Veterans Day: Talking to one of Illinois’ 628,000 vets

Military service led Robert Richmond to job opportunity, as well as help with homelessness and addiction.

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An elderly man in a wheelchair.

Robert Richmond, 81, entered the Army at 17 and ended up at “the coldest place on earth.” He quit when they wanted to station him in Hawaii.

Photograph by Neil Steinberg

Robert Richmond was 17 when his grandmother took him to the Army recruiting station and signed the papers.

The year was 1955. The Korean war had just ended.

“I went to Korea 16 months,” he said. “I got over there in July of ‘55. I was on the clean-up.”

Why did he enlist?

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“There wasn’t anything going on around here,” said Richmond, who grew up on the South Side, near 37th and Indiana.

I met Richmond last week on the No. 3 King Drive bus. I noticed his Army baseball cap, and we got to talking. He was on his way downtown on a few errands, and I tagged along.

Richmond, who like most vets never saw combat, has no regrets about enlisting. He’s glad.

“Yes,” he said. “Because it gave me the ability to be a man. Responsibility. I learned how to get up in the morning and do manly things. Things that I needed to do, like taking care of myself.”

Richmond is one of about 628,000 veterans living in Illinois, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with 20.4 million veterans nationwide.

The bus stopped at Randolph Street.

“Coming out, wheelchair,” he said, working the joystick on his electric chair.

First, Richmond visited — choosing my words carefully — a social organization whose commitment to anonymity is equal to its commitment to temperance. To buy a commemorative coin for himself — 18 years in January — and one for a relative.

“It’s a blessing,” he said, of the anniversary. “It’s a miracle.”

The Army taught Richmond to drive amphibious trucks, but his central memory of his stint in Korea with the 17th Infantry, 7th Division is the weather.

“Coldest place on earth,” he said. “Coldest place on the planet.”

He also remembers the Army back then as a racist organization.

“It was,” he said. “In the barracks, the blacks were upstairs and the whites were down. We didn’t sleep together in the States. Once you got over to Korea, everybody slept together.”

Why didn’t he spend his entire career in the Army?

“I was going to do that,” he said. “But they wanted to send me to Hawaii.”

And that was a bad thing? 

“Back in ‘58, I was the wrong color to go to Hawaii,” Richmond said, laughing. “I wouldn’t do that.”

Richmond left the service and joined a trade.

“I operated heavy equipment, Local 150. I went to school,” he said. “They didn’t have minorities in the trade union, but they had what was called the Chicago Plan. Old Man Daley, he was real smart. He divided money between the Disciples and the Black Stone Rangers. They wanted me to go to school, so I went to school.”

Homelessness is a particular problem among vets: Six percent of Americans served in the military, but 12% of homeless men are vets. Richmond became homeless due to another pervasive problem: addiction, to heroin and crack cocaine.

“I kept getting high,” he said. “I was homeless a couple of years. Then I got sober in 2002. That’s when I got a permanent place to stay.”

There are well-known problems with the VA: delays and bureaucracy, mistakes and shortages. But Richmond is satisfied with his experience with the VA.

“They’re very good,” he said. “They’ve been very good to me. I’m on oxygen.”

Richmond has COPD — he gave up smoking five years ago. He’s been in the chair for five years.

The father of two, Richmond lives in a senior building at 32nd and Prairie with his wife, which explains his second errand: to Ross Dress for Less, to buy cologne. Tuesday is senior discount day — 10 percent off — and Richmond is 81.

He recommends the military for anyone who wants to get ahead despite limited resources.

“It’s an opportunity to go to school and to get a better education,” he said. “If they go into the service, they can go to school, get some real good training, and come out with education and some grounding for life. That’s it.”

The Veterans Administration is holding celebrations Monday at several local hospitals. At Edward Hines, 5000 S. 5th in Hines, Illinois, there is a parade, speeches, a free lunch and job fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. At Jesse Brown, 820 S. Damen, there will be a commemoration with music and a light lunch beginning at 11 a.m.

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