SPECIAL REPORT: “Serving Our Protectors”

Local veterans tell their stories finding Veterans Assistance in central Illinois
Published: Nov. 7, 2023 at 5:59 PM CST
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PEORIA (25News Now) - The freedoms we enjoy as Americans are protected by those who serve in the military, but for some veterans the battle doesn’t end when they return home.

Here’s the story of two central Illinois veterans and their fight for care:

Part One Broadcast Story:

Part Two Broadcast Story:

Vietnam Veteran Donald Rajkowski

Vietnam Navy veteran Donald Rajkowski’s family still feels the pain he suffered nearly 50 years ago.

“Eight years old. You know, dad’s in there, you look up to him,” said Phil Rajkowski, recollecting his father’s declining health. “The door is shut and he’s bawling his eyes out asking: ‘Why did this happen to me? Why am I still alive? I’d be better off not.’”

“He did love his country, and he felt like it was his duty to enlist in the Navy,” said Sally Rajkowski, Donald’s widow.

67-year-old Donald Rajkowski lived and died U.S. Navy.

As a Petty Officer Third Class, Rajkowski served on an ammunition ship as an electrician during the Vietnam War.

Throughout the war, herbicides were sprayed over trees to eliminate enemy cover. One herbicide was the infamous Agent Orange.

Rajkowski was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer at the age of 41. He believed exposure to Agent Orange caused the cancer in his jawbone.

“I sometimes worked two or three jobs, but we made it through. Kept our house, which I’m still paying on, but we kept our house,” said Sally Rajkowski, holding back tears.

For 26 years, Donald Rajkowski sent letters to government officials and the Department of Veterans Affairs, trying to get his request approved for full disability compensation.

The family said the request was never approved. Phil and Sally said the government claimed he never stepped foot on land in Vietnam.

We reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for comment about why Donald Rajkowski didn’t receive compensation.

They replied back saying:

“Due to privacy laws, we are unable to speak directly about Mr. Rajkowski’s claims but can tell you he served honorably in the United States Navy from June 20, 1963, through June 02, 1967, during the Vietnam War,” said Adam Swantz, from the Chicago office of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

According to the forms of cancer listed on the VA’s website, Agent Orange exposure is not a recognized cause of Rajkowski’s cancer.

Peoria County Veterans Service Officer Will Stodgel reviews cases of veterans. Stodgel said he’s not aware of any cases that proved the cancer was linked to Agent Orange.

“Regardless of the issue or the question, we want to be able to, if not, fix and complete the veteran’s need, at least give them the information necessary to proceed and know who to speak with,” said Veterans Service Officer Stodgel.

His widow said her late husband kept all letters and documents to and from the VA, and to area lawmakers from 1985 to 2005.

Rajkowski died on April 2, 2011, at the age of 67 from pneumonia and cancer, nearly 50 years after the war ended.

Rajkowski’s family said they are still working with the Peoria County Veterans Assistance Commission to explore whether a settlement is possible.

The family said they’d been told there was asbestos on the ship. The commission says they cannot comment due to privacy concerns.

In Part Two of this special report, we will detail the options local veterans have if they’re looking for care in central Illinois.

Afghanistan War Veteran Steven Picton

“I couldn’t separate the two, I had a hard time separating. Like from when I was into when I got out,” said Army veteran Steven Picton. “I feel like I lost a piece of myself whenever I got out that I couldn’t find anymore.”

Steven Picton served in the U.S. Army as a military equipment truck driver in Afghanistan. He spent nine months on the battlefield before coming home.

“That was the time I was really depressed and anxious. I just felt like something was wrong with me. I couldn’t figure it out,” said Picton.

Since returning, Picton said he couldn’t hold a job for more than three months at a time, as he tried to adjust to civilian life while suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Picton said it was difficult for him to find a purpose for his life until he started going to Riverside Community Church in Peoria.

There he said he found joy and a sense of community.

“The biggest challenge for me was trying to get back out there again, not relying on somebody or something to support me, and just taking that leap to trust in God,” said the veteran.

Picton has received a wide variety of services at the Bob Michel VA Outpatient Clinic. He said his quality of life improved once he found what he needed.

The story of each veteran and their family can be different. Some may feel supported, and some may not feel supported.

Whatever the scenario, the Peoria County Veterans Assistance Commission and VA Illiana Healthcare System told us they encourage veterans looking for support to come and talk to them.

“All of us veterans need the opportunity to discuss our problems with somebody and then from there, their local county VSO will be able to take care of them and get them the help that they need,” said Peoria County Veterans Service Officer Will Stodgel.

Picton and other veterans we’ve talked to off-camera said they feel there is a strong veterans community here in Peoria.

However, Picton and others believe there needs to be more awareness among veterans and their families so they know where to look for help.

“According to the record, we are serving only still 53% of eligible veterans. So, we should have more patients and veterans coming.” said Dr. Shinymol Chacko of the Bob Michel VA Outpatient Clinic.

Illiana VA Healthcare System Executive Director Staci Williams said the number of veterans they serve has remained the same in the past few years, but she wants more veterans to come in and talk with her team.

“Not all veterans have the same eligibility for VA benefits, and that enrollment and eligibility team can help veterans navigate through their eligibility for VA benefits,” said Williams.

“I had to find out kind of the hard way by just floating around town and running into the right people at the right time, but thank God I was led here to Peoria where they like to embrace veterans,” said Picton.

“I love it here. Peoria has covered everything for me. I couldn’t be more comfortable here,” Picton said, with a smile.

If you are a veteran or a veteran’s family member, there are a variety of locations to apply for care, but it’s important to know the differences between them.

The Peoria County Veterans Assistance Commission works with veterans to help them understand their benefits. You can find more information here.

Each county has its own veterans assistance commission:

Woodford County. McLean County. Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

You can find other county commissions by searching them online.

The Bob Michel VA Outpatient Clinic is strictly for healthcare. It serves veterans across central Illinois.