Inside the North Riverside Armory just west of Chicago on an unseasonably cold and gray April day, Illinois National Guard members in camouflage stand at attention as several of their colleagues are called forward to be promoted.
The old stripe is pulled off their uniform and they are awarded a new one as everyone claps. Standing off to the side, Philip Chan notes how it was different in his day, when stripes were pinned to the arm rather than fastened with Velcro; and the old stripes would be ripped off roughly then replaced with a punch to boot.
After 16 years in the military in a variety of positions including as an officer, Chan said he had a relatively smooth transition back to civilian life. But he knows things are much more difficult for many young Veterans including many from the south and west sides of Chicago.
He points to First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Chicago to talk about guns, noting the violence and lack of choices many young people face when they leave the military. “These are kids coming home,” he noted. “They are forced to join gangs just to protect what they have. And the number of suicides is so high now. People need to talk to someone but they are afraid to lose face. I hate to see it this way.”
That’s why Chan is a volunteer for the Illinois Warrior to Warrior program run by the Chicago-based national nonprofit organization Health & Disability Advocates, whose policy and project work centers around interventions, technical support and systems change that help vulnerable people and places thrive. The group launched the Warrior to Warrior program based on Buddy-to-Buddy, a peer outreach program for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars developed at the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Michigan Army National Guard. So far, the Warrior to Warrior program is in Illinois Army National Guard units in and around Chicago, Woodstock, Springfield, Rockford and Lake County, and it will be rolling out statewide.
On this morning at the North Riverside Armory, Warrior to Warrior volunteers stand and sit informally yet attentively just off to the side as Illinois National Guard go through their maneuvers and then disperse to different activities including physical therapy, classroom training and the motor pool outside.
Chiquita Griffis, 34, is an Army Veteran and Warrior to Warrior volunteer who sees on a daily basis the violence, gang pressures, unemployment and other issues that Veterans and soldiers face, particularly on the south and west sides of Chicago. She and other Warrior to Warrior volunteers also understand well the personal and family struggles and issues Veterans face, including marital tension, depression and daily logistical and financial stresses that taken together can become overwhelming.
Griffis was born in Chicago and lived on the west side until her family moved to a small town in Mississippi when she was nine. She joined the Army in 1996, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, figuring it would have made him proud. She served three and a half years, stationed in Germany for much of the time, serving in a variety of roles including as a vehicle mechanic in the motor pool and a combat medic in a field hospital.
“What you don’t know you will learn in the military,” she said. The location was also a welcome new experience: “I had never imagined Germany before I went there.”
Griffis had always wanted to be a doctor, and she figured the Army could be the first step. “But once I got out, I realized it wasn’t so easy to convert” the skills of a combat medic to getting into medical school and actually becoming a physician. She ended up coming back to Chicago and going to school to be a medical assistant. She liked the job but realized “it was a lot of work for not a lot of money.” So she enrolled at Roosevelt University, getting a degree in business administration while also working nights as a security guard. Two years ago, she got a job at the state department of employment security, as a liaison for Veterans. She got an email about Warrior to Warrior, and decided to volunteer.
“I figured working with soldiers could help me, and I would be helping them,” said Griffis, who now lives in the south side neighborhood of Roseland.
Griffis, Philip and other Warrior to Warrior volunteers aim to serve as resources for Illinois National Guard members both during and after the Guard members’ service. They are mentors who have been through the military and readjustment to civilian life themselves and who are now dedicated to helping others navigate complex bureaucracies and connect with needed services.
At the drill weekends the idea is not to be overly assertive but rather to just be a constant friendly and encouraging presence, so members become familiar with the volunteers and know they can turn to them when they or their families have needs – possibly months or years down the road.
“We go just to be there for them, they see us and we’re there when they need us,” said Joe Franzese, who served five years as an active duty Marine and two years in the Marine reserves, deployed to eight countries including Iraq. He later got a communications degree from DePaul and now works as the Coordinator for the Warrior to Warrior program. The program was founded in summer 2012 and there are now about 25 volunteers. More are always welcome.
