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Wednesday, April 1, 2009 06:27 pm

Quinn picked two 29-year-old directors over these more experienced men

Medal of Honor recipient, former deputy director, had applied for top Veterans' Affairs position

Fred Tichenor
Harold Fritz

When Gov. Pat Quinn chose a young West Point graduate to head the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs last month, he skipped over a highly decorated veteran who served eight years as deputy director of the agency scheduled to receive $80 million in federal stimulus funds. Harold A. Fritz, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, had sent a letter asking to be considered for the post, along with a handful of recommendations from other public officials, but never received a reply from the governor.

Instead, he learned by watching the television news that Quinn had chosen one of his own staff members, Dan Grant — then 28 years old — to run Veterans’ Affairs.

Last week, Quinn appointed Grant’s friend and West Point classmate, 29-year-old Jonathon Monken, as director of the Illinois State Police. Monken told Illinois Times that he happened to be visiting the office of Simone McNeil, Quinn’s chief of operations, when Quinn got word that then-director Larry Trent had chosen to leave ISP [see “Born leader,” March 26.] Monken’s youth and lack of law enforcement experience have sparked an outcry among some ISP officers, and some state senators have promised to vote against confirming Monken.

No such controversy ensued when Quinn, who took office Jan. 29, appointed Grant as head of Veterans’ Affairs on Feb. 9. Grant, an Iraq veteran, had been on Quinn’s staff as a senior advisor since November 2007. As lieutenant governor, Quinn had a reputation for making veterans a priority, attending military funerals and visiting military hospitals. In fact, he is said to have met Grant while visiting a military hospital in Germany.

Fritz is also a veteran, and received the Medal of Honor — this nation’s highest award for military service — in 1968. Then a 1st Lieutenant, he was leading a seven-vehicle armored column of 28 men along a highway in Binh Long Province when they were ambushed by more than 200 heavily-armed North Vietnamese.

“It was one helluva bloody firefight,” Fritz said. “We had to do a little bit of scuffling hand-to-hand in very heavy crossfire. They had all this heavy artillery, and we had vehicles on fire. The odds were significantly in favor of the other side.”

The citation that accompanied Fritz’s medal gives more details, describing how Fritz, though seriously wounded, “leaped to the top of his burning vehicle and directed the positioning of his remaining vehicles and men.”

“With complete disregard for his wounds and safety, he ran from vehicle to vehicle in complete view of enemy gunners in order to reposition his men, to improve the defenses, to assist the wounded, to distribute ammunition, to direct fire, and to provide encouragement to his men,” according to the official account.

He picked up a machine gun and “routed the attackers” just before a second enemy force moved in. Fritz, “armed only with a pistol and bayonet,” led a handful of men in an attack on this group, inflicting heavy casualties. When a relief force arrived, Fritz directed its deployment. Once the enemy withdrew, Fritz refused medical attention until all his wounded men had been treated and evacuated. “The extraordinary courage and selflessness displayed by Capt. Fritz, at the repeated risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army,” according to the citation.

Fritz also earned two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor.

Under the two previous administrations, Fritz worked as deputy director for programs and services. In April 2003, he was terminated by former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. Fritz says he had uncovered and complained of “contract bid-rigging, graft and corruption,” shortly before his termination. For example, he reported that a six-figure food contract at a veterans’ home had been signed without other bids. The administrator who supplied that information and one other employee were let go at the same time he was, Fritz says.

Now 65, Fritz still works for Veterans’ Affairs, as the volunteer services specialist at a Peoria outpatient clinic.

Grant’s friend Monken says he first met then-Lt. Gov. Quinn at a Hometown Heroes awards breakfast in Geneva, Ill., four years ago, and remained in touch. Because he was in Germany at the time, Monken wasn’t physically present at that breakfast, appearing only in a video. However, another award recipient, Fred Tichenor, was there.

“Quinn talked about how he’s a big supporter of the troops, and I really appreciate his support of the men and women serving over there now,” Tichenor said.

Tichenor served in U.S. Army Special Forces from 1987 through 2000, then re-activated after 9/11 and served another tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. A full-time firefighter for the Geneva Fire Department, he also works as a part-time police officer for the suburbs of Elburn and Sugar Grove, and was named Kane County Police Officer of the Year in 2005. At the award presentation, Elburn Police Chief James Linane described Tichenor as “such a dedicated public servant that he practically bleeds red, white and blue,” according to an account in the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Quinn, however, did not stay in contact with 51-year-old Tichenor nor approach him about the ISP director job, nor did Tichenor visit the governor’s staff, as Monken did, seeking a position. “I don’t even know how you come across something like that,” Tichenor said.

Asked if he would have accepted that job if Quinn had offered it to him, Tichenor, said no. “I don’t have enough experience,” he said.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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