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For former La Grange police officer, local VA experience not what you've heard in the news

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 12:48 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:40 a.m. CST
Caption
(Erica Benson - ebenson@shawmedia.com)
Steve Kneifel of La Grange stands outside Edward Hines Jr. Hospital June 9. Steve has had nothing but good experiences at the hospital after returning home as a National Guard in Afghanistan.

LA GRANGE – Just about six months after a 12-day stay with a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, one La Grange resident said he's not sure where he'd be without the help of its staff members.

Steve Kneifel, a former officer with the La Grange Police Department, checked himself into the Captain James A. LovellFederal Health Care Center in November 2013. After his stay, he was then transferred to Edward Hines, Jr, Veteran Affairs Hospital, located in unincorporated Cook County near Maywood.

"If I didn't have the VA to help me, I have no idea what would've happened," Kneifel said of his experience. "I know for a fact the VA did help me and it changed my life."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs came under fire in May after reports that staff members at VA hospitals across the country were allegedly covering up long wait time for veterans to get treatment. The scandal led to the resignation of Eric K. Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs May 30. Congressional investigations continue. 

But for Kneifel, spurred by news reports about the Veterans Affairs department, he said he felt he had to show another side of the story – when the program works. He said between appointments, he only waited a few days to a week before being seen.

"I don't remember ever having a long wait time for anything," Kneifel said. "It didn't seem like anything was wrong whatsoever."

In 2008 and 2009, Kneifel served with the National Guard in Afghanistan as a door gunners on a Chinook CH-47 helicopter.

Each helicopter had three door gunners who would go on missions every day or every other day depending upon the rotation, according to Kneifel. He said missions, whether in the day or at night, could last anywhere from two to eight hours.

"I'm glad I was able to help and do my part," Kneifel said. "I'm glad I came home in one piece."

For Kneifel, he said it was a strange transition returning home.

"At first I missed the excitement and everything like that," Kneifel said. "I felt really weird without having a rifle with me at all times. We had it with us 24-7."

It was around 2011 when Kneifel started seeing a counselor through Veterans Affairs, he said, and added that his counselor was the one who suggested Kneifel check himself in at Lovell.

"I didn't really comprehend at the time what was going on," Kneifel said. "[My counselor] is the one who finally said it's time to see someone that's got expertise on what you're dealing with."

After he checked in, it was determined that he had been having suicidal thoughts, according to Kneifel.

"I never really understood how people would even think about suicide. It sort of snuck up on me," Kneifel said.  

Kneifel said he when he thought about suicide he would think about devised a plan utilizing fumes from a car, although he never attempted it.

"I wondered what it's like or how would I do it," he said. "I knew that I didn't like the idea of having any pain or anything so carbon monoxide in a car was my ideal way of committing suicide."

Around the same time of his admittance, Kneifel said he'd begun drinking heavily after work hours to help him sleep at night.

"Even though definition wise I was an alcoholic, I didn't feel like I was," he said. 

While staying at Lovell, Kneifel was also diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he said was triggered by events while working with the La Grange Police Department.

In light of his stay at the VA, Kneifel applied for a disability pension with the department. Because of this pending application, Police Chief Michael Holub of the La Grange Police Department said he could not comment on the situation until the pension has been finalized.

Throughout his time with the VA, Kneifel said they helped him work through why he was having suicidal thoughts and other issues arising from his PTSD diagnosis.

"[The VA] has always been there, and I've never had a problem getting what I needed," he said of his medical experience with the department's programs.

Cris Mabrito, an outreach coordinator with Hines, said she works closely with the veterans and sees the positive affects of the VA.

"I know there [are] a lot of negative stories, but in my heart I believe in this place and I believe in the care we provide," Mabrito said. 

At Hines, there are 3,000 employees who believe in the hospital's mission, according to Mabrito. She said it's more than a doctor's office; it's a community.

"It's hard for someone to re-acclimate from being a soldier to being a civilian," Mabrito said. "We want our vets to know we're committed to giving them the best care they deserve."

Now, Kneifel has gone from three visits per week to just one and has a new job with a car dealership.

Looking back on his experience, Kneifel said he'd recommend anyone to go to the VA.

Kneifel said he's never heard a vet or soldier complain about the hospitals' care system.

"I've met so many people at both [Hines and Lovell] and never run into anybody that had any problems with the VA," Kneifel said. "It was excellent care and it turned my life around."

Kirk calls for Hines investigation, legion vets report good experiences

LA GRANGE – National news about long wait times for veterans seeking treatment through the Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) began flowing into the headlines this past May.

That same month, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, R - Ill., called on the VA Inspector General to include Hines VA, located in unincorporated Cook County near Maywood, in its ongoing investigation, citing evidence of manipulated wait times and a culture of corruption told to him by Hines employees.

Kirk declined an interview request with the Suburban Life.

While the national news hasn't been shedding the brightest light on the VA, a few local veterans – of the American Legion Robert E. Coulter, Jr. Post 1941 in La Grange – said their experience have been largely positive.

Ray Vavra began volunteering at Hines VA about 20 years ago, and has been a patient for the past 10. Since joining the VA, Vavra said he has "nothing but praise" for Hines.

"I'm very pleased with the service I've had there," Vavra said. "I highly recommend them. I know they're getting bad press, but as far as Hines goes, I'm very pleased with it."

Echoing Vavra's praise, Ed Pilarski – who's been going to Hines VA since 1997 – said veterans who aren't using the VA are missing out.

"I've had pretty darn good treatment," Pilarski said. "...The facilities are fantastic and they're there for the veterans."

When asked about the wait times for appointments, Pilarski, who's at Hines between two and five times a month, said he hasn't experienced that problem at all.

"The facility is limited and they have a tremendous amount of people asking for services," he said. "So when you make an appointment, it's down the line, but if you have an emergency they'll solve that for you."

"It's a good place and I'm proud to go there," Pilarski said.

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To share your experience with Veteran's Affairs, email your thoughts to Editor Matthew Hendrickson at mhendrickson@shawmedia.com

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