“It feels good to see them in uniform,” said Griffis of the drill weekends. “It makes you feel like you’re still in, a part of you misses it.”
Services exist, but hard to find
Many Veterans and experts say that resources and government services for Veterans have definitely improved in recent years, especially compared to past decades. Franzese and Griffis agreed that there are a lot of public and private services available to soldiers and Veterans. But it is not easy to find them, especially if someone has just left the military and is trying to readjust to civilian life.
Warrior to Warrior volunteer Brian Hatlen compared the demobilization training he went through to a “trade show” where you walk from booth to booth carrying a bag to pick up reams of fliers and brochures that you are likely to misplace later. “You’re so focused on getting the heck out of there” that you absorb little of the information, he noted.
“I struggled for many months, making stupid phone calls to the VA with questions they couldn’t answer, I had to learn it all myself,” Hatlen said. “That’s what attracted me to Warrior to Warrior. I went through it all, now I can share that with other soldiers.”
Warrior to Warrior volunteers regularly refer people to private providers related to everything from housing, health, employment and education to government resources including the Veteran’s Administration and VA hospitals. Just having an experienced and supportive contact to navigate still-confusing government bureaucracies can make the difference between Veterans getting the care they need or not.
Franzese said the Illinois Warrior to Warrior volunteers promise to connect National Guard members and Veterans with needed services within 48 hours of being contacted – an ambitious promise given that dealing with the VA or other bureaucratic channels can stretch on for weeks or months before the soldier feels they have a clear answer.
Health care access
Access to health care is a particularly pressing problem for many Veterans. Not all Veterans and particularly not all National Guard members have access to the VA health system. And even if they are eligible, the care is not necessarily readily available, prompt or free.
“Most people assume the VA is health insurance,” says Franzese. “It’s not. You might have access to some health services, depending on how, when and where you served. If you haven’t been deployed, which is the case for some of the National Guard – who make up the lion’s share of the military community in Illinois – it’s entirely likely they don’t have coverage.”
Many Veterans lack health insurance, and rates are particularly high among Veterans on the south and west sides of Chicago. Analysis by Health & Disability Advocates found that almost 30 percent of Veterans in the west side Austin neighborhood lack health insurance, while 24 percent of Veterans in South Lawndale and the Lower West Side are uninsured. And one in five Veterans lacks insurance in other south and west side neighborhoods including Englewood, Humboldt Park, Auburn Gresham and Washington Heights.
“Most people don’t know this is such a big problem,” says Laura Gallagher Watkin, a former disability benefits counselor at Health & Disability Advocates who launched a series of trainings to bridge the chasm between military and civilian benefits and culture in 2008. Now the organization is a lead partner in Illinois Joining Forces, an outgrowth of a nationwide initiative to serve America’s military families spearheaded by Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. “It’s easy to talk about having ‘Yellow Ribbon’ communities, but in reality there’s more than 40,000 uninsured Veterans in Illinois alone.”
Watkin noted that one in three Veterans have incomes so low that they should qualify for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Not surprisingly the highest number of Chicago Veterans newly eligible for Medicaid live in south and west side neighborhoods: Auburn Gresham, Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Heights, Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park.
“From that standpoint, it’s good to have on the horizon some concrete solutions on the table to help our Service Members and their families,” Watkin said.
Illinois National Guard
The Warrior to Warrior mission is especially important working with the Illinois National Guard, who are numerous yet lack resources available many other Veterans.
Illinois has a particularly large National Guard. Franzese noted that the state includes an earthquake fault line, six nuclear plants and the flood-prone Mississippi River, so there are many potential crises that require Guard members on hand.
“Unlike active duty military, the Guard don’t have a set base or large network of support services,” Franzese noted. “They’re citizen soldiers, they were looked at as weekend warriors. A lot of times they joined never planning to leave the state. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan utilized the National Guard like never before.”
