Marine vet Ald. Villegas urges city to reinstate Veterans Affairs Office

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Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) speaking at a June 2021 City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin/ Sun-Times file

As a retired Marine who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) knows what it’s like to come home to Chicago with nowhere to turn for help finding a job or getting the counseling services needed to make the difficult transition to civilian life.

He doesn’t want his fellow service members to suffer the same indignity at a time when veterans continue to deal with homelessness, joblessness, suicide prevention, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder.

On Wednesday, Villegas demanded that Mayor Lori Lightfoot find $400,000 in her $16.4 billion budget to reinstate an Office of Veterans Affairs established by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016 but disbanded in 2019, leaving an “empty office” at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Villegas said money to fund a modest three-person office could be found in the city’s Department of Human Resources, which has struggled to fill hundreds of vacancies across city government.

Lightfoot has proposed a 39% increase in the Human Resources budget — from $8.6 million-a-year and 83 employees to $12.04 million and 131 staffers. Surely, the department can spare $400,000 to serve the men and women who have put their lives on the line to serve our country, Villegas said.  

“We’re one of the top five cities without a Veterans Affairs Office, which is an embarrassment given the fact that 68,000 veterans are in Chicago and thousands are returning every year. We need to welcome them back to Chicago with the resources that they’ve earned, and quite frankly, are entitled to,” Villegas said.

Villegas recalled what happened in 1992, when he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, given an airline ticket home and returned to a city with no one to help him find a job or access the counseling services many veterans desperately need.

“I had to go on unemployment because there wasn’t something for me. I remember that feeling. It’s incumbent on me as a legislator who’s a veteran to make sure that the veterans that are coming back don’t have that same feeling that I had,” he said.

Villegas, chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, spent two years as Lightfoot’s floor leader. He said demoralized Chicago police officers are retiring faster than CPD can fill their jobs. Why not hire veterans?

“CPD can’t get enough recruits. Well, let me tell you, veterans, that we’ve spent thousands of dollars on, know how to follow orders. Are drug-free. They know how to fire weapons. These are folks that could immediately be great candidates for CPD, CFD, the Department of Transportation. There are tons of jobs and trades within the military that could easily translate over to government,” Villegas said.

Former Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) spent seven years as the city’s director of veterans. He’s a decorated Vietnam War veteran who spent years as the Council’s champion for veterans like him.

Balcer joined Villegas in demanding that Lightfoot reinstate the office.

“Look at myself with PTSD. People need help. It’s critical that you have someone up in the mayor’s office addressing these issues that a vet or someone in the military can go to. They have families, too,” Balcer said.

“I served from 1967 to 1970. I was in Vietnam. I was wounded three times. I know what it is. I came home. That help wasn’t there. I commend the alderman and hope the mayor reinstates this in the budget,” said Balcer.

Ald. James Balcer salutes his applauding City Council colleagues in 2001 after belatedly receiving a Bronze Star for his service in the Vietnam War.

Sun-Times file

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October 19, 2022 at 10:36PM

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