Injured Army vet counsels peers
November 12, 2012 7:46AM
Columnist Marlen Garcia in studio. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Veterans who seek counseling from Danielle Green sometimes approach her with trepidation at the Veterans Affairs Center in Orland Park.
Green can sense its source.
“I see a lot of Vietnam veterans,” says Green, a lifelong Chicagoan. “They didn’t see women in combat.”
Green, 35, shares her story to bring down their defenses.
She was a soldier, serving this country “in the trenches,” she says of her Army combat tour during the Iraq War.
In 2004, a blast from a rocket-propelled grenade prematurely ended her service on the battlefield. Green’s left hand and part of her arm were amputated.
The trauma never goes away.
“I will never forget getting hit by an RPG,” she says, “but I don’t let it impair me because then I’m of no use to these guys.”
For the past 2œ years, Green has been a readjustment counselor for the Veterans Administration.
Some in her caseload of 65 are younger veterans trying to adjust to civilian life; older, retired veterans suddenly find themselves with extra time and get crushed by an avalanche of memories.
“They retire and stuff comes back, memories they never processed,” Green says.
She wants to help them move their wounds from the forefront of their minds.
“It’s about soothing yourself,” she says. “The [memories are] always there for me but not in the front of my mind like it is for some of my fellow combat veterans.”
Her life has been about drastic adjustments, not only because of war but because of the February 2011 death of her husband, Willie Byrd, a popular former teacher and basketball coach in Chicago.
A troubled childhood also left scars, yet Green pulled herself out of the abyss.
“Honestly, I think it’s the little girl in me who wouldn’t quit,” she says. “My mom used crack cocaine. We moved a ton of times. I said, ‘There has to be better.’ ”
As a teen, she enjoyed a star turn as a basketball player at Roosevelt High School, where she also was involved with the ROTC. She earned a scholarship to play for the University of Notre Dame, and by the end of college she started to consider enlisting in the military.
“It’s something I wanted to do since I was 7, and I had the courage to do at 25,” she says of joining the Army.
If she wanted to, Green probably could go far in the corporate world. She has Notre Dame connections and remains popular with the Irish.
On Friday, she was Notre Dame’s honored guest aboard the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., where the team opened its basketball season against Ohio State.
Notre Dame players wore shoes with a purple heart insignia and Green’s No. 12 inside it, a tribute to the honor she received after she was injured.
At times she is iffy about embracing recognition.
“I feel like no one owes me anything,” Green says. “But as a woman, I think it’s time to recognize female combat veterans.”
Green remains committed to the VA, but she wants to move up.
She thinks her experiences in the field will make her an effective administrator.
Her current work sometimes exacts a heavy toll.
“There are days I feel overwhelmed,” she says. “When you work with combat veterans, you want them to feel better. You don’t want them to suffer.”
She is an expert at getting past it.