Local vets cope with life after combat

Service dogs, volunteerism and more have helped Forest Park veterans find peace in civilian life

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

On any given night, 39,471 veterans are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a short time, Forest Park resident Corey Perkins was one of them.

Perkins served in the Navy during Desert Storm, on a nuclear submarine patrolling the Persian Gulf. After being discharged honorably in 1992, he returned to his home in Oak Park, where his mother had moved his family from the West Side of Chicago when he was in sixth grade. Perkins got job after job, but a series of layoffs led to his losing the Oak Park home. 

Perkins stayed with friends and family, sleeping on their couches. Other times, he crashed in his car. He didn't want to feel like a burden to others, but his situation made that feel impossible. Being without a home made him question everything, including his worth as an individual. 

"I became very withdrawn," he said.  

Perkins had never dealt with a state of mind like that before, and reflected on the unwavering faith of his late mother, who raised her two children alone. He drew strength from lessons he learned as a child spent in church. Perkins knew he needed to be able to help himself and push his life forward.

"As long as you keep pushing forward, things will work out," he said. "My struggle is not over, but I will continue to stay in this fight until it works out."

What enabled Perkins to get off the street and back into his own home was a combination of his own perseverance and help from the Veterans Administration and Housing Forward, a nonprofit based in Maywood. The process began when he visited the Veterans Affairs office at Hines VA Hospital. 

The VA placed him in a program run by Housing Forward, which not only found him an apartment in Forest Park, but also partners with him to ensure that he remains in his own home. "I have my responsibilities that I have to meet, like having a job, looking for work or going to school," he said. "I have regular inspections and check in with my social worker on a daily basis."

One of the aspects of Housing Forward's program that Perkins loves is the close relationship he has formed with his social worker, Cecilia O'Neil. "She has been an angel. She has always checked on me, even at times she didn't have to," he said, adding: "We all go through things in life that may be a struggle, but you have to understand that there are people and organizations out there that will help you."

Like Perkins, veterans John Ross and Harold Wilson find support from Forest Park and Maywood's Vet Centers, creating their own ways of dealing with the ups and downs of life after leaving military service. Although never having actually been homeless, both are still suffering from the trauma they experienced during the Vietnam War.

Wilson, who served as a Navy SEAL in the Mekong Delta, believes he will always have symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which can include intrusive flashbacks, emotional numbness, difficulty concentrating and more. 

One way Wilson copes with the struggles related to adjusting back into civilian life is to seek support and fellowship with other Vietnam vets, who weren't always welcomed home as heroes. "When I came back from Vietnam some people spit on me and called us baby killers. I've been coming to the Vet Center for many years," he said. 

Ross, who experienced combat as a platoon leader in the Army's 4th Infantry Division, saw half of his company in one fire fight get killed in two hours. "I was scared out of my mind for the first 30 days," he recalls. "Then I became spiritually dead. Clinical depression is like feeling nothing while still being functional."

Ross, who said he was "almost homeless" at one time, has found tremendous support in a service dog named Eli whom he received from an organization called War Dogs Making it Home. Ross said that Eli can actually sense when he is going to have a medical crisis. "When he starts kicking me in the leg and biting my pants, I know it's time to go to the hospital."

He has also found meaning and support by working with the mentally ill through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a national organization that raises awareness and provides mental health support. Ross is also a peer support specialist trained by the Depression Bi-Polar Support Alliance, an organization that provides education and support to those with mood disorders.

Now "my job is to be extremely open," Ross said, laughing. "I'm 71-years-old and have been nuts for a long time. I want to enjoy life."

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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