By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

DeVon Hilliard was the only medical technician that day over a decade ago during a medical transport flight out of Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. His role was accompanying injured soldiers home, from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to Travis AFB and then to bases in San Diego, Hawaii and Alaska.

That day, he cared for and reassured his patient, a soldier who had just lost his entire unit in an IED explosion, for eight long hours. The only thing that stood between this soldier dying or seeing his family again that day was Hilliard’s medical ability.

Only when they reached their destination did Hilliard exhale. Then they wheeled the soldier off the C-130, and Hilliard saw the man’s wife and children rushing toward them.

Hilliard, now 41, has seen some things in the years that followed. While chasing his adult life, it was experiences like the one on the tarmac that convinced him the only thing he wanted to do was help more people.

“I’ve taken an interesting route here,” the Atwater High and Merced College graduate said.

“Here” for Hilliard is doing meaningful work in each of his many and varied roles: as a parole agent for the state, a Merced College instructor, a father to four daughters, and cofounder of a nonprofit.

Hilliard was playing football at UC Davis when he suffered a career-ending injury, and then enrolled at Merced College. Wanting to follow his father into the Air Force, he told his academic counselor, “Give me the fastest route out of here.”

But during his second semester, while taking 21 units to finish his A.A. in a single year, Hilliard happened to take Intro to Criminology. It changed his long-term ambition. “Law enforcement,” he thought. “I could do that.”

Hilliard still joined the Air Force, doing four years of active duty at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, where he also earned a B.A. in Criminology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He served three years with the Reserve and four years with the Air National Guard, doing medical transport the whole time.

“At the time, our government believed that it didn’t matter if there were one or five patients on a transport, we were going to get troops home as quickly as possible,” Hilliard said. “They wanted soldiers to heal at home. The soldiers were the mission. I was proud of that work.”

He got to do that important work while forging a law enforcement career. Now 15 years in, he travels from Fresno to Stockton and makes call after call looking for programs to help parolees successfully reenter the world outside of jail.

“I make sure parolees get what they need and agents have what they need,” Hilliard said. “We are kind of the first line of defense of the program.”

The work is a good fit for the former athlete and airman.

“Yeah, it is,” Hilliard said. “We confront a ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing in law enforcement, but we still get to shed light on people’s struggles, and that light shows we are helping people.”

Hilliard enjoys making those community connections. Doing that gave him a network that allowed him and two Atwater High School friends to turn their dreams into an innovative mentorship program called Students With Aspiring Goals (SWAG).

Hilliard co-founded SWAG in 2013 with academic coordinator Brett Nickelson, current Merced High associate principal, and recruiting coordinator Eddie Frazier, a family services representative with Merced County Human Services.

The three men and SWAG mentoring coordinator Jermaine Paster train county high school athletes and offer academic training and recruiting exposure to give students a chance to go to college. Over the last eight years, SWAG has helped send 47 students to college.

SWAG has a contract with the Merced County Office of Education to work with students who struggle with their behavior. Also, they are working with the City of Merced to acquire land on which to build a permanent home for SWAG.

Recently, Hilliard also fulfilled another professional ambition—returning to Merced College as an instructor.

“The main reason I wanted to teach at Merced College is because I know so many people are now in the same shoes I was growing up,” he said. “I want to give them perspective in my class. And when they contact me in five years asking for a reference, I want to be happy to do it. I am happy to do it.”