Hence National Guard members have faced long deployments to combat zones, leaving them with all the same physical and psychological issues as active duty military.
“They’re back after 13 months, and they’re expected to find a job in the civilian world while they’re dealing with all the issues you’re guaranteed to face while you’re deployed,” Franzese explained.
At her “day job” at the state employment office, Griffis is constantly connecting with Veterans who have lost their jobs or are unable to find work. Some are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Finding and keeping work has been hard for many Americans in the past few years, but Veterans have the added complications of a gap in their civilian life resumes and various other issues. Griffis noted that the economic crisis has been particularly devastating for Veterans from the Vietnam War era, who may be still struggling with PTSD and other issues, and also face age discrimination if they were laid off during the economic crisis and are struggling to find new positions.
Mike Breyne was in the military from 1969 to 1971, serving in Vietnam. In those days, Veterans did not need to worry so much about finding work upon leaving the service. “You had a job and you could go back to it,” he said, though there were significantly fewer services and much less public awareness of the issues facing Veterans. “They just sent you home and you had to deal with whatever you had to deal with.”
Breyne started a long career doing “everything pertaining to transportation,” from working on loading docks to driving a truck, working as a truck mechanic and managing trucks. He’s done well employment-wise, but he knows many of his fellow Veterans haven’t been as lucky.
“Not working triggers all kinds of other things,” Breyne said. “Or you might be working full time, but the amount of money you’re making at these places, it’s just not there.
National Guard members also have it tough. Employers are legally required to hold the jobs of deployed National Guard members, but Franzese noted that the reality is often different. “Your employer might not like that you’re gone for 13 months,” he said. “It’s illegal, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is a recurring problem for vets of all ages. And Griffis noted that some end up with a dishonorable discharge from the military because of substance abuse – “they get caught smoking marijuana” – so having that on their record makes finding employment even harder.
In recent years there has actually been a great interest in hiring Veterans, including federal, state and city incentives to hire Veterans and a general public sentiment that it is the right thing to do. But many Veterans don’t know about these opportunities.
Hatlen said that many Veterans want to start their own businesses. Hatlen runs his own construction contracting firm, so he feels particularly equipped to walk Veterans through that process. And as the construction industry recovers from the recession and his business hopefully ramps up, he plans to hire Veterans on a full-time basis. His business is federally certified as a Veteran-owned business – an incentive he said other Veterans should take advantage of.
“The government wants to help Veterans, there are so many things out there for vets that no one knows about,” Hatlen said. “I’ve been doing this for a while, so I can give you two years worth of information in 10 minutes.”
He encourages Veterans to also look at the difficult transition back to civilian life as an opportunity to do something new or take their life in a new direction. Hatlen, 37, himself had been an architect before deciding to enlist in the Army in 2003. He served until 2011, including a difficult two-year deployment in Iraq. When he got out he realized he was a different person and wanted a change. “It’s the perfect time if you’ve always wanted to do something like own your own business or get an education,” he said.
PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma
The past few years have brought increasing attention to post traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma and the devastating and long-lasting effects of these conditions. But it is still extremely difficult for many soldiers and Veterans to acknowledge that they suffer such traumas and seek help. It was only about a year ago that Griffis forced herself to deal with her own military sexual trauma, from an experience in Germany.
“I didn’t talk about it for 14 years,” she said. “I hadn’t admitted it to myself until right before I started this position” with Warrior to Warrior. At the state employment office, she was increasingly dealing with men who talked about PTSD. She realized her symptoms were similar. She also went to a script reading for a play about military sexual trauma, where women spoke out about their own experiences. “And I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to speak up.’”
