Christian remembers the exact moment he decided to join the military. On September 11, 2001 he was just 8 years old but his memories of the events that unfolded remain vivid. He remembers going to school, watching the news with his peers and teachers – but most importantly, he remembers the inherent pull towards protecting his country, towards service.
“It was always my plan to be in the military for as long as I can remember, but that was the day I knew I was going to sign up.”
Nine years later, Christian joined the Army at the age of 17. During the testing process, he was given a rather large selection but ultimately decided to be a medic. While he was ready to join infantry, his family’s protective nature and concern led him to find a compromise that would still keep him close to the front lines. With tours in Afghanistan and Africa, Christian spent four years in active duty and a quarter of his life in service.
When it was time to transition to the next chapter of his life – coming home – he felt both excited and scared. He was ready to take advantage of the GI Bill and find the skills necessary to help people in civilian life, but the instant transition of responsibilities felt daunting.
As he settled into life back home, Christian stayed with family but that was short-lived – and after tensions rose to uncomfortable levels, Christian decided to find a path all his own.
“I knew I needed to find my own way but when I moved out on my own, I didn’t find a place immediately – nor did I have the financial means. I had no idea how to find a place of my own, how to set up utilities. All of that stuff is taken care of when you’re in the military. Emotionally, mentally, it was exhausting trying to start from scratch.”
So he crashed on couches, hopping from house to house and trying to make sure he didn’t overstay his welcome. In just a few short months though, Christian found himself living out of his car. He remembers just how little space he had with most of the car used as storage for his belongings, and he remembers how exhausting the days were. “I didn’t want to take advantage of my friends. It got really tough. I didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the normal things that people take for granted. I missed the comfort of home.”
But Christian was determined and he kept moving forward. He enrolled in one of Chicago’s City Colleges and continued to apply for local work. During one fateful visit at the Chicago Veterans Affairs office, Christian finally began to find a leg up. A checkup and routine immunizations for school gave him the opportunity to speak with a local case manager, who mentioned Heartland Alliance’s Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families (SSVF) program. He made the call and met with our team just a few days later.
“The intake process for SSVF was great. I went in a little nervous. I wasn’t expecting someone to be so nice to me, given my situation. I feel like they got a sense of me as a person, as a human being.”
SSVF case managers were able to get Christian off the streets, helping him find an apartment, providing nine-months of rental assistance, and supporting him every step of the way as he worked to build a brighter future. He used his military-medic skills to become an EMT with a local ambulance company and got a part-time job as a lifeguard. The income from his new jobs, combined with the rental assistance, meant he was able to save and make plans for the future. He paid off credit cards and began building a nest egg while going back to school.
“I was given a chance for a reset, I could really build my life back together.”
Christian is truly a model participant. His dedication and mission-driven attitude underscores the SSVF program’s very purpose. We believe that everyone should have access to housing, healthcare, jobs, and justice. We believe that because we know how people respond to that opportunity. Ultimately, it was Christian’s incredible response that led SSVF case managers to invite him to apply for a new peer-support specialist position within the program – which he ultimately secured!
“It’s an honor,” he says. “This is something I’ve hoped to be in my life. I want to be a humanitarian. As a medic, it’s about working right then and there. I’m a first response kind of guy, and I want to use that to help people who are in need.”
Now Christian spends his Tuesdays and Wednesdays working hand in hand with those who are experiencing the same struggles he’s worked so hard to overcome. And, Christian’s dedication to his peers has already made a huge impact on the program’s successes. Service members who have struggled to find employment or housing now have a deeper connection with the program, and feel as though their goals are attainable thanks to Christian’s compassion, knowledge, and experience.
“It’s so important to have someone who can relate to the people we serve, making that bond between participants and program more cohesive. A lot of people open up to me because I’m a veteran, because I was in the program. A lot of times people have spilled their guts to me, and people need that. Sometimes, we lock down as veterans unless we are talking to other veterans.” Today, he continues to serve his country and work toward his degree in psychology, which he’ll complete in June.
“I want to do more. I know I have more to give. Thanks to Heartland Alliance, I’ve never been more certain of that.”