Helping other service members is 'therapeutic' for St. Charles veteran
Jack Erwin didn't expect to be sent to war at nearly 40 years old.
The St. Charles resident had a teaching job, a wife and two young children, and responsibilities with the Army National Guard one weekend a month. He had been called to active duty and deployed a few times after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But he didn't serve in a combat zone until 2008, when he was deployed to Afghanistan.
Four soldiers in Erwin's battalion were killed in action, and 12 were wounded as the unit carried out its duties during the next year. Worry, stress and separation from his family weighed on Erwin until he returned home in 2009. Even then, he says, he felt pulled in different directions to keep up with his civilian and military responsibilities.
"It's hard to balance everything, especially when the stakes are so high," he said. "But that's what we signed up for."
Though he didn't realize it at the time, Erwin was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder -- one of many factors that eventually led to his 2010 retirement from the National Guard after 21 years. He sought help through the Department of Veterans Affairs and joined as many veteran organizations as he could, seeking the camaraderie with his fellow service members that he so enjoyed.
He quickly found the more he helped other veterans, the more he was helping himself.
"I always wanted to be able to continue to serve," he said. "It's a way to pay it forward and give back. It's very therapeutic for me."
Erwin first became involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, through which he went on an equestrian retreat for PTSD, attended events with other veterans and reconnected with service members at a CrossFit gym. He joined Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit that connects veterans through athletic and social activities. In 2012, he ran his first marathon to honor a friend and fellow soldier who lost his leg in combat.
One Memorial Day Weekend, Erwin participated in a fundraiser for the Wheaton-based Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, which assists former service members and their families with finding housing and becoming self-sufficient. Learning about the program prompted him to get involved and eventually become a board member.
Erwin's veteran work doesn't stop there. He started taking yoga classes years ago to help with his PTSD and recently decided to become a certified yoga teacher. He helps organize veteran-related fundraising efforts and supports local veteran-owned businesses.
As one of the younger members of the St. Charles Veterans Center, leaders say, Erwin also has become a go-to volunteer to take on various post responsibilities and outreach efforts. The organization formed several years ago when several St. Charles veterans' groups combined their resources.
Through the Veterans Center, Erwin has been involved with a scholarship program and student essay contests. He visits older veterans in senior living facilities and takes them on outings, such as trips to Kane County Cougars games or rides on the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboat.
Some of the most rewarding experiences are "just the bonding with other veterans," he says.
Erwin also takes pride in educating the public about life in the military by participating in ceremonies and giving presentations at schools. His role as a history and special education teacher at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton has given him a unique opportunity to connect with students, he says.
"We have freedoms and rights and privileges that somebody paid for the hard way, and we can't let those be taken from us," Erwin said. "We need to work at every level of government to take care of our future generations and do what's right."