Amid rising travel costs, Westwood veteran finds community, respite in Reno during medical challenges

Thor Sweger, left, and some of his military buddies defending America. Photo submitted

The first time Thor Sweger walked into the Veterans Guest House was July 13, 2021, the same day the Dixie Fire roared to life. Kathi McGathey, operations manager for the nonprofit that works to give veterans and their families temporary lodging and resources during their medical stays in the Reno, Nevada, area, remembers Sweger checking in with the fatigue and stress of the fire registered on his face.

“He went upstairs one man and came down a second,” said McGathey. “It’s amazing how a hot shower and a place to take a seat seemed to transform him.”

Sweger, an Army Vietnam veteran, had traveled to Reno after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Now in remission, the 70-year-old still stays at the Veterans Guest House when medical checkups and appointments require he travel from his Westwood home. He cites it as a place that is careful to think of considerations for veterans, referencing that a continuous positive airway pressure machine was available for use — a large piece of equipment that can often be cumbersome to travel with and few overnight locations have on hand.

According to a Forbes report referencing findings from an American Express Global Business Travel study, hotel rates are predicted to rise across the board in 2023. Considering other inflation increases, Veterans Guest House CEO Sylvia DuBeau wants to ensure veterans know this free resource is available to individuals like Sweger and their families.

“We’re free. We’re safe. We’re flexible. And we’re here for you, always,” said DuBeau. “The community has built this lovely place specifically for veterans and their families. It would be a waste to allow it to sit empty.”Since the early 1990s, the Veterans Guest House has welcomed veteran and their families so they can have access to the medical care they need. Original founders, veterans Chuck Fulkerson and Dick Rhyno, realized veterans were sleeping in their cars while visiting the local Veterans Administration Medical Center. The nonprofit originally hosted up to 12 veterans at a time but its 2018 remodel expanded its capabilities so it can now host up to 35 individuals. It hosts veterans and their families from the Lassen County region and across the globe.

“It would have been more of a pain, finding a place to stay out of pocket,” said Sweger. “But the people at the house are great and I could talk to them about anything. There’s very much a sense of camaraderie.”

Sweger mentioned he has made friends when he stays at the Veterans Guest House, some of whom hail from his old Bay Area hometown of Walnut Creek, California. He wishes other veterans knew that the nonprofit does not have a formal affiliation with the Veterans Administration (though it does enjoy a healthy partnership with the entity), which he noted has afforded them greater flexibility in accommodating needs quickly.

“We do not accept any government funding which means our services are available to veterans and their families regardless of their required length of stay, characterization of discharge, or what provider they wish to see,” said DuBeau.

Sweger noted that many veterans he knows are inclined to keep their medical journeys private, but that the sense of camaraderie he experienced enables discussion for those who might want to talk.

“Every experience I’ve had at the guest house has been great, [the] staff is wonderful,” said Sweger. “Having the other veterans there going through other medical challenges, it kind of relaxes you. You can talk about the things you are going through,” said Sweger. “A lot of us who served, especially those who served when I did, are pretty hush hush. But it’s the perfect place for veterans to go.”

In the same way that wildfires will continue, veterans will always need the concern of their communities. For individuals like Sweger and their families, Veterans Guest House hopes to be an unwavering place of respite, no matter the need.