URBAN AND RURAL VETERANS MORE ALIKE THAN NOT
By Glenda Smith, America’s Heroes Group
“When did your family come north to Chicago?”
Most of us have heard that question, or a similar question come up at gatherings of family and friends in any northern city. Many of us have an elderly relative who came north; a few of us even have family or a friend who stayed on the farm.
How many of us have an uncle or grandfather who left the country for the military and used his G.I. Bill to move, to get educated, and to buy a house in the city when he returned.
Many veterans followed that route, but not every veteran leaves the country for the city.
Chicago media personality and radio host Cliff Kelley recently hosted his Saturday America’s Heroes Group broadcast on WVON, discussing issues facing veterans in rural America. His guests were two people familiar with the experiences of veterans in rural communities: Sheila Simon, former Illinois Lieutenant Governor and current professor of law at the Southern Illinois University School of Law in Carbondale, and Brian Clauss, former executive director of the Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Simon has devoted most of her legal career to public service. She began her career of public service with her first job out of school at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation where she worked from 1987 to 1992, providing legal services to indigent people in downstate Illinois. She worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Jackson County, prosecuting DUIs and domestic battery cases from 1994 to 1998 and then formed the Domestic Violence Clinic at SIU Law School in 1998.
She worked as a law school professor until she took a leave to run for Lieutenant Governor in 2010. She is the daughter of legendary United States Senator Paul Simon. Public service runs in the family.
Brian Clauss ran one of the first law school veterans’ clinics for 12 years. The John Marshall Veterans Clinic has assisted hundreds of veterans improperly denied benefits by the VA. The clinic provides legal services at no cost.
One thing that urban America and rural America have in common is military service. The enlisted members of the military are largely drawn from two areas, urban America and rural America. Young people join the military seeking college money, training, structure, and experience that will lend itself to a civilian job.
Let’s not forget that many also serve out of duty, honor, and commitment to the United States.
Young people from urban and rural communities are a disproportionate share of the military. They enlist at higher rates than other segments of society. Suburban America does not send its sons and daughters into the military in as great numbers as urban and rural communities do. Urban and rural America share this common bond of military service.
Kelley and Clauss agreed that urbanites sometimes have difficulty understanding rural America and Simon agreed that it can be similar for rural Americans understanding urban America. However, they agreed that there is much more that joins metropolitan and rural veterans together, than push them apart.
All veterans have served their country, regardless of where they choose to live as civilians. Simon, Clauss and Kelley agreed that the one big thing that most veterans have in common is the Veterans Administration.
The VA is a gigantic organization with medical facilities all over the country. The VA also provides compensation benefits for veterans who suffer the effects of illness or injury linked to their military duty. Although the VA healthcare system has very high patient satisfaction rates, sometimes the VA does not get it right in healthcare, benefits, or other VA programs.`
When the VA does not get it right is where legal aid providers can assist.
Illinois veterans have a valuable resource at the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network. ILAFLAN is a statewide initiative to provide free legal assistance to veterans for all types of legal issues. Veterans can call (855) ILAFLAN (855 452- 3526) and speak with a legal aid attorney. Veterans are then matched with a volunteer organization or attorney who will assist them.
Those of us in the greater Chicago metropolitan area forget just how small a piece of Illinois we occupy. Although the majority of Illinois’ population is in the Northeast corner of the state, it is not the only populated part of the state.
Simon was joining Kelley from her home in deep Southern Illinois, near SIU’s Carbondale campus. Her home is more than 300 miles south of WVON studios. Legal aid providers are few and far between in deep Southern Illinois.
Thankfully, SIU Law School has a veterans’ legal clinic that provides free legal assistance in VA benefit appeals, and other areas of legal assistance for veterans. It was started by Associate Dean John Lynn, a retired Marine who saw the need to assist downstate veterans.
The law school also provides assistance to people representing themselves when no legal aid attorney is available.
Simon noted that transportation is a huge issue for rural veterans. In the metropolitan area, there is the advantage of a pretty good mass transit system – at least most of the time. If a veteran has no access to a car, he or she can generally find a bus or a train. The CTA Blue Line runs to Jesse Brown VA and Hines VA, the METRA runs to Lovell Health Center.
What about the veteran who lives downstate and needs to get to the VA medical center in Danville or Marion. Downstate veterans have a much tougher time if they lack an automobile. Transportation is often found in the local communities with relatives, friends, neighbors, churches, and at the local America Legion and VFW Halls.
Kelley and his guests discussed the situation in Pope County Illinois, 60 miles east of the Marion VA Hospital. Pope County has one of the highest enlistment rates in the country. But it is over an hour’s drive on the two-lanes from Marion VA. There is no mass transit system to bring a veteran to treatment.
Enter the American Legion Hall and the VFW Hall. As Simon explained, the VFW and American Legion Halls are integral parts of rural small-town life. Not only is it a convenient place to hold events, but the hall also serves as a place for another important function – as a meeting place for veterans. The VFW or Legion Hall provide community-based support in a state that does not properly fund mental health treatment.
As Kelley and his guests agreed, there is more that joins veterans than divides them.