Constable: Charity takes aim at killer of 20 vets a day
If an elite enemy assassin were sweeping through our nation, killing 20 of our military veterans a day, people would demand an end to that horrifying carnage. Since that killer is suicide, our outrage isn't as focused.
"It's one thing if ISIS or the Taliban shoot one of us. It's another thing if we take our own lives," says Bob Gorman, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran from Barrington who serves as a veteran peer specialist with the Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation, a not-for-profit charity in Grayslake.
Gorman, the foundation's founder and President Paul Baffico, and more than 85 volunteers completed the 13.5-mile "Ruck March of Lake County" Saturday from Libertyville to Lake Villa as a way to raise awareness of the issue and let veterans and their families know help is available. And not just any help, but "help from those who have been there," says Baffico, 72, who was a 1st lieutenant with the Army's 101st Airborne and served as a combat communications platoon leader in Vietnam.
The center has a home at 100 S. Atkinson, Suite 110, in a Grayslake strip mall along with the organization's coffee shop, DryHootch, which is slang for an alcohol-free safe shelter. Last year, the center had contact with 18,362 veterans, active duty personnel, parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, co-workers and others through a wide variety of activities and services. DryHootch had 2,224 drop-ins and another 3,220 phone calls. The website is lakevetsfound.org.
Because the private charity raises all its money through events, donations and grants, it keeps meticulous records on the clients it helps. Forty-three percent of the veterans seeking the agency's help joined the military after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and another 23 percent are Vietnam veterans. Nearly a fourth (22 percent) seek help in getting the benefits they earned through service; 17 percent need help with employment; 14 percent ask for help with their mental health.
A gas card or a loan to help with rent might be all a veteran needs to get back on his or her feet, but the foundation also can connect people with 85 organizations that help with post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, emotional issues in children, legal problems, substance abuse, housing, employment, finances and other issues, including suicide prevention.
With September being Suicide Prevention Month, the Army launched a new #BeThere campaign, reminding everyone to be aware of the risk. The active-duty suicide rate increased 80 percent from 2004 to 2008. Veterans account for 18 percent of all such deaths in the United States, but make up only 8.5 percent of the population. People can get help by calling the military crisis line at (800) 273-8255 and pressing 1, or calling the local foundation at (847) 986-4622.
Lake County is home to 70,000 active-duty military members and veterans, says Baffico, who lives in Lake Bluff. Growing up in San Francisco's counterculture Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Baffico, a graduate of the University of San Francisco, went from 1967's "summer of love" into the Army and was in Vietnam by 1969.
"I'm on my 11th life," Baffico says, recalling times he nearly was killed in Vietnam. He came home, started working as a stock boy for Sears, rose to become president of the Automotive Group and CEO of Western Auto, and retired at age 53. Gorman, a University of Notre Dame grad who was a public information officer serving in the same Vietnam base as Baffico, had a successful career with Allstate before he retired.
Both men realized they had gone through experiences, during and after the war, that could help other veterans.
"Warriors' lives are changed," says Baffico, who volunteers once a month as a wall docent at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our nation's capital. "I was changed forever and I'm never going to forget it."
The military does a wonderful job of preparing people for the hard road of active duty, but isn't as good with "the off-ramp," Gorman says. Many young soldiers struggle with the emotional baggage. "He came home, but he never unpacked his bags," Gorman says.
In a world where friends throw a hissy fit about a fantasy football draft, or the wrong sauce with a bucket of chicken wings, one young veteran felt that nobody appreciated what he had been through. Marching with foundation members in a suburban July 4 parade, "he heard all the clapping and the cheering," Gorman says, noting that helped but wasn't a cure-all. "He's still dealing with stuff."
About a third of people seeking help at the foundation in Grayslake are women.
"In spite of #MeToo, I think the military version (military sexual trauma) hasn't expressed itself," Gorman says. Female veterans are nearly 250 percent more likely to kill themselves than civilian women.
"What my job is very simply is to listen," says Gorman, who is married and has three adult children and seven grandchildren. "If you come in, we're going to stick out the red carpet for you."
Saturday's march alerted everyone that help is available "for veterans and family members," but those in need have a responsibility, too, Gorman says. "We're saying as a community, 'Please ask for help.'"