Efforts made to connect veterans during pandemic

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (left, D-Aurora) leads a Facebook Live discussion on veterans issues Thursday (April 30) with U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-14th, and Jake Zimmerman, superintendent of the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission. One of the best ways that veterans can beat feelings of isolation during COVID-19 restrictions is to connect with an area veterans organization, Zimmerman said.

Veterans need to admit when they are struggling with issues during the coronavirus pandemic and reach out for help, according to individuals who assist former service members.

Too many veterans keep up a stoic front and do not want to show they are vulnerable, according to state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, a Marine veteran herself.

The representative of the state’s 84th Legislative District said in dealing with the isolation caused by COVID-19, some veterans may be drinking too much or self-medicating to numb the pain “because they may now be thinking about things they’re depressed.”

Jake Zimmerman, superintendent of the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission, advised veterans who are feeling disconnected and anxious because of shelter-in-place orders to reach out to the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press “Option 1.”

He said the Vet Center in Aurora has mental health counselors on staff who can work with a struggling individual.

Zimmerman also advised veterans to get involved with a local veterans post. The organizations are not meeting in person right now, Zimmerman said, but many are meeting virtually.

“The American Legion is doing Zoom meetings,” Zimmerman, who served four years on active duty with the Coast Guard, said during a Facebook Live event Thursday (April 30) with Kifowit and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-14th. “… There’s still that opportunity to have some camaraderie, to not get into that lonely place we want to avoid.”

Underwood, who serves on the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the U.S. House, said veterans as well as the rest of the country’s residents were caught off guard by COVID-19.

“This is certainly a difficult experience that nobody would have anticipated,” Underwood said. “If you told us three months ago, six months ago that would we would be in this circumstance, I don’t think anybody would have believed a 50-state pandemic, a global pandemic where we’re all being asked to stay at home.”

Underwood said to be under the stay-at-home order for more than six weeks now is a struggle for everyone.

“It’s difficult for a lot of people, these feelings of loneliness and isolation, uncertainty, long nights, and for those people who might be living alone, you’re really feeling disconnected,” the former nurse said.

Underwood said there are a variety of resources available through the federal Department of Veterans Administration and at the local level, such as tele-health services.

“We don’t anyone to feel like they’re alone and we certainly don’t want people to start using self-harm techniques,” Underwood said. “I want to encourage you to reach out.”

She said an 80-page Coronavirus Community Resource Guide on her website, underwood.house.gov, can help put veterans and other area residents in touch with the help they need.

“We know there is a stigma, a barrier in reaching out for the first time,” the congresswoman said.

Stephanie Kifowit, who chairs the Illinois House’s Veteran Affairs Committee, said many men and women who served in the Armed Forces “don’t like feeling that they are a little bit on the weak side for needing help.”

“What we have to do together as a community is spread the word that if a veteran is suffering any kind of ailment – whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury or a concussion or anything that affects how they view the world,” help is available to them, said Kifowit, the only female veteran in the Illinois General Assembly.

Underwood said that veterans and anyone else who may have suffered a concussion can view the circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic as life-altering and react in a heightened way.

She said the individual’s loved ones should be aware of possible reactions from the individual and work with their medical provider.

“Create a safe and a, most importantly, secure environment for your loved one,” Underwood said.