Standing before a crowd of several hundred people at Soldier Field, Army veteran Bill “Hawk” Albracht recalled a time when soldiers were not so warmly regarded.
“When I came home in 1970 . . . it was a very tumultuous time to wear a uniform in the United States,” Albracht said. “It was not a good time to be a veteran.”
Albracht, a retired Green Beret who was the youngest captain to command combat troops in Vietnam, was the keynote speaker at the city’s official Veterans Day ceremony.
He recalled coming home from Vietnam — a conflict that ended 40 years ago — feeling isolated from the rest of the nation.
“We all came home, and we kind of hunkered down. We got together with our own — and we moved on,” he said. “Little thought was given to being a veteran. Little thought was given to our treatment.”
Albracht expressed calm satisfaction over how he and other veterans have finally received recognition from society.
“We went from no recognition to treated like criminals for people to understand that we served with distinction. We served with honor,” he said.
While veterans are better received today, Illinois politicians touted various programs showing the need for ongoing support of American soldiers who return home.
Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged Illinois’ commitment to veterans, including a bill signed last August that provides property tax breaks to disabled veterans.
But Rauner said that supportive legislation is not enough.
“The single most important thing we can do is make sure the Illinois economy is healthy and strong, creating great careers for everybody who wants to work — especially our veterans,” he said.
The Republican governor, embroiled in a budget stalemate with Illinois Democrats, sat across the stage, divided by the podium from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel announced Wednesday a plan to offer to Chicago veterans an additional 450 housing choice vouchers, which would assist low-income veterans to afford stable, private housing. The city will distribute 150 vouchers for housing support service annually through 2018.
“We do not want to see a veteran call Lower Wacker [Drive] a home ever again,” Emanuel said.
A count conducted by the city in January showed veterans make up a disproportionate percentage of Chicago’s homeless. Military veterans make up 4.4 percent of Chicago’s population but account for about 15 percent of the city’s homeless population.
U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk and Richard Durbin called attention to the successful passage of a Veterans Affairs funding bill, introduced to the Senate by Kirk, a retired Navy reservist. The bill increases funding to the national Department of Veterans Affairs by about $6.2 billion compared to last fiscal year.
“We got everyone to stand behind veterans’ health care,” Kirk said, “because without veterans, we would not have this country.”