Days before leaving office, Lightfoot fills job of director of veterans affairs

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, the mayor’s former floor leader, said the job should have been filled last fall, when he pressured the mayor to find $400,000 in the budget and reinstate the Office of Veterans Affairs that was disbanded in 2019.

SHARE Days before leaving office, Lightfoot fills job of director of veterans affairs
Chicago City. Hall.

Chicago City Hall.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

It’s a good thing Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has asked department heads, agency chiefs and appointees of the outgoing mayor to stay on at least three months.

Without that opportunity to prove himself, Kevin Barszcz’s new job might have lasted only a few days.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot waited until the final days of her term to appoint Barszcz, a U.S. Navy veteran, as Chicago’s director of veterans affairs.

Thirty-sixth Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas, Lightfoot’s former floor leader, said the job should have been filled last fall.

That’s when he pressured the mayor to find $400,000 in her $16.4 billion budget to revive the Office of Veterans Affairs. It had been established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016 but disbanded in 2019, leaving an “empty office” at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Villegas is all for the mayor’s choice of Barszcz. It’s the timing he finds offensive.

“I don’t know that it’s a ‘f--- you’ to me so much as it’s a ‘f--- you’ to the veterans’ community and the 65,000 veterans, a community that she never spoke of,” Villegas said.

Former 11th Ward Ald. Jim Balcer, a Vietnam veteran, was the city’s director of veterans for seven years and championed their issues on the Council.

Balcer shared Villegas’ disappointment at Lightfoot’s delay.

“That position should have been filled a long time ago. They had the money. ... I don’t know why they delayed it,” Balcer said.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment. Barszcz could not be reached.

A news release quoted him as saying his goal is to “be known as Chicago’s best chief marketing officer” for veterans and their families and make Chicago “the city they choose to relocate to” after leaving the armed services.

He has his work cut out for him, Balcer said.

“We have homelessness. We have joblessness. We have PTSD. We have the VA. We have women’s veterans. There’s all sorts of injuries. Veterans need help. ... They need somewhere to go and someone who can tell them where to go,” Balcer said.

As a Chicago recovery project manager for the city, Barszcz oversaw “homelessness support services, rapid rehousing, shelter improvement, housing stabilization and encampment support,” according to the city. He also focused on “increasing homeless outreach services” on the CTA and to those who have taken up residence at O’Hare Airport.

Villegas pointed to the grassroots organization Barszcz founded for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It started as a networking event, and now there’s thousands of folks signed up to it. There’s an annual 18- to 20-mile march to bring to attention and memory the 18 to 20 military veterans who commit suicide on a daily basis across the country,” said Villegas, who has participated in the march in recent years.

“He led the efforts around that and has been a big advocate for veterans, despite not having the necessary tools to do much. He’s a good choice,” Villegas said.

Villegas urged the mayor-elect to “give him a chance” to stay on his administration: “This is someone’s who’s respected within the veterans community.”

One of the biggest issues confronting Barszcz will be helping veterans “assimilate from military to civilian life” by helping them get jobs, mental health care and other social services, Villegas said.

“After you’re honorably discharged, you’re then given a ticket back home and [told], ‘Thank you for your service,’” Villegas said.

Noting that there is a “10% veterans preference” in city hiring, Villegas said, “CPD is hiring veterans. Those are perfect candidates for police officers. They understand chain of command. They’re drug-free. The country has spent thousands of dollars training these folks. They understand how to take orders and shoot weapons. They’ve worked all hours of the day. These are perfect candidates.”

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