‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago

Located about 35 miles from downtown Chicago, Naval Station Great Lakes is the largest military installation in Illinois and home to the Navy’s only boot camp. It is located within the boundaries of North Chicago.

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Naval Station Great Lakes stands on 16-hundred acres of land overseeing Lake Michigan.

29-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon McPhan was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and enlisted when he was 20.

“I’m proud to be in the military because I can serve my country,” McPhan said. “I can make people proud. I can be that person that changes someone’s life, even if I have never met them before.”

When enrolling, Officer McPhan never imagined he would be interested in pursuing culinary arts, but that is what he did. He was a chef for five years on a ship before returning to Naval Station Great Lakes.

“I was in school, and my brother had just joined the Marines, and my grandmother told me I should give the military a try,” McPhan said. “It’s something that benefits you, and it’s something you could look forward to for the rest of your life.”

McPhan spent many early mornings and long nights as a culinary specialist.

“We would have to be up by 4 a.m. just to get breakfast out by 6 a.m.,” he said. “The last meal to close was 17:30, so we’re cleaning up until 18:30. It was tough, but it makes you a better person.”

​​Officer McPhan appreciates the challenges of the service members who came before him.

“The one thing that can make society better for veterans is actually people understanding that life was hard for them back in the day,” McPhan said. “During the Vietnam War, they didn’t have as many resources as we have now.”

Located less than a mile away from the installation is Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center which serves an estimated 40,000 Navy recruits annually.

This hospital is a unique partnership between the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defense and the only federal hospital in the country.

“I think the veterans in particular really enjoy being in an environment where they can see young active-duty folks, particularly in training, and share old stories of Vietnam days,” said Dr. Robert Buckley, director of Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. “And similarly, I think that the active duty like to hear the stories from our veterans ... I can tell you that nowhere, at least in the VA [Veteran Affairs], will you see 2 or 3-year-old patients with their mom going to the pediatric clinic while they're seeing a 97-year-old World War II vet getting an X-ray.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Dr. Robert Buckley

The hospital was re-named in honor of Apollo 13 astronaut, Captain James A. Lovell, USN after the former North Chicago VA Medical Center and the former Naval Health Clinic Great Lakes in 2010.

Christopher Schmidt is an Army veteran and the executive director for USO Illinois, an organization founded in 1941 to assist troops and their families with food services and activities.

“My experience in the military was great,” Schmidt said. “Unfortunately, I had lost my father when I was a young teenager and it was almost a tribute to his service when I decided to join, and it provided me with lifelong lessons and discipline and leadership that continues today.”

Schmidt served 14 years as an Army officer and continued his military career even after his service.

“For me, the most significant life lesson is you put others first,” Schmidt said. “As an officer in the military, your troops come first, they eat first, they get supplies first because their welfare and their effectiveness drives the entire team. So for me, whether being a father, spouse or a leader in USO, making sure that everyone is taken care of comes first.”

In his current role, Schmidt is in charge of nine centers across the state including USO Great Lakes Center.

Center Manager Jeremiah Avers of USO Great Lakes, and retired Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, says the USO focuses on providing an extra layer of support.

“Our tagline says the force behind the forces,” Avers said. “We really are trying to provide a home away from home ... a free zone where they can come and relax, and let their military burdens be put away for a short amount of time. we're here to provide that sense of comfort and peace so that they can get a little bit of a break before they have to go back and do the difficult things that our country asks of them.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Jeremiah Avers

Military wife Krista Schannot and her family benefited from those resources when they lived overseas in Tokyo for 20 years.

“When your husband is in the military you have to be tough,” Schannot said. “I left my home country when I was 20 and you have to be tough. You’re alone in everything.”

All of Schannot’s children were born on Yokosuka Naval Base, and oftentimes, she had to get used to her husband being away for months at a time.

“Sometimes you see people not appreciating what they have, and I see my kids sacrificing holidays, birthdays and you can see others not caring and that’s what I want them to do, feel,” Schannot said.

They recently moved back to the base where her husband graduated from boot camp many years ago. Schannot works as an operations specialist for USO, while her husband trains new sailors.

“For each and every military wife out there,” Schannot said. “I know there’s going to be challenges, but if you trust the support the military is giving you and believe in each other, and you're married to a wonderful person, trust each other.”

This is a message Schannot also spreads to those who don’t have anyone in the military, but want to support their troops.

“Exercise your rights first,” Schannot added. “I don’t understand why people don’t vote ... Just appreciate the freedom that you are enjoying. What you’re buying actually gives you the freedom because someone is sacrificing for it.”

Schmidt adds that selflessness and a love for his country drives his service to the U.S.

“It’s a point of pride,” Schmidt said. “Those of us who have raised our hands and sworn an oath to our Constitution do so with selflessness in mind. So, I’m humbled when people thank me for my service, because I didn’t do it to be thanked.”

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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