Show of force

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More than 30 nonprofits that serve current and former military service members shared information at a "Joining Forces" breakfast meeting Thursday at the Judd Kendall VFW Post in Naperville. | Susan Frick Carlman~Sun-Times Media

New programs for military veterans aren’t really needed. According to people associated with existing services, what matters is making sure the former military service people know about the programs and how to access them. And that can be facilitated by the agencies talking more to each other.

“The thing about veterans is it’s not enough to just give them free stuff. You’ve got to connect them with what’s out there,” said Jack Amberg, vice president of Naperville Responds For Our Veterans.

That group partnered with Naperville Township to bring together providers of veterans’ services for a “Joining Forces” breakfast meeting Thursday at the Judd Kendall VFW Post on Jackson Avenue. Over a meal of scrambled eggs and the iconic military entree known as “SOS” — creamed chipped beef on toast — they shared information and ideas.

“What we’re trying to do is get all these organizations that are in the area together, and let the vets know about them,” said Mike Barbour, Naperville Township’s advocate for veterans and seniors.

According to Barbour, as many as 14,000 veterans live in the Naperville area, and more than 60,000 reside in DuPage County. The breakfast meeting aimed to meet their needs through collaboration among the more than 30 assorted service agencies that attended.

Meeting those needs entails connecting vets with government-provided services of which they are often unaware, including medical care, education assistance, employment services, pension and disability compensation, and help with the costs of burial and memorial services.

But there’s more to it than that. There are many nonprofits that do work that isn’t broadly known, such as the Allen J. Lynch Medal of Honor Veterans Foundation, which picks up where other agencies leave off, and the DuPage County Vet Center, which operates a walk-in mental health clinic.

“The thing is, they’re funded by the (U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs), but anything you say at the Vet Center is confidential,” Barbour said.

There’s also the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, which provides emergency and permanent housing. Jane Tyschenko-Mysliwiec, program director, said a $440,000 rapid-rehousing grant received last October from the VA has enabled the agency to assist 63 vets’ families in seven northern Illinois counties. Some comprise a portion of the 10 percent of the U.S. homeless population who have military service in their pasts.

“The ones who are homeless a lot of times, they’re living on a fixed income, whether it’s combat disability or workers disability,” said Tyschenko-Mysliwiec, who stressed income stabilization as a critical step toward resuming self-reliance.

Other organizations meet other needs. Connected Warriors offers free yoga classes designed for veterans twice a week in downtown Naperville. “You wouldn’t believe what you hold onto when you don’t breathe deeply, what you hold onto in your tissues,” instructor Dana Fish said.

Jan Barbour emphasized the need for agencies that are not specifically veteran-focused to always be certain to ask whether a client has served.

“That opens so many doors that they might not be able to open on their own,” she said. “All you have to do is ask.”

Naperville CARES is among those that can help connect vets and lesser-known sources of assistance. Executive Director Janet Derrick said her organization, which helps people who live in Naperville or belong to a church congregation in the city, does a lot of work with DuPage Public Action to Deliver Shelter and the county’s Veterans’ Assistance Commission.

“We are kind of the hub of the wheel of assistance here,” she said. Amberg said it’s important for the various agencies never to tell a veteran they are unable to help.

For more information, contact Mike Barbour at 630-240-1645 or