Steven Arnold normally skips formal Veterans Day ceremonies, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. But the Chicagoan, who served as a Marine in Japan in the early 1980s and has a son who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, said he was glad to be at the Soldier Field tribute Monday.
"It's something everyone should do, at least once in their life," he said.
About 300 veterans and their families attended the ceremony, held in front of the stadium's statue of a World War I infantryman, the doughboy. They stood, saluting, as the ceremony ended with a 21-gun salute and a military band played.
Afterward, families took pictures by a wreath adorned with red, white and blue flowers that was placed in front of the statue and an American flag.
But Arnold also said he was dismayed to hear how many veterans struggled with homelessness, unemployment and lasting physical and mental wounds.
"That's something that just shouldn't be, not in this country," Arnold said.
At the ceremony, Gen. Robert Cone, Sen. Dick Durbin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. James Balcer, 11th, a Marine Corps veteran, thanked the veterans for their service overseas but also called attention to the challenges they face coming home.
"If you fought for your homeland, you should never struggle to find a home," Emanuel said. "If you risked your life, you should never struggle to find a livelihood."
But advocates point to large numbers of veterans who are struggling economically. About 7 percent of the 76,000 Illinois veterans who deployed after 2001 live below the poverty line and about 12 percent are considered low-income, according to a 2012 report by the Social Impact Research Center, the research arm of the nonprofit Heartland Alliance.
A new food pantry for veterans opened Monday to provide a little help. At the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in the West Loop, more than 150 military veterans lined up in the afternoon to get free bags of potatoes, onions and fruit and boxes of macaroni and canned goods.
At an opening ceremony, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth said she knows the struggles of veterans all too well. Her father served in three wars, she said, yet lost their family home to foreclosure and struggled to feed the family using food stamps.
"I'm so proud of what we're doing today," Duckworth said before helping distribute food. "But I'm also sad. I'm sad that veterans have need for a food pantry."
The pantry is on the second floor of the Damen Pavilion. Food will be distributed to veterans Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. until fall next year, officials said. The pantry is expected to serve at least 150 people a week.
On Monday, the veterans at the pantry waited for hours to get a box of groceries.
Robert Wilson, 54, said he learned about the pantry last week while being treated at the hospital. On Monday he traveled from Gary.
"When you're serving, it's easy to get people to help you," said Wilson, who said he was in the Army in the late 1970s. "But when you're out, there aren't many open hands."