David Rogers | Executive Director
David Rogers, a veteran of the Vietnam War, was numb, disconnected and scared. A Chicago resident, he returned from war in 1969, a stranger in his own home. Back when Vietnam veterans were returning from their tours/deployments, the effects that the war had on the individual after returning home were not widely understood by the veteran, their family or the community. Our mission is to educate and inform.
“Spending time in a war zone rewires you, changes you. You don’t realize until you’re back home riding [the] bus on the way to the store, and [if] someone drops a book…you hit the floor,” Rogers said. It can incapacitate you for years. He called war “the greatest adrenaline rush,” but then added, “It changes your framework knowing that this day, this second, could be your last.” This mindset stays with you long after your homecoming and impacts every facet of your life: your job, your family, your perception of yourself.
Rogers, 63, went years with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and like so many who are afflicted with PTSD, he used drugs and alcohol as a means to manage this debilitating illness. 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 Vet Net—a non-profit peer support organization based in the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, part of the Illinois Medical District on Chicago’s west side. “We formed Vet Net knowing that peer support works and we needed to take it to the streets, that recovery is possible and can be a reality for all veterans and their families,” Rogers said.
Weiss Memorial Hospital provides a base where Rogers and Johanna (Hans) Buwalda, M.Ed., M.A., L.C.P.C., a veterans’ certified counselor, facilitates a group for veterans and also a group for people who love veterans (respectively). The sessions take place in the Weiss 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 neighborhoode around Weiss, hospital administrators agreed. 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 for which they qualify.
“People really appreciate it,” Lochotzki said.
Funded by the department of Senior Services and the Chicago Community Trust, the VetNet provides benefit check-ups from a database of over 1,000 programs. Led by Lyn Williams, a VetNet volunteer, VetNet has engaged over 175 seniors and people with disabilities, helping them gain access to benefits (VA and non-VA services, state and federal) that enhance their lives. According to Rogers, many veterans and their families don’t know how to or are frustrated trying to access the VA.
VetNet volunteers help the individual and the family through the process. Due to undiagnosed and untreated PTSD and TBI, many veterans receive less-than-honorable discharges and then cannot access veterans’ benefits. “They’re left adrift. Our goal is to get that veteran to treatment and to assist them with getting discharge upgrades and recognition of their honorable service. VA or non-VA, we live by the motto: ‘leave no veteran behind.’”
A misdiagnosis left Rogers to live in isolation, struggling with his fears and tears. He understands what peer support can mean to veterans and their families in similar situations. “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 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 she said was 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 her to the VA for a dental appointment. “I’ll inquire about your dental care and call you myself,” he said. “This is what we do: we personalize and embrace our veterans, and assist them in getting the services and support they need.”
At the end of the hour, he said, “This is the best therapy and the best medicine for me, to be of service to my brothers and sisters who are hurting; it gives my life purpose and meaning to help my fellow veterans in need. My soul was sick, my heart was broken. I was written off by society and then I wrote myself off.”
This summer, Rogers and the VetNet volunteers plan to take their role at Weiss a step further by not only holding support groups for veterans as well as their families but also by launching a major campaign to “Welcome Home Unknown Soldiers”. This push, with a special emphasis on senior veterans, will help to find and support veterans in need, addressing unemployment, homelessness, PTSD, health concerns, feelings of loss and isolation, and many other challenges after returning to civilian life. “There are a lot of tears and fears. If we can give people an opportunity to talk about it, then we can do something about it. Then they have the ability to let those troubling things out so that good things can get in,” he said.
Rogers knows firsthand how difficult, rough and trying the circumstances and conditions can be for our returning veterans and their loved ones and all those living with PTSD, having lived it himself. He also knows that by working together these battles can be won, and how rewarding the process can be.
(This story, originally ran on the Weiss Memorial Hospital blog at http://www.weisshospital.com/news-classes-and-events/blog_article/10-08-23/Vet_Net_offers_support_services_to_veterans.aspx, has been edited for this posting.)