On being Black and brave: DeKalb man turns military struggles into acts of service

DeKalb resident Daniel ‘Doc’ Habeel opens up about trials, triumphs that came with devoting life to service

Daniel "Doc" Habeel, a U.S. Army veteran from DeKalb, flips through a book Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, at the Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Health & Wellness Center in DeKalb, that he put together that highlights Black veterans and activists who made significant contributions to the country. Habeel along with his late wife, Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, opened a veterans center in Chicago that has since closed.

DeKALB – DeKalb resident and U.S. Army veteran Daniel “Doc” Habeel knows all too well about mental health problems and how the struggle with them can be all-consuming.

Habeel said he was medically retired from his military duties in 1971 after being confronted with incidences of racism during his time in the service. Habeel served during the Vietnam War era. He trained for the Middle East with a rapid response unit, and was based with an exchange unit coming in and out of Vietnam, he said.

“They say I became disoriented as to who the enemy was, and I wound up at Fitzsimmons Hospital 19 years old in the psychiatric ward,” Habeel said. “But I’m totally tore up because I can’t put all this together.”

Recovery can ebb and flow over time. The mental toll that was paid was costly, Habeel said, recalling how he was administered psychiatric drugs as part of his treatment plan.

“Ever since I left the military, I’ve had a team – a psychologist, a social worker and psychiatrist – until recently,” Habeel said. “The [Department of Veterans Affairs] is going through so many changes, [and] they got so many vacancies that in almost 50 years for the last three or four years I haven’t had a team.”

Habeel said his mental health is faring much better nowadays compared with where it stood years ago.

“I spiritually ran into some help,” he said. “You have what you call triggers and toolboxes. You’re young. You start to mature out. You got people [and] that’s starting to make sense. God blesses you with spiritual leadership. But it does not stop the [post-traumatic stress disorder] moments and incidences.”

Habeel said it’s a shame knowing that there are others struggling with similar type of issues out there.

Nekohl Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran and a consultant who founded Where We Meet and Behold with Nekohl, said she is appreciative of what Doc has done to help her through trying times.

“When I met Doc, I was in a bad state,” Johnson said. “I was just learning about myself and the things I was going through with my mental health as far as PTSD, anxiety, depression, things like that. So I was really up and down emotionally.

“He kind of helped me, pulled me along and encouraged me because I was an administrator at a hospital at the time working for the health care system … and my health started to be a little bit challenged. So he took me into the community, showed me the ropes, showed me what he did, how he did it, invited me to collaborate on some events. It, in part, changed my life.”

Daniel "Doc" Habeel, a U.S. Army veteran from DeKalb, flips through a book Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, at the Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Health & Wellness Center in DeKalb, that he put together that highlights Black veterans and activists who made significant contributions to the country. Habeel along with his late wife, Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, opened a veterans center in Chicago that has since closed.

We said, ‘OK, if anybody comes [to] our door, if it’s a bag of beans and some rice, we’re going to feed them.’ That’s how we started. We started fixing beans and rice in the morning. ... By the time we got ready to close, we had served over 300,000 meals. They called us the ‘Miracle on 55th Street.’ ”

—  Daniel "Doc" Habeel

One cause that has long been close to Habeel is serving veterans.

In 2011, Habeel and his wife Arnetha Gholston-Habeel established the RTW Veterans Center in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood. The center’s mission is “to connect and rally dedicated veterans and others in our community to provide basic services and support to the hungry, homeless and veteran populations in the South Side of Chicago,” according to its website.

Habeel said he saw the center’s inception in 2011 as an opportunity to have an influence on the lives of others.

“I saw myself as being deployed down there,” Habeel said. “The building, they called it the New Jack City of the neighborhood. You see, it was a three-story. So we started. We said, ‘OK, if anybody comes [to] our door, if it’s a bag of beans and some rice, we’re going to feed them.’

“That’s how we started. We started fixing beans and rice in the morning. … [My wife] was a pretty good cook with some beans and rice and cornbread, and we actually grew from there before it was over with. By the time we got ready to close, we had served over 300,000 meals. They called us the ‘Miracle on 55th Street.’ ”

The RTW Veterans Center grew to become a staple in the community, Habeel said, anchored by him and his wife.

In February 2019, Arnetha died.

“Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018,” Habeel said. “They gave her three months to live. We went holistic. But after 13 months, she passed away Valentine’s Day 2019.”

In December 2019, Habeel moved to DeKalb. Habeel, who is Black, admits that he still is getting to know the community.

“More and more this is becoming home,” he said. “I’m just meeting people now. I think DeKalb is a beautiful city. I think it has a ways to go. I go to the American Legion, which I’m part of. Those are some good guys. I’m starting to meet people out here. But for the most part, you don’t see African Americans up in there.”

It’s not taken Habeel long to get busy helping area youth honor veterans, however. He helped out last year at DeKalb School District 428′s Veterans Day assembly at Huntley Middle School. The school put on an American Patriotism Day program during which Habeel gave away hundreds of American flags.

U.S. army veterans (from left) Daniel "Doc" Habeel, of DeKalb, and Nekohl Johnson helped out in November 2022 at DeKalb District 428′s Veterans Day assembly at Huntley Middle School. The school put on an American Patriotism Day program where Habeel gave away hundreds of American flags.

Habeel said that in retrospect, he doesn’t regret his decision to serve. In fact, he said, he encourages people to consider joining the military.

“I think the military is a good option,” Habeel said. “When I came up, I would advise young people to go to the military.”

Habeel comes from a lineage of servicemen devoted to serving their country. He said he’s proud to have walked in the footsteps of not only his father but his grandfather and uncle as well.

Johnson said that what makes Habeel who he is is easy to pinpoint.

“I think it’s just that empathy that he has,” she said. “Doc is a good guy. He’s a good guy. [He’s] someone good to know.”

This story was updated at 9:24 p.m. Nov. 9, 2023 to clarify where Habeel served during the Vietnam War era.

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