Veterans make home at NIU


By Keith Hernandez

DeKALB — About 20 NIU students have called a two-story building on Greek Row home since it was repurposed more than a year ago to house veterans.

The first thing passersby to 824 Greenbrier Road may notice is the green lights illuminating the front porch. Resident Jesus Arteaga said green was chosen to support those who serve in the military and to show veterans they can find a welcome home there.

Jesus Arteaga, 28, of DeKalb, spent much of his eight years of service alongside a Marine infantry unit as a Navy hospital corpsman. He enrolled at NIU before his service was finished in 2014 and now studies public health and presides over the NIU Veterans Association.

“[Living in the house] maintains some of that camaraderie we miss when we get out,” Arteaga said. “Coming from the military, it’s a different culture, but also, when you come to college, you’re older than everyone else … so it’s harder to make that connection with the younger guys.”

Property owner Jim Mitchell’s biggest goal was to give NIU student veterans a place where they could not only have camaraderie but also a smooth transition back into civilian life.

Mitchell is a veteran who served in the Army from 1985 to 1989 and again in 1991 for the Gulf War. He said he teamed up with the NIU Veterans Association in fall 2015 to provide affordable rooms to student veterans because he wished he had the option to live with other veterans when he went to college.

“When you first come out of the service, you’re kind of dumped into society, and you’re used to certain things,” Mitchell said. “You’re used to being up at a certain time and [to] a little more discipline in your life, and it’s hard to transition.”

Difficulties Mitchell said he faced during his transition were relearning to speak quietly, eat slowly and close the door while using the restroom.

“Most soldiers just don’t have time to [readjust],” Mitchell said. “It’s a privacy thing — we don’t have privacy in the military really. You do and you don’t. You just go when you’ve got to go, and you don’t care.”

Other veterans, many of whom wear black Kevlar backpacks similar to the ones worn in the military, are easy to find, resident Edwin Esmenda said. Esmenda served as an Army staff sergeant from 1994 to 2014 and is now in the NIU law program.

“If [they’re] in class and they [answer] the professor, they say, ‘Yes ma’am’ or ‘Yes sir’ instead of ‘professor’ or whatever — they give us away,” Esmenda said.

When Esmenda spots a veteran at NIU, he tells them about the NIU Veterans Association and the four vacant rooms at the house on Greenbrier Road.

The building is home to 12 residents, up from six when it was repurposed. Most tenants are from the Army and Marines, but a few others have served in the Navy and Air Force.

Mitchell said he is proud that the number of inhabitants has grown, and he plans to expand to other buildings if the current one reaches capacity, but with four students graduating in May and a waning NIU Veterans Association membership, those plans are up in the air.

There are 10 NIU Veterans Association members, down from 20 in spring 2016, Arteaga said. Graduation is one thing, but getting veterans involved on campus is another, he said.

“It’s a struggle that almost every campus has,” Arteaga said. “[Some veterans] just want to go to school and go home. A lot of them are commuters, so they can’t get involved.”