Army Veteran Mark A. Milia should have spent this past weekend sharing laughs and memories with his West Point friends from the class of 1977 at their 45th class reunion. Instead, Milia, one of 1,500 Red Cross volunteers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who is supporting relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ian, spent the weekend cleaning up his community and helping those in need.
“This is my way to pay it forward,” he said. “Giving back to my community is important to me.” .
On the streets of Punta Gorda, Florida, on Monday, he was behind the wheel of a Red Cross emergency response vehicle, working with a team that handed out 4,000 meals to people in need. His vehicle was one of about 80 that day distributing meals across hard hit communities in the state. Thus far, in collaboration with partners, Red Cross teams like Milia’s have provided as many as 206,000 meals and snacks to those in need.
He says that he would encourage those who want to give back this advice — “just do it.”
Service is nothing new to Milia who served in retired in 1998 as a Lt. Col after 21 years in the Army. Instead of a quiet retirement in his Florida community, he felt a call to action when the state had historic wildfires later that same year. Soon, he raised his hand and answered the call to serve as a Red Cross volunteer.
“’I’m strong, put me to work,’ I told them,” he said. In short order, he became the Disaster Action Team (DAT) tri-county volunteer chair working with fellow volunteers in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. “Soon, my mom and my sibling and I were volunteering with the Red Cross too,” said his daughter Jessie Milia, who was 12 at the time.
When Hurricane Sandy struck, he deployed with the Red Cross. “We laughed because this Army guy, who was used to sleeping under the stars, had to bunk in a naval ship,” Jessie Milia said. When Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys, she says her dad was among the first to arrive.
A part-time job as a master gardener at Home Depot in Sebring, Florida keeps him busy and allows for a flexible schedule for his deployments. He says that they have been great about giving him short notice leave to deploy. In 2019 and 2020, he was part of a partnership between the Red Cross and Home Depot installing smoke alarms for seniors in the area. Jessie Milia says that he is proud of this work.
When Hurricane Ian came, Milla watched the weather from his home, gearing up to go out on assignment. When the roads were clear, he hit the road ready to help others. His daughter made sure he got a warm breakfast — an English muffin toasted on the grill — since they too were without power.
Jessie Milia says last night after the sun went down on a long day and all the people went home, her dad found a parking lot full of hungry people who had been helping with recovery efforts. “They had eaten nothing but ready to eat meals and were sleeping in their trucks, so they gladly accepted his remaining warm meals. That’s just the kind of guy my dad is — someone who makes sure others have what they need,” she said.
At the end of the day, Milia texted from a local restaurant that happened to have power and wifi. He says it was a good day and the Red Cross team helped many who needed it.
“It’s my time to give back to others,” he concluded.