There are increasing resources for Veterans suffering PTSD, and the VA has reportedly become less hostile to Veterans who seek benefits to help deal with the disorder. But soldiers and Veterans can’t access those benefits unless they admit to themselves what they are going through. Military sexual trauma has likewise been getting much more attention recently, but women Veterans and soldiers say there is still much stigma and resistance around the topic.
“It’s not like you’re begging for something, these are things the government promised you,” said Mike Breyne, a Warrior to Warrior volunteer who served in Vietnam. “But a big problem with vets is they’re ashamed even asking for something that has already been promised to us. I don’t know what it is about us, maybe we’re too proud.”
In her role with Warrior to Warrior, Griffis keeps her eyes open for signs of PTSD and military sexual trauma among Guard members and Veterans she meets, and tries to gently help people come to terms with their experiences.
“You kind of sense they’re going through it, but they don’t want the stigma,” she said. “Once you get it out of them, everyone feels better and you can move on.”
Picking up the Pieces
Patrick Philipps, 32, enlisted in the Marines in 2005 wanting to do his patriotic duty in the wake of the September 11 attacks. He came from a family of military members growing up on the southwest side near Midway Airport, and his brothers were in the Army.
He was seriously wounded in Iraq and discharged in 2009. After that he struggled psychologically and physically to regain his footing – “a lot of surgeries, fighting the VA.”
The VA was not meeting Philipps’ needs. “You’re like cattle in a line there,” he said. “You call this number and bare your soul to someone over the phone. It didn’t make sense. I was suffering, trying to drown it in medication…I lost a lot of buddies, and I got to the point where I felt like maybe it would be better if I wasn’t here.”
He considered suicide, and still bears scars on his wrists where he cut himself in half-hearted attempts. Suicide rates have steadily risen among active-duty troops and Veterans in recent years, with a record high of 350 suicides among active-duty military in 2012. A Pentagon report noted that contributing factors include substance abuse, relationship problems and other daily issues that Veterans struggle with upon their return to civilian life.
In a letter to the editor about a New York Times story on the suicide epidemic, Watkin noted that problems for Veterans are seriously exacerbated by the failure of many civilian service organizations to understand military culture or how to communicate effectively with Veterans. She added that Veterans themselves often don’t know how to ask for help or face psychological barriers in doing so, hence it is incumbent upon others to reach out to them.
“With post-911 conflicts winding down, we are facing one of the largest drawdowns since World War II,” she wrote. “We simply must build better bridges between military and civilian life.”
Philipps’ situation is a perfect example.
In early 2013 he met Franzese through the Wounded Warrior program, which has branches in most major cities. Though he was still struggling with serious despair, he and Franzese quickly became “buddies,” in Philipps’ words. The relationship changed — possibly even saved – Philipps’ life. Now he wants to help other Veterans in a similar way through volunteering with the Warrior to Warrior program. He also hopes for a career working with Veterans.
“Joe’s like my personal angel, I idolize what he stands for, it’s what I aspire to be,” said Philipps. He’s working on his resume, and conducting mock interviews with Franzese at the Health & Disability Advocates office. He’s “tagged along” with Franzese to colleges to talk with soldiers and Veterans. “It’s a complete 360. I’m happy now. My home life is better. It gets me out of my own bubble, just picking up the pieces.”
Franzese meanwhile emphasizes that Warrior to Warrior is looking for more volunteers, especially given the in-the-works statewide rollout of the program. Since it may be difficult to find volunteers across the state, Health & Disability Advocates may create a hotline for Veterans in rural areas to call.
“We understand that nobody knows more about the issues facing a future Veteran—in combat or on the home front—than another Veteran,” said Franzese. “People can call me. Anytime.”
Story and pictures by Kari Lydersen, http://www.karilydersen.com/
For more information, to speak with a Warrior to Warrior volunteer or to volunteer for the program, call (312) 265-9101 or email ILW2W@hdadvocates.org.
Illinois Health Matters presented accessible, personal stories about how health care reform is impacting underserved communities on the South and West sides of Chicago. These stories were part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.