The irony wasn’t lost on World War II and Korean War Veteran James Frohnapfel as he waited to help cut the ribbon on the relocated Evanston Vet Center’s new building – about a block away from where he lived before joining the Navy in 1942.
“Now 72 years later, I’m back where I started,” Frohnapfel joked. He currently lives about 45 minutes north at Freedom Square, the Lovell Federal Health Care Center’s Community Living Center (CLC) in North Chicago, Ill. But before that, he lived by the Evanston Vet Center at its previous location – the same area in which he lived all those decades ago.
“It’s a pleasure to associate with the guys I’ve met here over the years,” Frohnapfel continued, commenting on the many years he frequented the center.
A crowd of community supporters and Veteran clients of the center joined Frohnapfel, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Vet Center staff, and leaders from Lovell FHCC Jan. 10 to celebrate the new space.
The Evanston Vet Center is one of approximately 300 operated by VA nationwide to
provide readjustment counseling and other support to returning combat Veterans, including helping them access their VA benefits. Lovell FHCC – where Department of Defense and VA health services are integrated at the nation’s only federal health care center – partners with the Evanston Vet Center to care for Veterans.
“We were eager to move for a while,” said Evanston Vet Center Team Leader Betsy Tolstedt. “It’s very exciting, and we’re very happy to have such a nice place for Veterans. For many who come here for services, it’s like a second home.”
The Evanston Vet Center has helped more than 9,000 Veterans and their family members since it opened its doors in 1985. Of the 507 clients it served in fiscal year 2013, 128 were new.
“There are a lot of heroes in this audience,” said Lovell FHCC Deputy Director and Commanding Officer Capt. José Acosta during his remarks. “I was talking to Jim (Frohnapfel) about World War II, and I told him I read a book named ‘Halsey’s Typhoon,’ and he said, ‘You should have been there; you should have seen how bad it was!’”
Acosta also mentioned recent news stories about the increasing number of Veterans committing suicide. “It shows just how relevant this Vet Center is,” he said. “This is a great example of being able to provide the services where the Veterans are, [and] where they live. You can have great services, but they don’t help if they are too far away.”
Acosta thanked the Vet Center staff for their day-to-day support of Veterans, which he described as “probably saving immeasurable lives.”
During her remarks, Tolstedt, too, praised her “dedicated and compassionate” staff members and noted that about 75 percent of them are Veterans.
The life-changing assistance that Vet Center staff members provide to Veterans, behind an inconspicuous storefront at Howard and Dodge streets, came to life as the Veterans in attendance told their stories.
“They have one of the best support groups for PTSD around, right here,” said Veteran Orlando Richardson, as he waited in the comfortable lobby area before the ceremony. “It’s led by a Vietnam Veteran (Howard Harris), who was a young paratrooper in the Army, and now is one of the best counselors … who returned from Vietnam, went to college, [and] started working. He made something of himself; and now he’s here.
“They take good care of us. I’m really grateful,” continued Richardson, who said he comes to the center every day.
Navy Veteran David Hurwitz called himself a “long-time client” of the Vet Center. Hurwitz started naming the many services he has taken advantage of – “counseling, book clubs, group therapy, meditation, and trips … Betsy took us to Harvard one time, and to Minnesota on a canoe and camping trip.”
Hurwitz, who served on the USS Independence during Operation Southern Watch, said he would not have gotten to the point of recently enrolling in graduate school if it hadn’t been for the help he’s received at the Vet Center. He called the center a “godsend.”
VA Regional Counseling Service Deputy Director Joshua Bentley also helped cut the ribbon and spoke during the ceremony. The Navy Veteran, a former chief gunner’s mate, remarked that when he walked into the center years ago and found out “they pay you here to talk to Veterans,” he never expected he would get a job as a team leader, move up the ranks, and one day return as the regional deputy director.
“There’s just something about these places,” Bentley said. “You walk in, and you know the people here are going to help you. And there’s no price to come here. You already paid the price.”
Before the ceremony, with his grandson Kevin Carlson by his side, Frohnapfel told reporters and audience members the story of the price he paid.
“We were in the biggest sea battle of the world, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, for four days in 1944,” Frohnapfel said. “We were hit by two Kamikazes and lost almost 300 men in two days.”
Frohnapfel recounted how he jumped 50 feet to abandon ship, into the burning Philippine Sea, and spent eight hours in the water, clinging to a mop handle, until he was picked up by a destroyer escort ship. He credited his survival on a Navy training film that demonstrated how to make uniforms buoyant.
Carlson quietly listened until it was time to show his grandfather’s dog tags, which he wears every day around his neck. One of the tarnished gray tags contains Frohnapfel’s fingerprint, put there with acid according to Frohnapfel.
“I didn’t grow up with a father,” Carlson said. “He (Frohnapfel) was always around for me. He was always the most hardworking man I knew. He inspires me.”
The Evanston Vet Center is located at 1901 Howard Street in Evanston, (847) 332-1019.
Jayna Legg has been a public affairs specialist at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center for three years. She is an Army Gulf War Veteran. She was commissioned a 2nd Lt. from Army ROTC at the University of Illinois, and then served on active duty and in the Illinois Army National Guard and Army Reserve, retiring as a Lt. Col. after 25 years of service. In the Army, she was a signal corps officer, command and general staff college instructor, and public affairs officer. She also is a former newspaper reporter and editor.