KINGSTON – Army veteran Darnell Smith had $63 in his checking account this spring when the transmission in his 2004 Chevrolet Blazer needed to be replaced.
The Kingston resident, who served three tours in Iraq and was stationed for 15 months in Kuwait, was worried. Replacing the transmission was going to cost more than $1,400, money that his unemployment benefits weren't going to cover. And he had just accepted a job assembling grills at Weber Grills in Huntley, making his half-hour commute impossible.
Then a friend told Smith about the Modest Needs Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to working people living just above the poverty level. Modest Needs offers a Homecoming Heroes grant for veterans waiting for their final active duty paychecks, so Smith asked for help.
"When my truck broke down, it was like the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "We didn't have enough hope as it was. I didn't know where else to turn."
About a month after applying, Smith received a $1,750 check through the Homecoming Heroes grant to cover the complete cost of his truck repair. Now, he is able to travel to his Huntley job, where he makes $8.50 to $9.15 an hour, depending on the number of hours he works each week. He also receives $225 in unemployment benefits every two weeks and receives a stipend for being a Genoa-Kingston volunteer firefighter.
While he is on the right track, Smith has had a long struggle both financially and mentally since transitioning to civilian life. Smith's first trip to Iraq was from February 2004 to January 2005, with his last deployment from May 2011 to November 2011. When he wasn't fghting overseas, he was stationed in Wisconsin, helping make sure soldiers receive their paychecks and military benefits.
In 2012, Smith submitted a request to move back to Illinois with his fiancee and three sons to work for the Army in Arlington Heights. At first, the request seemed to be moving along, but ultimately, the transfer didn't materialize and Smith's living situation unraveled until he lived out of his truck for several months.
The situation also took a toll on Smith mentally. He was diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. He was hospitalized for a severe anxiety attack in April 2012 and still receives counseling. He was honorably discharged with a pattern of misconduct in January.
"I wasn't satisfied with getting out of the military," Smith said. "I was in it for the long haul.
"Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat, breathing in heavily from nightmares. I'm not satisfied with how or why I got out of the military. I wanted to do it for the long haul, but I try not to let it tear away from me moving forward."
Smith still takes an anti-depressant and pain medications for broken bones he suffered while in the military. He filed for medical disability in August 2012 but is still waiting for an outcome. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has told Smith he should be eligible to receive 60 percent of his monthly earnings from his time in the military, which would equate to receiving a minimum of $1,200 to $1,300 a month, according to Smith.
While waiting to receive medical disability, Smith spends his time working and serving as a volunteer firefighter. The Genoa-Kingston fire station is a short walk away from Smith's home.
"We're certainly glad to have him," said Ryan Stoffregen, Genoa-Kingston assistant fire chief. "We're really glad we have someone like that on our department. I wish we could have more military men and women volunteer. We sure appreciate everything they do for us."
After receiving the financial help to repair his truck, Smith now donates $10 a month to Modest Needs Foundation to help others who may be struggling. People receiving help, then donating afterward is a relatively common practice at Modest Needs, said Amy Wink, Modest Needs Foundation community outreach specialist.
"He is a hero, not us," Wink said. "We are just a vehicle through which people donate money."
Even after his mental and financial struggles, Smith wants to help others. His job in the military also focused on helping other soldiers.
"Today, when I think about the things that happened to me, it hurts," he said. "... I focus on the eight good years of service I did have and what I accomplished. Some pride is coming back."
How to help
To donate to someone in financial need or to apply for help, visit www.modestneeds.org.