Serving on the Home Front

Hometown Heroes, People
on December 3, 2006
Monkia Graff "My Job is to change a no into a yes with a breath of sunshine."

Master Sgt. Minnie Hiller-Cousins of Passaic, N.J. (pop. 67,681), has spent most of her career helping others, both as a high school dropout prevention counselor and as a family assistance coordinator for the Army National Guard.

“She’s a blessing,” says Jovannie Villabol, who visited Hiller-Cousins’ office at the Teaneck (N.J.) Armory last year while her husband was serving in Iraq. Villabol, 26, says Hiller-Cousins greeted her with a warm smile and a simple question. “How can I help you?”

Villabol recalls bursting into tears as she explained that she and her three children needed a place to live. Hiller-Cousins went to work, finding Villabol an apartment with a free month’s rent and arranging day care for her youngest child.

“My job is to change a no into a yes with a breath of sunshine,” says Hiller-Cousins, 51, who joined the Army National Guard in 1978.

When the 50th Main Support Battalion in Teaneck was deployed to Iraq in 2004, Hiller-Cousins left her high school counseling job to become the battalion’s full-time family assistance coordinator, working stateside as a liaison between the soldiers, their families and the community. As part of her duties, she coordinated the armory’s food pantry, provided counseling in its family readiness and teen programs, and organized events ranging from baby showers to trips for military families.
In late 2005, she received permission to go to Iraq to visit her fellow soldiers. Widowed five years ago, Hiller-Cousins left behind her own five grown children and six grandchildren to spend four months in the desert.

She recalls admiring soldiers asking, “Why’re you coming here, Ma? It’s dangerous here.”

For Hiller-Cousins, the answer was simple. She wanted to be there, in person, to reassure soldiers about their families at home and help them prepare for challenges they would face when returning to civilian life. Today, most of the battalion’s troops have returned home.

In February, Hiller-Cousins returned to her counseling career at Passaic High School, where she likes to tell students, “It’s not where you start, but where you finish.”

When she began working at Passaic High School as a counselor in 1999, the school’s dropout rate was 13 percent. In 2005, the rate had fallen to 7 percent.

“She’s constantly talking with students,” says Carlist A. Creech, the school’s principal. “She engages them and doesn’t let them go.”

One of the many students she helped was Pedro Valentin, now 26.

While in high school, Valentin was seriously injured in a car accident and spent 13 days in a coma. One night, when he was still unconscious, Hiller-Cousins arrived at the hospital straight from the armory, dressed in her military fatigues. She brought a National Guard chaplain to pray for Valentin’s recovery.

“She took me under her wing,” says Valentin, who went on to graduate from William Peterson University and remains close friends with Hiller-Cousins. “She’s a leader and she trained me to be a leader.”

Although Hiller-Cousins has returned to her civilian life and regular monthly National Guard duty, her military supervisors wanted her behind-the-scenes impact to extend beyond the 50th Main Support Battalion. She recently received a new assignment—to provide equal employment opportunity training and counseling for the New Jersey Army National Guard at Fort Dix.

“She’s the most caring person I ever met,” says Lt. Col. Jerry Guareno, director of military personnel in New Jersey. “There’s something the Army calls the 4 C’s—careful, complete, conscientious and continuous. She has it all.”