, he won’t be able to get up, and his wife would not be able to help him,” said McIlnay. “I found out about it, and this is what I do. I immediately went into high gear.”
McIlnay went into action, finding funding for the batteries and using his own time and gas to travel south to purchase the new ones.
“When a vet is in need... they need it now,” said McIlnay. This is the niche that he fills.
“A lot of them don’t have- and let me use the term outreach- somebody who goes out and does this stuff,” explained McIlnay about many of the organizations. “They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to help. So they call me and I am usually in the middle of it.”
“As far as the getting help to people- that is my passion,” said McIlnay, but insists he does not do it alone. He will work in conjunction with the VVA, VFW, American Legion, and individuals and businesses that are able and willing to help in each case, based on the individual needs.
“I could spend hours telling you about all the people that we have helped,” said McIlnay, flipping through a book filled with information and notes on the projects that he has been involved in.
Another example of help McIlnay was able to provide came in the form of a dire need for firewood for the wife of a veteran who had passed early in 2017.
“She needed wood,” said McIlnay. “Last year they went through a ton of wood. That’s her only heat. That’s her only cooking method.”
McIlnay worked with North Idaho Energy Logs and they were able to get her set up with energy logs to heat her home and food.
“It is just working out and negotiating with some of the people that can help, that we can go to,” said McIlnay, remarking on how much he appreciated North Idaho Energy Logs for working with him.
“That makes me feel ten feet tall, kind of like saying ‘Here is the key to your success’,” said McIlnay. “That is why I do what I do.”
McIlnay joined the Airforce because he wanted to learn electronics. He was inspired by his highschool girlfriend’s dad, who was a ham radio operator. McIlnay would go and visit, and the father would be talking to someone in Australia or New Zealand. It fascinated him.
“I went to Vietnam in ‘65 when the military switched from advisors to full combat,” McIlnay said.
After his military service McIlnay became an electronics engineer. Retired now, he uses that attention to detail to aid in his helping of other veterans.
“I’m always looking. Is there a vet that needs? The first thing I want to do is to determine what is the severity of the need, what is the urgency of the need,” said McIlnay. “If I can’t help, maybe I can turn him over to some other organization.”
McIlnay stresses that he does not work alone. Much of the help that he organizes to help a veteran in need does not require money.
“This person over here needs help,” explained McIlnay. “You got a tractor, you got a this, you got a that. They need their driveway plowed. Would you guys go do it? That is how you help in the community.”
McIlnay is seen around town, or on rides as the Ride Captain, wearing a vest emblazoned with patches and pins, including patches for the Run For The Wall, from L.A. to D.C. People are always asking him why he wears this article of clothing referred to as a Color Vest.
McIlnay’s answer is simple: “Because I want people to know that I am there for them.”
For many veterans — not just in Boundary County, because McIlnay knows no borders when it comes to helping veterans in need — McIlnay is the answer they have been looking for.