Most times, Jim Black surfs the Internet into the early morning hours. When he does sleep, it’s not for long and it’s not very restful because of the nightmares.
"They’re so vivid," says the 26-year-old Lake Villa resident. "I haven’t gotten eight hours of sleep in five years."
The images are of Iraq, where Black served as a reconnaissance specialist in the Army beginning in 2003 at the dawn of the Iraq war.
"I had a 5-year-old throw a grenade in my truck the second day I was there. My son is 5," Black says, matter-of-factly.
Listening, as always, is his father-in-law, Tim Corrigan. He’s heard a lot the last few years and has tried to help. But he has never been in combat and can’t provide what Black needs most: someone who truly understands.
He has witnessed Black’s anger and frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies as he sought help with his postwar problems.
"He’s just an angry, bitter young guy," says Corrigan, who runs a quality control company in Mundelein, where Black works. "His whole life has changed."
Recently, it was Black himself who came upon a possible answer, finding the American Combat Veterans of War on the Internet. The organization was founded in 2001 by Vietnam vet Bill Rider and run on a shoestring budget in La Jolla, Calif.
The small group has a roster of experienced veteran volunteers used to dealing with the problems of returning "warriors", including the bureaucracy intended to assist them.
Within 24 hours, the group was able to cut through red tape for Black. Corrigan was so impressed he wants to start an Illinois chapter in Lake County.
"I’m determined. I’m going to set one up here," he said.
While not indicting the entire system, Corrigan has become convinced of the need for another group, independent of government, with members who can relate directly to Black and other veterans like him who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
"I’ve had a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ life. I’ve never experienced anything like he’s experienced," Corrigan said. "For four years, I’ve watched this kid spiral and get turned off by the VA."
Black lived in Phoenix for about a year upon returning to the U.S., but came back to the Mundelein area at the urging of Corrigan.
Rider’s group immediately made use of his high-level contacts.
"I was like, `Wow,’ the next day I got my medical records," Black said. "I’d been trying for three years. All of a sudden, I have a combat case manager."
Rider said some veterans’ experience with disrespectful "point of contact people" can make them walk away, as Black said he had done on more than one occasion.
Rider estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan will "have been impacted in some way by the war" and it is putting a burden on the system.
"The VA, when given the opportunity and given all the facts, they will rise to the occasion (but) like most bureaucracies, they don’t have a lot of time."
Doug Shouse, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA Medical Center in North Chicago has seen 1,250 vets from Iraq or Afghanistan. A "good number of them have some symptom of PTSD" or other mental health issue, he added.
He couldn’t speak specifically to Black’s case, but said there are numerous opportunities for individual, group or family counseling.
Affected veterans are not very good advocates for themselves, according to Rider, and may not bring their problems to the attention of those who need to know.
"That’s why we exist. We make people answer for these young warriors," Rider said.
It took Black awhile to agree to tell his story to a stranger. Sitting in Corrigan’s modest office in Mundelein, the lanky Black shifts constantly, the result of a back injury he said he suffered in October 2003 when the vehicle he was riding in hit a palm tree while chasing terrorists.
Between the PTSD and back injury, he said he is considered 70 percent disabled. He also was knocked unconscious for 20 minutes and suffered a severe concussion after being thrown from his truck when an improvised explosive device detonated nearby.
He said he has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, but the Army lost the images taken after the incident, leaving no proof.
"I don’t forget nothing about Iraq, but short-term memory … I contemplate and procrastinate and think about everything I do. Going to the store, I try to pick times when no one is there."
He said he has been denied disability for his traumatic brain injury and plans to appeal. His association with Rider’s group has given him hope.
"This guy Bill has been amazing," Black said. "He wants updates and he wants to help."
Rider said the group is looking into branches in Florida and Texas. Corrigan is making contacts here.
"The question now is how do we set up the same type of resources he (Rider) has there? Here, we’re starting from scratch."
Corrigan asked that anyone interested contact him at [email protected].
Veterans needing help with disability claims, vision or hearing services or transportation can contact the Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission, (847) 377-3344 or www.co.lake.il.us/veterans