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Daily Journal
     January 30, 2020      #31-30 KDJ
 
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Inspiring several audience members to shout “oorah” and “amen”, Vietnam War veteran Jim Wasser, of St. Anne, gives a closing speech during the Vietnam War Commemoration at the Veterans Home in Manteno in July 2016.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette

For Wasser, helping hand extends in both

By Mike Frey
editors@daily-journal.com


In recent years, Jim Wasser has built a stellar reputation as one who is willing and eager to help his fellow military veterans. But in order for Wasser to lend that helping hand, he first had to make the life-changing decision to seek help himself.

For the first four decades following his return to civilian life after a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam, Wasser largely ignored the psychological and emotional scars the experience left with him.

“It took me 40 years to get straightened out,’’ Wasser said. “I’ve seen evil in this world. I saw enough to realize it’s got to be addressed.’’

That realization took place 10 years ago. It led to him to seek counseling and has since led to his dogged efforts to get other veterans the same kind of help.

For those efforts and a lifetime of service to his native Kankakee County and his country, rural St. Anne resident Wasser has been named the Daily Journal’s Male Citizen of the Year for 2019.

Homecoming brings little comfort

Wasser enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after graduating from Kankakee High School in 1964. He rose to become the second in command on a PFC boat that patrolled the river which ran through a firecracker region known as the Mekong Delta. His commanding officer was John Kerry, the man who later became a U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of state and nearly president in 2004, when Wasser campaigned nationwide for him.

Death and violence were all too common there, and Wasser saw it firsthand. When he saw the soil of his native Kankakee under his feet again, he tried his best to put that painful past behind him.

He met and married his wife, Carol, and they had two children, daughter Michelle and son Jimmy. Wasser worked as a union electrician to support his family and also became involved in the community as a member of the Kankakee School District 111 Board of Education.

But something continually gnawed at him, and Wasser had a basic idea of its origin. “I will have survivor’s guilt the rest of my life,’’ he said.

While the fact he had come home while others he served with did not was apparent, he didn’t immediately dwell on it much. When did the epiphany come? His wife had a firm idea.

“He took time for himself,’’ she said of the period around 2009 when Wasser retired from work. “I think he knew he had some issues but he was taught to pull your boots up and get along with your day.’’

Those first days as a retiree included babysitting duty for the couple’s then infant grandson, Nathan. Jim would often perform the duty alone, and upon his return home, he would mention how the job had left him fatigued.

“It gave him a whole different perspective,’’ Carol said. She added that she believes the experience served as a tipping point toward his decision to seek help.

Once the decision was made, Wasser scheduled appointments at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital near Chicago. Those within the veterans community know that a trip to Hines means a visit with a psychologist, and Wasser admits “there’s a stigma there.’’

But he honored the appointments nonetheless, and the ordeal of making frequent trips to the facility was eased by Carol’s constant companionship on each venture north.

“He had to go to dark places he hadn’t been in years,’’ Carol said of the sessions that took place at Hines. This factor compelled her to be by his side when he visited.

The unflagging loyalty is something Wasser will never forget.

“The one that deserves the most credit is Carol — Carol and the family,’’ he said.

Wasser said he still receives treatment in his own right, but not long after he began, the pull to help other veterans was strongly felt. He has certainly responded.

A voice for vets

Wasser learned during therapy that veterans such as himself who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often use “pressurized speech’’ and admits “I talk too much.’’

But he has plenty to say and do for veterans. He is a tireless volunteer who works with numerous organizations. Primary among them are the Kankakee County Veterans Commission, the county’s Veterans Treatment Court and Buddy Check 22, a group that aids vets who suffer from PTSD and suicidal tendencies.

While he has no official title with any of these groups, he has a mighty influence on the success they achieve. And while Wasser likes to talk, his good friend and fellow Navy and Vietnam veteran Roger Bean knows there’s more than talk to this man.

“A lot of people talk a lot, but a lot of people aren’t willing to put their money where there mouth is,’’ Bean, of Bourbonnais, said. “He’s right in the mix.’’

Bean also notes “he gets his hands dirty,’’ and he means it in a most positive way. Wasser’s work with the veterans court requires him to counsel vets who have substance abuse issues along with problems with the law, and he excels at it.

“As a mentor in veterans court, he is fantastic,’’ Bean said. “He makes the person he helps want to help someone else.’’

Some of Wasser’s work with Buddy Check 22 involves locating service dogs that can live with the vets and help calm their anxiety. This endeavor is dear to Wasser’s heart because he can so closely identify with it.

Wasser has two Labrador hunting dogs, 11-year-old Indy and 3-year-old Luke. Carol has watched on as the pair have brought much pleasure her husband’s life, and understands why he strives to share it with others.

“I know he loves me, but there’s a different kind of love for his pets,’’ she said.

Wasser also loves his fellow vets, something Carol said is honed further by the couple’s association with St. George Catholic Church.

“He gets way, way more satisfaction out of working with other vets than most people know,’’ she said.

Who will fill his shoes?

Wasser, now 73, is committed to helping veterans as long as fate allows it. That’s fine by Bean.

“Jim has kind of become the face of the veterans community.’’ he said. “He has been through a lot, and he has given back tremendously.’’

Bean only wishes there was some way to clone Wasser’s type.

“We obviously need more people like Jim.’’ he said. “Everyone should take the time to talk to Jim, whether it be him or someone like him.’’

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