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By Thomas J. Sullivan–
It’s been quite a personal journey for Sylvia Thweatt, who emigrated to the United States in 1985 from Prague, Czechoslovakia, and now has new duties as the incoming Commander of Citrus Heights American Legion Post 637.
Thweatt, a U.S. Air Force enlisted veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, took office on Tuesday, July 16, succeeding outgoing commander Paul Reyes, a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam-era veteran.
“My story isn’t that much different from many immigrants who came to the United States, and who chose to enlist in its armed forces,” she said.
Upon her high school graduation in Prague, Thweatt, her mother, father and sister left the country with two suitcases in hand to go to Yugoslavia on “vacation.” We spent nine months there under the protection of the United States before arriving in San Francisco in 1985,” she said.
Her grandmother, who emigrated to the United States in 1966, served as the family’s sponsor. “We all lived in her house in Millbrae for a time.”
Thweatt served as the Post’s second vice commander with responsibility for membership recruitment and retention prior to taking the gavel as incoming post commander.
“I was a little surprised at first to be nominated, since our current commander, Paul Reyes has so ably served in that capacity well for the past nine years,” she told The Sentinel in an interview. “He wanted a new commander to have a fresh start, and I’m delighted to do so.”
The ranks of the American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran’s organization, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, is rapidly changing, as older veterans of the World War II, Korea and Vietnam eras are giving way to a new generation of recent combat veterans.
Thweatt said she’s looking forward to her duties as commander and welcoming the growing number of younger Iraq and Afghanistan conflict-era veterans who live in the area to join the American Legion.
“We need to work hard to attract younger veterans to join us,” she said. “We have an important role to play to help these returning veterans understand their service benefits and how to seek services from the Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve fought for their benefits, and we need to be there to advocate for help them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 2.3 million American military personnel had been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both, as of Aug. 30, 2011. Of that total, 1.3 million have since left the military and are eligible to join either the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
“I’d also like for the Post to reconnect with many of our Post members we’ve lost touch with through the years and re-introduce them into what we’re doing in our community today,” she said.
Two years after her arrival in the United States, while not yet a naturalized citizen, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and took basic training at Lackland AFB in Texas. Upon completion of technical training, she was stationed at Mather AFB in Rancho Cordova before its closure. She was later deployed during Desert Storm in 1991 for six months in Riyadi, Saudi Arabia.
“Some of today’s younger veterans have a story much like mine,” she said. “The ranks of our recent veterans are more diverse than ever.”
“I was at a bit of a loss learning American English at first,” she remembered. “I took Oxford English classes in Prague, but that doesn’t prepare you for learning the language here.”
She and her mom took free English classes offered by the local library in San Mateo County before enrolling in college to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
“What really helped me grasp the day to day vocabulary was watching television,” she said. “I Love Lucy” and “MacGyver” were two of my favorite shows,” she said.
Thweatt used her G.I. Bill benefits after her enlisted separation from the Air Force to take classes at American River College and to transfer to Sacramento State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business in 2005. She ran a home day care for several years, before switching careers, attending the International Tour Management Institute in San Francisco and became a certified tour guide.
Now a proud grandmother of two, Thweatt says enjoys taking care of her two young grandchildren, while her daughter is at work.
“One day they’ll learn about their grandmother’s journey, and I hope they consider serving their country as I proudly have.”
Citrus Heights American Legion Post 637 meets in Citrus Heights City Hall at 6360 Fountain Square Drive on the third Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
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