FOREST PARK, Illinois — The warriors trade jokes over the lunch table.
I’m at the Blind Rehabilitation Center on the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital campus. About 35 veterans ranging in age from 23 to 96, all with limited or no vision, take their mid-day meals here in the dining room.
The conversation is loud and lively. At the table where I sit, jokes fly about former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who’s serving a 14-year prison sentence on bribery and corruption charges. President Donald Trump has been making noises about pardoning Blagojevich.
The guys at the table are less concerned about the possible pardon than they are about the sheer idiocy of the former governor’s offense — trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat over a phone line he knew was likely to be tapped.
“Ought to be a special prison for someone that stupid,” a Desert Storm vet named Dave says.
Dave and the other vets in the dining room are here for stays that can last between a month and two months. They learn how to cope as their sight fails them.
“It’s amazing the things they teach you here,” Dave says.
I learn that firsthand by sampling some of the instruction.
A young woman who specializes in teaching strategies and techniques to maintain mobility has me put on a blindfold. Then she shows me how to guide a “traveler” — person with limited or no sight — on a walk.
The guide touches the traveler on the back of the hand, then allows the traveler to reach up and grip the guide just above the elbow. As the young woman walks me through the center, she explains what the guide should do to make the journey easier for the traveler: talk about what’s going on around them, but do it in a matter-of-fact, low-key way. Then she shows me how to form a single file in a crowded space by stretching her arm behind her and allowing me, the traveler, to slide my grip down to her wrist and step behind her.
All the while, she explains, with seemingly infinite patience, why we’re doing what we’re doing.
As she guides me, blindfolded, through this strange place, I think how unnerving it must be for these vets not to be able to see what’s around them.
And how reassuring it must be to have someone show them how they can continue to move through the world.
At another point, a young man leads me, blindfolded again, through a memory and dexterity drill. As I try to make out the shapes my fingers touch, he, too, talks to me about how vets with impaired or no vision can figure out different ways to cope.
Like the young woman, he, too, teaches with a soft voice and an easy manner. When I get something wrong, he just tells me that practice will make it better and will make me feel more confident.
We Americans talk a lot about all the ways government can fail us.
Evidence of those failures is all around us. But that is the case with any institution or enterprise made up of human beings — which is to say, all of them.
The VA has drawn its share of criticism in recent years. Much of that criticism has been valid.
But those failures shouldn’t obscure the larger story. The people here work hard to make life a little more manageable for other human beings who devoted a portion of their lives to defending us and our nation.
The staff members here don’t make massive salaries. They do the work because they care about people and want to help them.
Near the end of the day, another staffer stops to say goodbye to a vet who is checking out and going home. She tells the vet she’s enjoyed working with him and then gives him a hug.
“Thank you for your service to our country,” she says as they embrace.
And I think: Same to you.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.