Ilona Meagher wants to defend U.S. defenders. Meagher, a 42-year-old Northern Illinois University journalism student who lives in Caledonia near Rockford, has dedicated herself to protecting the rights of U.S. war veterans. “My father was a veteran, and I was raised in this way that we have a responsibility to veterans,” she said Monday. “They deserve to have a certain safety net when they come back from service.” To discuss the creation of that safety net, Meagher testified Dec. 12 on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The hearing examined current mental health care available to U.S. veterans and focused on two reports - one CBS News report that found the rate of suicide among veterans is double that of the general population, and a National Alliance to End Homelessness study determining that 25 percent of homeless Americans are veterans. “They (veterans) shouldn't be at a lower level than the rest of us when they return,” Meagher said. “But when they come back, they have double the unemployment rate. There are 1,500 of them homeless from the current wars and they have double the rate of suicides, so they absolutely are not on the same level as the rest of us.” Meagher began researching and compiling media reports of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder in 2005, after being inspired by a report on U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq who had committed suicide. She wrote a book, “Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops,” that was published earlier this year and has since become one of the leading voices for veterans' reintegration into civilian life. Although Meagher has no personal connection to a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she does have experience with tragedy. In 2000, her older sister committed suicide. “I knew how difficult that is to deal with for a family,” said the former flight attendant turned advocate. “And there's this stigma that goes with it - you have a certain compassion for them (veterans).” Through that compassion, Meagher developed a sense of duty to honor, protect and serve those who risk their lives for U.S. citizens' freedom, she said. Testifying before the congressional committee was the culmination of two years of research. During that time, Meagher drew on her father's wisdom to inspire her. “My dad always used to tell me, ‘You can always tell how well a government works for its citizens if you look at how they treat their soldiers,'” she said. Her father fought the Soviets while in the army during the Hungarian Revolution. Her parents were both from Hungary and fled to the U.S. following the war. Years later, her father traveled to Germany to represent the U.S. as a combat engineer during the Cold War. “He taught me how important it is to support them (the military),” Meagher said. “They're our defenders. We need to take care of them before we take care of ourselves, and we need to protect them - they've earned it.” Now that she's testified, Meagher is focusing on earning her bachelor's degree from NIU. Asked about her future endeavors, she said she doesn't have any, other than school and family. “My job is done,” she said. “I mean, it's not done, but it is. It's happening. It's been a long haul, so it's very gratifying to see.” Carrie Frillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.