Vets ‘find what they need’ at DuPage County Veterans Resource Fair

More than 200 veterans attended the annual event

The Glen Ellyn Food Pantry was one of several social service organizations that met with veterans at the annual DuPage County Veterans Resource Fair held at the county complex in Wheaton. The fair is designed to connect veterans and their families with the services they need.

U.S. Army veteran Bob Dryden said he “killed two birds with one stone” when he visited the DuPage County Veterans Resource Fair.

Not only did he learn about a wide range of services offered to military veterans, but it turns out his driver’s license that was soon to expire could be renewed, too.

Dryden did that with a quick visit at a table sponsored by the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office.

Dryden, 73, of Lombard served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

“We had our bad times. We had our good times, too,” Dryden said. “We just had our annual reunion.”

Dryden was among about 200 veterans who attended the resource fair at the Jack Kneufer Building in the county complex in Wheaton.

Organizers Kathleen Carrier, the DuPage County recorder, and Steve Fixler, superintendent of the veterans assistance commission of DuPage County, said the event was a success.

The main focus, Fixler said, is “to provide resources for veterans and their families.”

And Carrier added: “We are trying to help them find what they need.”

89 veterans organizations, vendors, government agencies and service providers were present, each with a table and representatives happy to chat with veterans.

The topics ranged from Veterans Affairs health care and benefits to social agencies that provide in-home medical and nonmedical care. The attorney general’s office was on hand to offer “advice on legal issues or scams” and groups that provide food and shelter for homeless veterans also attended the fair.

“There’s a variety,” Fixler said.

The DuPage Senior Citizens Council offered information about what is available to older veterans, said Ann-Margaret Luciano, director of volunteers for the organization.

“One of the biggest services we provide is our Meals on Wheels program,” Luciano said.

At another table, Susie Koleff, business development manager for Clear Captions, was talking with veterans about a telephone that includes a large screen upon which spoken words are displayed as text.

This makes it easier for veterans who are hard of hearing to communicate with others, Koleff said.

“And the text can be enlarged,” she said.

A few tables away, Tom Zilla, commander of the Lombard Lilac Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5815, after meeting a reporter, asked “Are you a veteran?”

Zilla was there in hopes of getting more veterans interested in joining the VFW post.

The only requirement of veterans to become VFW members is “you have to have had boots on the ground in a conflict zone,” Zilla said.

That’s the distinction between the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said.

“Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Grenada,” he said as examples. “Anyone of these conflict zones.”

Zilla qualified because he served as a gunner on an Army helicopter during the Vietnam War.

“The first time I got shot at, my commanding officer was flying. He said, ‘Zilla, you better start returning fire or we’re not going to be up here much longer.’ You kept hearing those ‘ping, ping, pings.’ I never got shot. Thank you, Lord,” said Zilla, 83.

Zilla said one problem with recruiting members these days is the “younger veterans are going to school – which is wonderful – are married, have a family. They don’t have enough time on their hands [to join the post].”

“We have 92 members in the post. We can always use more,” Zilla said.

The event was not limited to DuPage County residents.

“Anyone can come,” Carrier said. “We’ve got people from Kane [and] Cook [counties].”

“We’ve even got some from Ogle County,” Fixler said of a county located southwest of Rockford.

Army veteran Skyler Doss, 30, drove up from south suburban Park Forest to attend.

“It’s wonderful. I like to see the community coming together,” said Doss, who served six years.

“I didn’t know we had that many veterans. I wanted to see how well the veterans are being taking care of,” said Doss, who makes a living as an Uber driver.

John Bryla, 76, of Bloomingdale, served in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

Bryla is a member of Bloomingdale VFW Post 7539, which, he said, donates hundreds of dollars every month to buy food for veterans who are homeless.

Asked whether government agencies are doing enough for veterans, he shook his head.

“I don’t think they are,” Bryla said. “Congress needs to do more for [veterans in term of] health care and housing.”

That’s a goal of Naperville Responds for Veterans, an organization that raises money for veterans to help with housing issues.

Since 2009, Naperville Responds for Veterans has raised almost $1.2 million in home repairs and renovations needed by veterans, according to a sign posted at the group’s table.

The only requirement to get assistance is a veteran must live within a 25-mile radius of Naperville, volunteers Jan and Mike Barbour said.

With about an hour to go in the four-hour event, organizers were pleased it had been a success. Veterans still were filing in to gather information.

“I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised. We expected this, but, again – oh, my God, look at all this,” Fixler said, glancing across a crowded room.