Kane County's Jake Zimmerman and Staff: Advocates for Veterans
GENEVA – For the past 10½ years, Jake Zimmerman has been responsible for the welfare of 18,644 veterans in addition to surviving spouses and dependents.
The superintendent of the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission, the 37-year-old Zimmerman and his staff count themselves among that number. All five are veterans.
“I have excellent staff," said Zimmerman, a 2005 graduate of Oregon High School and now of South Elgin. “They do an excellent job."
Zimmerman, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 2005 to 2009 and exited as a petty officer third class, said he views a big part of his job as ensuring his employees have the resources and training they need to be able to help the veterans who come to them.
At any given point, the Kane County VAC staff is juggling between 300 and 400 cases of veterans seeking assistance, Zimmerman said. VACs are there for veterans and their families “from before they get discharged all the way past their death."
“Anything that touches the veterans' realm and government, we try to be the ones that help cut through that red tape," he said.
The job isn't an easy one, but they don't let the people they're helping see that, combat veteran Joe T. wrote in a 2022 letter to the Kane County Board chairperson, according to KaneCountyConnects.com.
“They make it seem [easy] to take the burden off those they are helping," Joe T. wrote. “No matter where we go throughout the county, whenever a veteran starts to ask questions about his or her personal issues, the first thing anyone says is, 'Have you talked to Jake?' "
Helping veterans apply for benefits is the primary service that VACs provide, Zimmerman said. Those benefits could be health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, G.I. home loans, disability benefits, hunting or fishing licenses and more, he said.
Another place he and his staff go to help veterans is Kane County's veterans treatment court, Zimmerman said. He or a member of his staff go each week to assist veterans facing legal trouble.
“If there's something we can do to help, we want to," Zimmerman said. “They might be there for X but need help with Y and Z, too. We try to accomplish that at the same time to get them on the right path."
Oftentimes it's the same individuals over and over who are getting deployed to combat zones, he said. Once there, it's not just physical danger they face – mental trauma and other harrowing experiences are the realities of war, Zimmerman said.
“If we're getting into these wars for whatever reason, we need to make sure the people we take over there, we're also going to take care of on the back end of that commitment," he said. “That's everything from physical care to mental health care to disability benefits to their education."
It's why making sure VACs are safe harbors for veterans and a place they can get help and directed toward the right track is so important, said Zimmerman, who spent most of his military service at Coast Guard Station Calumet Harbor in Chicago.
“All the promises the country has made to them, having somebody on your team to help you apply and fight for that, I think we owe it to them to do that," he said.
Zimmerman was recognized for his dedication during the Illinois Association of County Veterans Assistance Commissions' annual banquet in September. He was named the Barry Walter Advocate of the Year and the Allen J. Lynch Foundation's Veteran Service Officer of the Year.
Receiving the awards was a surprise and a humbling experience, Zimmerman said. He has been the IACVAC vice president for six years.
“I don't do this for any sort of recognition," Zimmerman said. “It's not something I seek or look for in any way."
The Allen J. Lynch Veteran Service Officer of the Year Award was one he wasn't aware existed until it was presented to him.
Lynch is one of two Medal of Honor recipients living in Illinois and his foundation “has a very close relationship with veterans assistance commissions statewide," Zimmerman said.
Lynch was the guest speaker at the IACVAC's 2023 conference.
Zimmerman was nominated for the Barry Walter Advocate of the Year award by IACVAC President Andrew Tangen, who leads the Lake County VAC.
The Barry Walter Advocate of the Year award is given out annually to one person in Illinois for “exceptional advocacy for veterans," Zimmerman said, noting he had nominated others for the award.
In his nomination form, Tangen credited Zimmerman with uncovering issues during the pandemic at the Illinois Veterans Home at La Salle that led to reforms at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, leading legislative work and advocates in clarifying the Military Veterans Assistance Act and in making positive changes to the Standard Homestead Exemption for Veterans with Disabilities, producing the IACVAC's annual report and holding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accountable.
Zimmerman has “worked to improve services throughout the state of Illinois," Tangen wrote.
He said the annual report that Zimmerman creates is read by legislators and was “instrumental in new laws being drafted and passed during the 103rd General Assembly."
The IACVAC was formed in the mid-1970s, Zimmerman said, but the organization didn't produce an annual report until he started making one three years ago.
“That's been helpful to show what VACs do statewide and what kind of impact we have statewide and who we train and that sort of thing," he said.
Illinois has the 10th-largest population of veterans in the country. Despite that there's a “pretty big disparity" in the annual per capita spending on helping veterans, Zimmerman said. Ten years ago, the state was 52nd in per capita spending out of 53. Today, it's in 48th place.
Tangen wrote that Zimmerman's efforts directly contributed to Illinois moving up in the rankings over the past few years.
“If not for his tireless work and unrelenting dedication to veterans, Illinois would not be what it currently is nor what it will be," Tangen wrote.
This article appeared in the Kane County Chronicle on November 8, 2023 as part of a special edition dedicated to local Veterans. We appreciate Shaw Local for letting us reprint it.