Serving those who’ve served
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com January 13, 2012 5:18PM
Sen. Dick Durbin talks to members of the press during a visit to the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton on Friday, January 13, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 16, 2012 8:07AM
The placard hanging in the front hall of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”
Tucked onto a quiet residential street just a block or two from Wheaton’s retail core, the house is run by people who try to provide a square deal to people who come back from military service and need help finding their way home.
And now the shelter — named in memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Larson, the first Wheaton resident lost in the Iraq War — needs a second home.
The 115-year-old house has three bedrooms — room enough for five former servicemen, plus work space for the crew of counselors, managers and volunteers who give them a temporary home while they put together the pieces of their lives that will equip them to be fulfilled and productive civilians again.
The shelter was acclaimed in a recent audit for its 86 percent success rate in helping vets find their path, but more people need the services it provides. The people who run the shelter do not question the Veterans Administration estimate that on any given night, 107,000 vets are homeless.
It’s not that there hasn’t been progress for the agency. With help from a $700,000 U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant received in September 2010, the shelter’s operators bought a century-old foursquare just up the block and are completing its overhaul to provide affordable housing for vets who are ready for some independence. Named in honor of posthumous Medal of Honor recipient and Wheaton native Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, the house will be able to accommodate female and disabled vets — something the existing structure can’t do — when it’s finished sometime in March.
Licensed clinical social worker Bob Adams is the shelter’s executive director of programs, president of its board of trustees and one of its founders. With a cluster of veterans advocates and elected officials gathered around the home’s dining room table Friday morning, Adams asked U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for $1 million in federal support so a second transitional home can be bought and retrofitted to serve more returning military members.
“You need a million bucks for another home, huh?” Durbin quipped good-naturedly when Adams handed over the written request.
The lawmaker had discussed with those gathered the challenges facing returning veterans, many of whom struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and substance abuse. The family strife and job loss that often follow those after-effects of war leave many vets with no place to turn.
Durbin heard about the Hire Our Heroes Job Fair held in October at Tellabs in Naperville, which drew more than 600 veterans and 86 public- and private-sector employers ready to give them jobs. He met Vietnam vet Gordon Burkhalter, survivor of three types of cancer, who credits Adams and the shelter for saving his life. He was troubled to hear of the myriad difficulties advocacy organizations encounter in making sure vets know about the services and programs available to them.
“There’s plenty of grassroots desire to help the vets, but connecting the vet (to that help) is more of a challenge,” said Paul Herbert, director of Cantigny Park’s First Division Foundation.
The senator noted that 11 years ago, before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that triggered the current wars, few would have predicted today’s reality. Back then, he said, the agency was primarily a resource for old soldiers. The wars have dramatically changed its role.
“The VA system is swamped. It’s swamped,” Durbin said.
And the landscape is much changed. After the Vietnam War, Durbin said, no one recognized the symptoms that now indicate post-traumatic stress disorder. A form of anxiety disorder, the condition affects 18.5 percent of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a recent study by the Rand Corp.
“It was something you didn’t want to talk about, because nobody knew what to say about it,” Durbin said. “And we didn’t treat it.”
DuPage County Board member Dirk Enger, the shelter’s other cofounder and a Marine veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, implored Durbin to push his Congressional colleagues for more support for vets and their families.
Speaking before Durbin arrived, Enger shared his concerns about proposed cuts to the federal defense budget, and the effect that could have on veterans.
“They’re going to forget their obligation to veterans, because it’s an easy one to do,” Enger said. “We’re not a voting bloc.”
The senator made no promises about the $1 million request, noting that federal earmarks are virtually extinct in an era of aggressive budget cuts.
“I’ve got to look for new ways to help you, and if I can, I’ll find some,” Durbin said, speculating that competitive grants could be one possibility worth pursuing. “If you’ve got the dedicated volunteers and professionals to make it work, it’s a heck of an investment.”
Adams wasn’t surprised that his plea wasn’t immediately granted.
“I understand about earmarks,” he said. “It never hurts to ask, so maybe he’ll find something else. You never know.”