Does Chicago care about its veterans?
The one-year anniversary of the end of the Iraq War is this coming Saturday. If you're anything like me, you probably had to Google to verify that date, just to make sure it really has been a year.
It's tempting to not want to dwell on Iraq. After all, it was America's longest war and among our least justifiable, and who wants to be sad around the holidays?
But for Cristopher De Phillips and Laurie Ipsen, the organizers of tomorrow's Chicago Welcomes Home Heroes Parade for post 9/11 veterans (Saturday, December 15 at Columbus Drive at noon), it's essential that we remember, if not the ugly nature of the war and its conception, then certainly the veterans who fought in it willingly.
I wrote about De Phillips and Ipsen's efforts in this week's print issue, and in the course of interviewing them for the story, I talked to two Iraq war veterans, who had a few thought-provoking things to say about the transition back to civilian life.
"Chicago is a different animal. The closest military base is Great Lake so a lot of people don't fall into the military culture," said Robert James, 40, who served two tours in Iraq, in a phone interview. James grew up in Austin, but ended up moving to Wisconsin after his discharge. He now works for a veterans' group called National Able Network, working to make the transition to civilian life smoother, especially in the field of job procurement. "A lot of employers want to hire vets, but they don't speak the language [of the military]. [Not] everybody comes back with PTSD and goes crazy," James explained.
Paul Pipik, who served a ten-month tour, also touched upon some of the difficulties in a phone interview. "People won't hire veterans because they are afraid of them. It's illogical and it's divisive. We have to raise awareness about that. I started writing and when I finished, I said, 'I'm not going to write any more of this. I had some idea that I could horrify people for sending me wherever they sent me. It's troubling to be sent to these places and then people can't find them on a map."
For Ipsen and De Phillips, the biggest challenge in the whole parade-organizing process has been getting the word out to those outside the veteran community. When Rachel Maddow mentioned the Chicago parade in a segment in June, this past year, it raised their profile, but not enough. They'd love to see numbers like the 1986 Vietnam Veterans' Parade, when an estimated 500,000 people showed up in Chicago, in the largest parade of its kind in the history of the US.
So can Chicago do it? We'll see.