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Park Forest’s Barbara Jackson West: her ‘heart is with the veterans’

Chicago Tribune - 11/10/2023

Barbara Jackson West, of Park Forest, said her decision to join the U.S. Army was a strategic one.

The veteran, who recently married Rivers West, said she was between jobs and a mother of two young children when she realized a career in the military would benefit her and her family.

The U.S. Army doesn’t have lay offs, there are housing opportunities for families and the uniforms are provided, she said.

“I did it very strategically, and I decided to enlist,” Jackson West said.

She is the advocate and chairwoman of the Park Forest Veterans Commission, a seven-member, volunteer board that meets monthly to review the number of veterans served, review donations and plan events.

Ann LaFrance, the vice chair of the commission, said Jackson West is a consensus minded leader, which means she always works with the other commissioners to reach a decision.

“Hers is a servant leadership style, and her heart is with the veterans. She’s very inclusive,” LaFrance said.

The commission operates the Veterans Closet and Resource Center, where veterans can come once a month to get free furniture, she said, such as silverware and bed frames. She said the resource center helps veterans learn about benefits they qualify for and answer their questions.

LaFrance said the Veterans Closet and Resource Center is “consistently our greatest achievement” because it is a resource for all veterans that is accessible throughout the year.

Jackson West said the commission helped a woman realize she qualified for benefits after serving eight years in the Army National Guard. She said the members also helped a man and his family get veteran benefits after he was initially turned down.

“My whole thing is about educating the veterans, honoring them and educating them as to what they can and cannot be compensated for,” Jackson West said. “Our commission not only serves our veterans, but we serve to educate the public on the military services.”

Two years ago after a serious fire at a Richton Park apartment building, she said the commission was one of several organizations that donated items to families.

“That’s not Park Forest, but it’s how the Park Forest commission operates. We service residents as far away as Chicago and Joliet,” she said.

The biggest event held to date was last year when the commission arranged a Park Forest landing of a Huey helicopter, which was used to bring military members home or to hospitals.

She said Park Forest has several older veterans, so they all remembered the sounds and sights of the helicopter. One veteran, a 93-year-old man, said while the younger people at the event just heard the sounds of helicopter blades, to him and older veterans it was “a sound of hope,” she said.

The commission also held an informational tea time event in May to help women break their silence about the sexual abuse they experienced while serving in the military, she said.

“We do everything that we can come up with to educate the public and the veteran,” she said. “We just want to make sure we let them know we’re not forgotten.”

Jackson West said she completed her basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, where she received her specialty distinction in quartermaster and marksmanship by completing a shooting test where she had to determine if a shot was warranted and, if so, to aim center mass.

After more training at the Aberdeen Proving Ground base in Maryland and the quartermaster school at Fort Lee, now called the Fort Gregg-Adams base, in Virginia, she was a quartermaster at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Jackson West said she’s the first woman in her family to serve in the military and the first person to be in the Army. Her father and younger brother were both in the U.S. Navy.

Through the experience, she said she learned she was strong, physically, emotionally and mentally.

“I was stronger as a result of the military,” she said. “It was already in me. I didn’t know it was in me. They brought it out. I was stronger than I thought I was.”

She worked as a correctional officer at a federal prison in New Mexico. The Army helped give her confidence to lead a team of men and women correctional officers, she said.

She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio with a younger sister and two younger brothers. Jackson West said she wanted to move closer to home, so she ultimately moved to Park Forest while working at the former Fort Sheridan military base, where she was in the administration office and chief union steward.

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