Duckworth, Harris among leaders of Pritzker's new veterans council
Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker is leaning on experienced veterans to advise on helping returning vets make a successful transition to civilian life.
Pritzker Monday named leaders of a veterans advisory council that include Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, an Army pilot wounded in combat, and Republican state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, a retired Illinois National Guard adjutant general who did not run for re-election.
The aim is to offer veterans better access to jobs, college or vocational training, housing and mental health counseling, said Pritzker, who will be sworn in Jan. 14.
After 9/11, Harris mobilized thousands of National Guard members to serve in the Iraq War. When they returned, "I saw firsthand the challenges faced by these veterans," Harris said at a news conference at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora.
"There's no partisan agenda to helping a veteran get an education or get a proper home," he added.
The third co-chairman of the 19-member committee is Secretary of State Jesse White, a former Army paratrooper.
Asked how he would pay for an enhanced program given the state's budget constraints, Pritzker noted he had appointed a transition Budget and Innovation Committee last week.
"We're asking the budget committee to prioritize where we're finding the dollars and where we're finding the savings," he said.
College student Jonathan Birkey, who served in Iraq as a medic, said veterans are often wrongly advised to use their tuition benefits on a generic four-year degree instead of on other options like vocational college.
"A lot of separated veterans are pushed into higher education although it's not the best fit," said Birkey, president of the Aurora University Veterans Association.
Also on the unpaid committee are Democratic state Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, a former Army infantryman; state Rep. Linda Chapa La Via of Aurora, a former Army lieutenant; and state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Aurora, a former Marine.
Kifowit and Cullerton worked on the state's Veteran Suicide Taskforce in 2016. Witnesses testified to the task force that the military has dropped the ball in transitioning service members to civilian life.
Pritzker is expected to announce further transition developments this week. On Wednesday, the Democrat named members of his Transition Committee that includes former Gov. Jim Edgar. On Thursday, he introduced the Budget and Innovation Committee whose members include former Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno.