Wheaton sanctuary for veterans celebrates 10th anniversary

 
 
Updated 4/28/2017 8:25 PM
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  • "Lots of miracles are involved in this place," says Bob Adams, co-founder of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans outside the Marine Lcpl. Nicholas Larson Home in Wheaton.

      "Lots of miracles are involved in this place," says Bob Adams, co-founder of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans outside the Marine Lcpl. Nicholas Larson Home in Wheaton. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • The Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

      The Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Army veteran Marvin Donelson, who served in the Gulf War, is now a resident at the Army SSgt. Robert J. Miller Home in Wheaton, a permanent housing program run by the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans. "They carried you as their own," Donelson says of the nonprofit's staff.

      Army veteran Marvin Donelson, who served in the Gulf War, is now a resident at the Army SSgt. Robert J. Miller Home in Wheaton, a permanent housing program run by the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans. "They carried you as their own," Donelson says of the nonprofit's staff. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Bob "Doc" Adams thinks about the "little miracles" he's seen inside a Wheaton home that's become a sanctuary for veterans.

The men who live there are fighting mental health and substance abuse problems. Their house, across from a church, is cozy and patriotic. But mostly it's a place where veterans can begin to heal.

"Lots of miracles are involved in this place," Adams says of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans.

The two-story house, named after a Wheaton teen killed in Iraq, opened in 2007. Adams, the co-founder and a clinical social worker, will celebrate its 10th anniversary at a fundraising gala Sunday night. Tickets for the event at Arrowhead Golf Club are sold out.

Adams' own life is something of a miracle. He returned home from Vietnam on a "downward spiral." He struggled with alcohol and broken relationships. But the therapy he received and the mentors who helped him stay the course inspired him to devote his life to helping other veterans.

"We don't leave anyone behind," says Adams, invoking a motto of the Marines Corps.

Bob Adams, center with hat, co-founder of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, during his time in Vietnam as a Navy medic with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
Bob Adams, center with hat, co-founder of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, during his time in Vietnam as a Navy medic with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division. - courtesy of Bob Adams
Vietnam

Adams grew up on Chicago's South Side and had few prospects after high school. His friend wanted him to join the Navy.

"The worst thing that happens if you go to Vietnam is you'll be offshore aboard a ship," he thought.

It proved to be an "error in judgment." Adams trained as a Navy corpsman who would be embedded with the Marines. Born blind in his left eye, he passed his physical after claiming to read the big letter "E" on an exam chart.

In early 1968, Adams arrived in Vietnam around the time the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.

He was the first to treat the critically wounded in the field, trying to keep them alive until they could reach a medical battalion or hospital.

"I got to serve with the finest men I've ever known," he says.

But Adams would be haunted by the losses. One injured civilian, a little girl, was brought to his unit by her mother and grandmother. Adams learned she later died.

He returned home in 1969 and would not get sober until about 16 years later.

"Things were coming undone, and I had terrible rage, and I didn't understand that was a part of post-traumatic stress disorder," he says.

An opportunity

Therapy helped him cope. A World War II veteran helped him stay sober. And writing an autobiographical play in September 1999 helped him look back on Vietnam. Adams called the show "Place of Angels," the translation of the Vietnamese name for his Marine base, Con Thien.

"It took me about two weeks," he says. "It just poured out of me, very emotional stuff."

Ticket sales from the play's debut at A Red Orchid Theater in Chicago provided some of the startup funds for the shelter he co-founded in Wheaton with Dirk Enger, a Gulf War veteran.

Most vets stay there six to eight months. They meet with a therapist at least once a week and work with case managers who help them monitor their savings. They also receive job training on the path toward self-sufficiency.

About 80 percent successfully finish the program, Adams says. The nonprofit also offers permanent housing, services for families and a thrift store for low-income vets.

"All we can give you is an opportunity and provide all the resources that you might need to take that opportunity," Adams says. "Whether you take it or not, eventually is up to you."

Up to five men live in the Marine Lcpl. Nicholas Larson Home, staffed round-the-clock. The residents take turns cooking dinner and cleaning house.

"We help them to remember that they were once in the United States military," Adams says. "They understand the idea of a unit. They understand the idea of pulling together to get a job done."

Flags and military insignia decorate the house. Pictures of a 108-pound Adams in Vietnam are in the living room.

"Some have talked to me about feeling like they let their service down. They let their buddies down for falling so far. That's not true," says Adams, who has a master's degree in social work and a private practice in Lombard that serves veterans, police officers and firefighters. "Things happen. I don't make value judgments on that kind of thing."

He also didn't judge a Navy veteran, who got sober and became one of the most beloved residents at the shelter. Before he died from a brain aneurysm, his mother sent Adams a letter.

"Thank you for giving us back our son and our brother," she wrote.

Adams sees another miracle in the man's "short and happy life."

"He had found his way out of the torture of alcoholism, and he reconnected with his family," he says.

Adams still keeps a small office on the home's second floor. But he now visits the house once or twice a week because he has stepped down from the nonprofit's board of directors and as clinical director.

"You could be having a bad day, and he'll cheer you up," says Judy Mitsias, who has worked as a house manager on the day shift almost since Day 1.

'A place to breathe'

One of the home's newest residents is a 53-year-old Air Force veteran who asked to be identified by his first name, Glenn. The Carol Stream native moved in about a month ago after living out of his car and abusing alcohol.

He works part time at Home Depot and carves out a space in the home's garden to "shut down the turmoil for a little bit."

"It gave me a place to breathe," he says. "I've got a bed to sleep in every night. I've got food in my stomach. I can go to work."

He's amazed at the "outpouring of people who care." One woman and her teenage sons drove from Palatine earlier this week to drop off a homemade meal of Spanish rice and empanadas.

"They don't understand how far that goes," he says.

Adams understands.

"There's no way this can operate without all of God's grace and a lot of wonderful people who help us," he says.

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