The Crusader Newspaper Group

A losing battle

Four years after moving into a veterans’ facility in Evergreen Park, a group of veterans remain in limbo after a sewer problem forced them to find a home, but the real problem may be deeper

By Erick Johnson

It was time for another get-together for 16 Black Vietnam Veterans in West Pullman. Bundled up with coats and caps on a chilly afternoon in Chatham, they looked tired. For decades they shared a bond of brotherhood from the horrors of war, but a different battle at home brought them even closer together.

It’s a battle they had been losing since 2017 at the Veteran Center facility in Evergreen Park. One of many facilities that provide counseling and support to men who served their country, the center began a new chapter decades after a brutal war that killed over 58,000 American soldiers. Many of them were Black.

In January, the 16 Black veterans in Chicago left their Vet Center, where they say officials for years failed to correct a sewage problem that for years created unsanitary conditions that threatened their health. They said they reached out to Black leaders and prominent political officials, but no one has helped. After empty promises, and allegations of harassment and intimidation, the Black veterans say the ordeal has left them with fresh scars and made them feel like forgotten heroes.

“As decorated veterans, we certainly deserve better,” said Sgt. Roosevelt Lance, the leader of the group that left the facility.

The group said the problems at the building began less than a year after they moved into the veterans’ facility at 3348 W. 87th St. in Evergreen Park after a five-year lease was signed with the landlord, Bridge 33 LLC. The group says they left their two-story facility in Auburn Gresham after the leader no longer felt safe there.

The group’s new home is located in a strip shopping plaza. After relocating, members discovered that their new home had no windows and no heat. To keep warm, group members said space heaters were used while they kept on their jackets during meetings or gatherings. Members also found that Evergreen Cemetery stood outside the facility’s back door.

Sgt. Lance said the group was never given a walk-thru before they relocated to the site. Despite the problems, the group settled into their new home, where they would have group counseling meetings every Monday.

In the spring of 2017, members said the facility’s sewer system backed up after a heavy downpour, forcing the cancellation of the group’s weekly meeting. They said backed up sewage flowed up through the toilets in the men’s and women’s restrooms. Members said the carpet in the facility was soaked and smelled like human waste. They said they complained six times before officials removed the carpet on August 21, 2018, more than a year after it was soaked with sewer water.

Members said the experience would be the first of many sewer system backups that would occur during heavy downpours. They said on three occasions they saw human waste, and with no windows and lack of ventilation inside the facility, the members grew concerned about their health. The group said on one occasion, maggots were found on the bathroom floor on what looked like human waste. A photo of the scene was taken and provided to the Crusader.

Members said the frequent sewer backups led the facility’s management to retain a repair company Roto Rooter to visit once a month to clean out backed-up waste from the pipes. Members said at one point, a large, four-inch hole was cut in the floor in the hallway near the room where the group held its weekly meetings. Members said they saw a large Y-shaped pipe that they believed connected the two toilets’ main lines. They said the hole was closed back after a week, but the sewer backups continued. Frustrated, the members wrote letters to the facility’s management, demanding the sewer and other problems be resolved.

Members said they made other efforts to persuade the facility’s management to address the sewer problems. In 2017, they said Arlene Reid, an official from the veteran’s acquisitions and logistics department, visited the site. Members said the facility’s interim director, Dr. Jean Douglas, kept Reid in her office for more than an hour. After a walk-thru of the facility, the official requested to see Sgt. Lance, who said before he spoke, Douglas said that Reid did not have time for questions.

The Crusader reached out to Reid by phone but was unable to leave a message after the call failed to go to voicemail.

That same year in 2017, members said a building inspector from the Veteran’s Administration was sent out to review the problem. They said he spent over an hour reviewing the facility. Members said they were told that no code violations were found. However, they said they weren’t shown any documentation or paperwork to show what was reviewed or done during the inspection.

In 2018, members said Michael Fisher, chief officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs Readjustment Counseling Service, visited the facility to listen to their complaints.

“He promised us that we would be relocated to another place until we got a permanent location.  He agreed that this was not beneficial to us,” Sgt. Lance said. “Then he came back and said we’re not moving you.”

Members said they were later told that a temporary move “would not be cost effective.”

