Saline High School graduate Kate Melcher’s life was changed by her military service, and now she is using her experiences and skills to help other military veterans through serving on the board of the Fisher House Michigan and, more recently, through the University of Michigan’s Buddy-to-Buddy program.
In high school, Melcher was inspired by her government teacher, Don DiPaolo, to get out and volunteer. Through that experience, she began working on Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s campaign in 1996, an experience that kicked off her interest in public service.
After graduating from high school, Melcher went to college in Arizona thinking she wanted to teach government but thought she “didn’t have any business teaching government unless I had worked in government.”
She went to Washington, D.C. where she had an internship with the Supreme Court, and was working in the U.S. Senate during the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“My plans for teaching high school government got derailed, because 9/11 was life-changing for everybody, and for me changed my definition of service,” she said.
A mentor encouraged her to enlist in the military, and she joined the Army National Guard, attended officer school and flight school, and went on to fly Apache helicopters and attain the rank of captain.
After leaving the military, she spent some time working for a defense contractor, but then moved back to Michigan about a year and a half ago, and got involved with Fisher House Michigan, which can be described as “like a Ronald McDonald House, except for veterans.” Fisher Houses around the country have suites where family members can stay and visit veterans who are being treated in Veterans Administration hospitals.
She said she became interested in serving as foundation director for the organization because any charity sponsored by the Fisher family has a reputation that is “above reproach.” It consistently gets top ratings from Charity Navigator and other assessment systems.
“They spend 93 to 94 cents of each dollar toward the Fisher Houses and travel,” she said. “In terms of stewardship of donor dollars, they stand head and shoulders above.”
She recently left her director role but remains on the board while she takes on a new challenge with the Buddy-to-Buddy program.
She said many people don’t know that the University of Michigan has five different programs serving military veterans and their families. She currently serves as program manager for the Buddy-to-Buddy program, overseeing more than 100 volunteers who provide emotional support and resources for veterans from all branches of the military.
Melcher was also humbled to be named the 2018 Veteran of the Year by the Michigan Fitness Foundation. She said she could hardly believe she had won after finding out who her competition was.
"One was a Tuskegee airman who was shot down behind enemy lines, captured by the Nazis, and lived to tell about it," she said. "The other is 102 years old and did 50 pushups while up on stage with Lt. Governor Calley."
She said winning the award was a great platform for getting out the word about both Fisher House Michigan and the Buddy-to-Buddy program.
Melcher still has family in Saline, including her mother, Carol Melcher, who is principal of Saline Alternative High School. She said that growing up in Saline “absolutely set me up for success,” from the warm community ties among families to the high school teacher who inspired her to pursue public service and sent her down a new career path.
Melcher said she makes a “better veteran” than she was a military member and is pleased that she continues to work with others who served their country.
“I’m proud to be in a position to advocate for veterans in Michigan,” she said.