Vietnam veteran David Rogers was scared. A Chicago resident, he returned from war in 1973 and never left home without a pistol or knife.
“Spending four or five years in a war zone rewires you, changes you. You don’t realize until you’re on the number 60 bus, and someone drops a book and you hit the floor,” Rogers said. He called war “the greatest adrenaline rush,” and added, “It changes your framework knowing that this day, this second, could be your last.”
Rogers, 62, went years with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Eventually, with support from his peers, he found the help he needed and received a proper diagnosis.
His experience inspired him to reach out to other veterans, and in 2006 he founded The Vet Net—a non-profit peer support organization based in the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center on Chicago’s west side. A grant from the Chicago Community Trust in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services funds the organization. “We formed The Vet Net knowing it works. We decided to take it to the streets,” Rogers said.
On the first Wednesday in August, one component of the organization brought Rogers to Weiss. He was running the first of four weekly, hour-long sessions scheduled throughout the month. With a database of 1,000 programs, Rogers—the first person in Illinois to earn Veteran Peer Specialist certification—was poised to help veterans figure out which medical, tax and transportation benefits they qualify for.
The sessions take place in the WISE Senior Center. Abby Lochotzki, senior center coordinator, said Rogers approached the hospital about hosting the sessions. Because a large population of veterans reside in the Uptown neighborhood around Weiss, hospital administrators agreed.
“People really appreciate it,” Lochotzki said.
According to Rogers, many qualified veterans don’t know how to access the VA. Others receive personality disorder discharges or other less-than-honorable discharges and then cannot access veterans’ benefits. “They’re left adrift. Our goal is to get that vet to treatment—VA or non-VA. We live by ‘leave no vet behind.’”
Because Rogers struggled in isolation for so long, he understands what peer support can mean to a forsaken veteran. “That which happens to the body and mind also happens to the soul and spirit. Peer support is the best medication we can give,” he said.
One of the veterans who came to Weiss during Rogers’ first hour-long session was Noella Bauer, a 92-year-old who had served with the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) during World War II. In a blue hat with blue and white gems, she told Rogers that she had “lived through 17 presidents” and now needed dentures.
Rogers spoke with her about her service, some of which Bauer said she spent in the psychiatric ward as a nurse. “It was just horrible, very sad,” she said.
Taking down her information, Rogers promised to arrange transport to get Bauer to the VA for a dental appointment. “I’ll inquire about your dental care and call you myself,” he said.
At the end of the hour, he sat back in his chair and reflected on the morning. “It makes me happy,” he said, of helping fellow veterans in need. “My soul was sick, my heart was broken. I was written off by society and then I wrote myself off.” The Vet Net, though, has given his life new meaning.
And this fall, Rogers plans to take his role at Weiss a step further by holding support groups for veterans as well as their families. “There’s a lot of tears if we can get them in a room and talk about it. They can let those bad things out and start to let the good things in,” he said.
Rogers knows firsthand how trying—and how rewarding—that can be.
The Vet Net will offer two more sessions of benefits counseling and more, on Tuesday, Aug. 24 and Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 9:30 a.m. in the WISE Senior Center. Stop by to learn more, or call (773) 564-5666.
Check the Weiss calendar for further details on veteran support groups. The first support meeting for veterans will be Friday, Sept. 17 at noon. A support group for spouses of veterans will begin meeting Friday, Sept. 10 at 2 p.m.