Justin Wiltse served the U.S. Army as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic for more than six years.
Working part-time in the parts department at DeKalb Harley-Davidson, he's finishing his military contract as a reservist. He's also a computer science major at Northern Illinois University. If he has one piece of advice for new veterans transitioning to civilian life, it's to take advantage of all the benefits military service provides.
"I decided I didn't want to work on vehicles anymore," Wiltse said. "I wanted to go to college."
As DeKalb County residents recognize Veterans Day today through multiple activities, some local veterans young and old shared advice for service men and women who are making the transition.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Mike Emmer, who served in Somalia and Iraq while in the Army from 1983 to 2006, suggested transitioning soldiers make sure they take the time to adjust. The 48-year-old Sycamore resident, who participated Saturday in a 24-hour vigil honoring veterans at the DeKalb County Courthouse, said not enough veterans use the services offered by the DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission.
The commission, which has offices at 2500 N. Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb, serves as a hub of information, superintendent Tammy Anderson. The local commission started in 2006, but leaders have seen an increase in veterans seeking help, especially those from the Vietnam War.
"They are around retirement age, and we are seeing the effects of Agent Orange and the other stuff they were exposed to," Anderson said.
She said one of the primary ways the commission helps is with Veterans Administration paperwork.
"The VA sends out gobs of paperwork, and people just get overwhelmed and decide they can't deal with it," Anderson said. "We help them with that paperwork."
The commission also provides information about local veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion, rides to appointments and, occasionally, financial assistance for living expenses.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Sgt. Sean Griffin, who has been in the Army since 2008, encouraged new veterans to take advantage of educational benefits and to seek activities that will help them fit in with civilian communities.
"Be patient, because it's a different lifestyle," Griffin advised.
At Kishwaukee College, student counselor Chuck Walters advised veterans planning to attend college to start with the financial aid office.
"That piece seems to take the longest," Walters said. "It takes time to get all the paperwork in order."
He also urged new students to visit with a student counselor to develop a plan for college. Kishwaukee College has a learning skills center available to help with tutoring, personal counseling and referral to other agencies.
As for Wiltse, his transition from soldier to civilian started before he left full-time duty with the Army's Transition Assistance Program. He's also found helpful both the DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission and the Military Student Services on the NIU campus.
"TAP teaches you how to go from being a soldier to a civilian, about the benefits available, stuff like that," Wiltse said.
• Monica Maschak contributed to this report.
Get information on services for veterans from:
• DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission, 2500 N. Annie Glidden Road, 815-756-8129
• NIU Military Student Services, Room 409, Adams Hall, 815-753-0691
• NIU Off-Campus and Non-Traditional Student Services, Rooms 023J and 023K, Holmes Student Center, 815-753-9999
• Kishwaukee College, Counseling and Student Development, C2110, 815-825-2086, ext. 2480