By David Brown, 1st Lieutenant, Texas State Guard
HOUSTON – A year before Pearl Harbor, the ‘super soldier’ made his first appearance: clad in a uniform of red, white, and blue on the cover of a comic book, delivering an uppercut to Adolf Hitler. These days, you might find Captain America at a Houston area hospital, kneeling by the side of a sick child’s bed.
“Are you really Captain America?” the child often asks. Rising with a crisp military salute, the masked soldier replies, “Captain Steve Rogers, at your service, Sir!” And for a few moments, the pain seems to melt away from the child’s face, replaced with a smile.
Yes, he’s a soldier–in real life, a Warrant Officer in the Texas State Guard. His ‘secret identity’ is Greg Illich of Houston, and his ‘superpower’ is volunteering.
In his role as Captain America, cheering up sick kids at hospitals and visiting schools across the Houston area with an anti-bullying message, Illich is utterly convincing as the leader of ‘The Avengers’ in his theatrical-grade costume and aircraft-aluminum shield.
But his other uniform is the real deal: the green camo of a Texas State Guard soldier assigned to the 2nd Brigade. And it is lifesaving work, requiring constant professional and military training in order to be ready to serve fellow Texans whenever called upon by civil authorities.
Since World War II, thousands of Texas men and women have volunteered to give back to their home state through service in the Texas State Guard, one of three branches of the Texas Military Department (which also includes the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard). The Texas State Guard has earned a reputation as the premier State Guard force in the nation, saving lives, providing shelter, leading search and rescue missions, and serving with distinction through disasters like Hurricane Harvey and countless other emergencies across Lone Star State.
Service in the Texas State Guard requires no small amount of personal sacrifice, including time away from home and family. Illich has been married for 34 years to Maria, a school teacher. They have one daughter, Katherine, who is an artist in Denver. “Make no mistake, we know that the families of service members sacrifice, too, so that their loved ones can serve,” says Maj. Gen. Anthony Woods, Commanding General of the Texas State Guard. “We all have deep respect and gratitude for that sacrifice.”
“Six years ago, my wife told me about a student at her school who had been diagnosed with bone cancer,” Illich recalls. “She said ‘Let’s go visit…but I want you to dress up.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Yup, you’ve got the t-shirt and shield (which Illich used to wear on the front porch at Halloween)’. My first response was ‘negative’. I’m not that guy to puff my chest out and try to be something I’m not.”
“It’s not about you, it’s about the kids,” Maria replied.
That did it. After the first visit, the nurses asked ‘Cap’ to come back. Over time, the costumes got better. Much better. And the visits to kids at children’s hospitals, burn centers, and schools began mounting deep into the triple digits.
“One of the reasons I am Captain America is because I was bullied as a kid. I was a big comic book fan as a kid, but Captain America really spoke to me. He’s a defender,” says Illich. “When I visit the schools, anti-bullying is a big part of my message. At hospitals, it’s an opportunity for me to ask the kids, ‘What’s your superpower?’” He encourages them to think of how they can use their talents to better society. For some kids, it’s an opportunity to see themselves in a whole new light–not as little or frail, but as a hero, a winner.
“I once walked off from visiting a kid and heard a mom say to her son, ‘Yeah, he’s real, honey…’”, Illich laughs.
Stories are a passion for Illich, who has B.A. and Masters’ degrees in history. For 13 years, he put his nuanced understanding of history to work as a fraud investigator (“a historian-as-detective”, Illich says) working alongside the FBI, the Secret Service, and local law enforcement fighting financial crimes. His history studies came in useful as a schoolteacher for a brief period, too. But what began as a hobby became full-time work for Illich in 2006, who is today an independent instructor in the martial art of taiji (also commonly written as ‘tai chi’), an ancient Chinese practice used in defense training, meditation, and health.
Somehow, Illich finds room in his schedule to serve his community in other ways, too - assisting at Young Eagles fly-in events to share the love of aviation with young people (Illich is also a pilot), as a lector and usher at his church, and honoring fallen service members and first responders as part of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle honor guard carrying the U.S. flag at more than 450 funerals since 2006.
That guy in the Avengers films? That Chris Evans. He’s an actor.
The hero is a soldier with a supersized heart for public service.
And that’s for real.
There are many ways to serve your community and your state, and during National Volunteer Month, the Texas State Guard salutes all who serve in ways big and small. If you have a passion for public service and would like to learn about opportunities to serve in the uniform of the Texas State Guard, visit us online at tmd.texas.gov/state-guard.