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A veteran climbs out of ‘nut mode’

Updated: October 5, 2012 6:58PM

Like many voters in Illinois and across the country, Ronald Baltierra says he is fed up with incumbent politicians who, generally speaking, have become synonymous with gridlock.

Baltierra, a retired small-business owner who lives in Wicker Park, decided to take a stand against them by becoming a write-in candidate in the 2nd District State Senate race.

He has no chance of beating Democrat William “Willie” Delgado, who doesn’t have a Republican challenger on the ballot and has served the 2nd District since 2006.

Baltierra, who makes no personal attacks against Delgado, couldn’t bear to see the incumbent go unchallenged in the Nov. 6 election. Politicians too often become unaccountable and take on the air of celebrity status, Baltierra told me.

Among his complaints, Baltierra disagrees with Delgado’s stand against the death penalty.

“We have veterans living under bridges but we’re worried about convicts,” Baltierra said.

Veterans and their struggles are Baltierra’s true cause. On this subject, he deserves to be heard.

Baltierra, 65, is a Vietnam War veteran who received a bronze star for valor, according to records. He served on the mayor’s advisory council on veterans for 10 years and is active with the United Mexican-American Veterans’ Association and American Veterans (AMVETS).

Too many veterans are unaware of benefits that exist for them, Baltierra told me.

He found himself counseling so many of his peers on how to seek veterans’ benefits that he became trained as a service officer. He is not employed by a government agency and says he probably won’t pursue a job. Yet among veterans, word has spread that Baltierra is knowledgable and he fields several calls a week, sometimes many a day, about benefits.

Baltierra found out about disability benefits by accident. About 10 years ago, while trying to get an acquaintance to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder at a Veterans’ Affairs office, he mentioned his bum left knee that was injured in a blast in Vietnam. The administrator referred him to a knee specialist and said he qualified for a partial disability benefit.

The VA administrator with whom he spoke also asked about Baltierra’s emotional state. Baltierra admitted to troubles with memories from Vietnam. He was referred to a psychiatrist.

That was a turning point. Baltierra had ruined three marriages in part because of PTSD and heavy drinking to cope. He described one episode to me in which he hallucinated about being in Vietnam, grabbed a gun and started shooting at nothing.

He knew for decades something was wrong but worried about the stigma of PTSD. “People with PTSD don’t want to raise their hand for that,” Baltierra said.

The psychiatrist was helpful, but Baltierra said the best remedy was talking to his business partner, also a veteran. “It was one veteran talking to another. It got me out of that nut mode.”

When veterans call, Baltierra steers them to the VA on some matters and legal foundations for others. Sometimes he just listens to their frustrations about unemployment.

More and more, veterans are having a tough time collecting benefits. A New York Times article on Friday addressed the difficulty the VA is having addressing a backlog of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits.

Such problems are likely to make veterans even more skeptical of the VA. Already many don’t trust the government, Baltierra said.

Nevertheless, he encourages them to seek the help they deserve.

“You have to convince them of what’s available,” he said.

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