Members said they were told that the site was compliant because Roto Rooter maintenance personnel was retained to visit once a month to clean out backed up sewage so they would not have another occurrence.

“So if the site is compliant, how come the backed up sewage has to be cleaned out every month by a contractor,” asked Vietnam veteran William T. Jones.

In a letter to the Crusader, Jones said, “he could not stand by and watch negligent treatment of these veterans while those attending other centers in the same district have never seen such deplorable environments, and indeed would not be allowed to endure such.”

The Crusader left messages with Fisher, who did not directly respond for this story. Jessica Schiefer, his communication officer, promised that Fisher would speak to the Crusader, but later declined after releasing the following statement.

“The Chicago Vet Center, located at 3348 W. 87th St., experienced temporary issues with the sewage system at the leased location more than two years ago. After VA indicated they would terminate the lease in April 2018, the lessor fixed it, and we have encountered no recent issues.

“VA is currently looking for a new location with more space and plans to remain in the current location until we find the most suitable option. We anticipate a contract by late summer or early fall, with a move in date as early as the end of the calendar year.”

The general statement drew skepticism, as no date was provided to show when the sewer problem was corrected.

With persistent backups, no windows and little heat, many members grew concerned about their health after years of healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which stems from the brutal experiences of the Vietnam War. Many said they were advised by their doctors and therapist to stop going to that Vet Center until the problems were corrected.

In January, the 16 members stopped attending meetings at the facility and began having their own meetings at the VFW Post at 344 W. 119th St. in West Pullman. On January 22, Sgt. Lance and three members received a letter from Brian Stella, a counselor at the Evergreen Park facility, who members say was aware of the recurring sewer problems.

In the letter obtained by the Crusader, Stella offered assistance to the group, but said the case will be closed if he does not hear back from them within 30 days. The group never responded.

“We’re saying that this is a form of intimidation or harassment,” said Sgt. Lance. “The reason we got that letter is because we decided that we’re not going to take it,” said veteran Robert Smith. “This is a threatening gesture trying to cause some kind of fear.”

The Crusader left messages for Stella but did not hear back as of press time Wednesday.

With no options, Sgt. Lance said he reached out for help to Congressmen Bobby Rush, Robin Kelly and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, a veteran who was elected in 2016 with the Black vote years after serving in the Iraq War.

Sgt. Lance said Rush and Kelly never responded.

He said Durbin’s office was working on his concerns but abruptly stopped without giving an explanation. He said Duckworth’s office told him they focus on passing policies and laws in Congress instead of complaints affecting war veterans.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Crusader was unable to reach these political leaders, most of whom are working from home along with their support staff.

Meanwhile, the veterans are struggling to move on.

“They turned a blind eye towards the problems,” said Sgt. Lance. “Comparable to [Vet Centers] the Quad cities, Peoria, Milwaukee, they have much better amenities than we do. We’re 99 percent Black. This is not acceptable.”


The Chicago Crusader Newspaper published the above story titled, “A losing battle,” by Erick Johnson on May 30, 2020, as well as online June 2, 2020. Although the Crusader was unable to speak with the political leaders mentioned by press time, we have since received the following statements from Congresswoman Robin Kelly and Senator Tammy Duckworth.

Statement for Congresswoman Robin Kelly:

“I appreciate the Chicago Crusader providing me an opportunity to correct the story: A Losing Battle. This article incorrectly states that my office did not respond to a veteran service request. To correct the record, my office diligently worked a case to Congressional completion for the constituent in question from 2016 to 2018. I cannot share details about specific casework to protect constituent privacy. However, I want 2nd District veterans to know that my team and I are accessible to them. If any veteran ever needs help, I want them to call me without question. Should you or another veteran in the Second District need assistance, please call me at 708.679.0078. At this time, my team is working from home to promote social distancing, but someone will call you back ASAP. We are here to help!”

Statement from U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth:

“Senator Duckworth has made helping her fellow Veterans her mission ever since she was recovering at Walter Reed, which is why she hired a team of staffers in her Senate office dedicated to helping Veterans experiencing issues with the Federal Government. The office has no record of telling Sgt. Lance that we are unwilling to help and that it is not focused on complaints affecting war Veterans, as nothing could be further from the truth. Senator Duckworth and her office are happy to assist him and other Veterans in need.”


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