In his time working at Midway Airport, Steve Morton saw the likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead and the current owners of the Chicago Tribune. He got Christmas presents from Oprah. He even almost worked up the courage to shake the hand of a hero, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
Morton's six years of experience in the Army as a helicopter weapons system repairman helped him on the job, but a back injury and 15 years of working outside in Chicago weather eventually took their toll.
"I was kind of at a dead end," he said. "I wasn't going anywhere quick."
When Morton, now 55, finally found work elsewhere, his sister asked him to come home to help care for their ailing mother. Within a few years, Morton was again out of work with nowhere to go – much like the more than 62,000 other homeless veterans in America, according to a 2012 study by the Department of Housing.
That's when the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton became a "turning point" in his life, he said.
MSHVW founder Bob Adams, a licensed social worker and Vietnam war veteran, founded the shelter in 2000. He opened the full shelter in 2007 to help veterans like Morton get back on their feet.
The shelter provides a place for veterans while they search for new jobs and offers a plethora of services, including weekly therapy sessions and help with health problems. Veterans also are required to go out for exercise, serve other homeless people and socialize.
"We're all ex-military here. That makes us family," said Michael Cousineau, a veteran at the shelter. "Whether we were in a shelter here or we were on the street, we would have each others back."
The MWSHV has room for five veterans at its main, full-time living center on 119 N. West St. Adams believes that the individual attention each veteran gets makes a difference to the 80-plus they've helped.
Cousineau, 55, spent 15 years in the Army as a member of a nuclear missile launch crew before working various security jobs. He eventually became a security instructor at a hospital, a job that required taking bodies to the morgue.
"One day, it occurred to me that I had seen just one too many faces," he said. "So I resigned. You carry each face with you. And 12 years is a lot of faces."
Wandering around downtown Wheaton one day while unemployed, Cousineau came upon the MWSHV. Now, he wants to become a nursing assistant to take care of his fellow veterans and work hospice.
Meanwhile, Morton said he hopes to continue working at his current full-time job while going back to school, possibly to get into theater. Finding something he is passionate about, he said, could help give him the purpose he felt he had lost all those years ago.
Veterans like Cousineau and Morton have rallied around Adams' organization the past few years, along with Wheaton and nearby communities.
"Veterans who separate from the military don't really understand how many different organizations [there are] that exist to help and support them," Cousineau said. "Not only to help them in their transition from military life to civilian life, we're talking about living and everyday life. It's always better when you know you're not alone."