High-ranking adviser to Joint Chiefs of Staff visits vets at Hines VA Hospital
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org April 5, 2013 2:42AM
USMC Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted leader of the Joint Forces Command, chats with U.S. Army Sgt. Joel Tavera, who was severely wounded in Iraq, during a tour of Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on Thursday, April 4, 2013. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 6, 2013 3:58PM
As they finished their lunches, veterans at Hines Veterans Hospital joked Thursday about how — when they were in the service — they used to avoid a sergeant major.
“If you saw one coming, you would hide,” said Doug Mitchell, a veteran from Milwaukee.
On this day, however, he and his fellow vets said it was an “honor and a privilege” to dine with Marine Sgt. Major Bryan Battaglia.
“The honor is all mine,” Battaglia assured them, with a broad smile and a sturdy handshake.
Hines is Illinois’ largest VA hospital and provides health care to more than 56,000 veterans — mostly from Cook, DuPage and Will Counties, according to a news release. More than 10,000 veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are signed up for care there, the release said.
Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with veterans of all ages as he toured the community living center, the blind rehabilitation center and the spinal cord injury center Thursday at Hines.
“Is the staff treating you well? Are they working you hard?” Battaglia said to one vet who was doing physical therapy at the spinal cord injury center.
“Nothing is more important than taking care of our wounded,” he said.
Battaglia admitted that veterans hospitals “have not always had the best reputation,” which is why he prefers to talk privately with the vets. On this day, he met veterans from the Battle of the Bulge, Vietnam and Iraq, and was “blown away by what this hospital provides,” he said.
“The sky’s the limit here.”
At the Blind Rehabilitation Center, where there is a waiting list of 120, Battaglia saw a 96-year-old veteran learning to use an iPhone.
“You can teach an old dog new tricks,” he said.
Technology is a significant part of the rehabilitation efforts here. They learn to use voice-activated computers and travel guides and seemingly less complicated daily activities such as cooking, cleaning and crossing the street.
“We are the best-kept secret,” Jerry Schutter, chief of the Blind Rehabilitation Center, said. “Our job is to give the their life back.”
This facility is often a model for others, he said.
Across the way at the Spinal Cord Injury Center, director Dr. Michael Richardson said his greatest need is money for assistive technology to help veterans become “completely functional.”
Mitchell, who wears a black patch over his right eye, said he told the sergeant major that he has made “huge progress” at Hines.
“This place helps you adapt and stay independent,” Mitchell said. “That’s important.”
Of Battaglia’s visit he said, “It’s great to get some recognition after all our suffering.”
Battaglia recognized that too, as he frequently thanked the veterans he met on his tour.
According to Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh, public affairs director for the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Battaglia researches what works and shares it with other facilities.
“We’re here to find out if there’s a way to make it better,” Marsh said.
Battaglia said the military needs to expand the services it now offers.
“From my observations, the greatest needs will be mental health, traumatic brain injuries and amputees,” he said.
The goal is to get veterans to successfully re-enter society, he said. The VA, the military and the community need to be “synchronized,” Battaglia said, adding that he works with businesses to encourage them to hire veterans.
It was Battaglia’s first visit to Hines.
“I never met anyone that close to the Joint Chiefs of Staff before,” Lorne Lane, a veteran from Sioux City, Iowa, said. “We had a very pleasant conversation.”