But the group of people that U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is putting together isn’t from his time in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Rather, they are people who, like him, have been through a serious health issue and are willing to share their personal struggles in hopes it will offer hope, guidance and inspiration to others who are dealing with their own challenges.
“This was a project that I had wanted to do ever since I had a stroke,” Kirk said after the “Battle Buddies” first meeting Friday. “It’s a way to give mutual support and comfort to people, to make sure that they feel that they are not alone.”
Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 and it took nearly a year of intense rehabilitation to get back to his work as a senator.
Most of the dozen people who showed up for the meeting at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago were stroke patients. One man had had Legionnaire’s disease, and another was shot as a child and uses a wheelchair because of the injury to his spinal cord.
Most learned of “Kirk’s Battle Buddies” through their ties with the Rehabilitation Institute, where Kirk did his recovery.
During their hourlong meeting, questions ranged from Kirk asking several people to reflect on why they thought God had saved their life to someone asking Kirk how long it took “to get confidence back” after his stroke.
Kirk said it was the day he returned to work on Jan. 3, 2013, by climbing the 45 steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Kirk, who uses a wheelchair, said he is still dealing with fatigue and his goal is to not only be able to walk again but be able to “run around the Capitol.”
Jorge Alfaro, 45, of Humboldt Park, who asked Kirk the confidence question, gave Kirk credit for organizing the meeting and sharing his experience. Alfaro uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury suffered when he was shot when he was 9. He is an outpatient at RIC.
“Somebody with a disability seeing somebody else with a disability creating awareness, that’s a plus,” he said. “Awareness is such a vital tool,” Alfaro added, because it gives people with disabilities resources that they might not have known about otherwise.
Kirk said he’s looking to expand his “Battle Buddies” to other people with health setbacks. Anyone wanting to get involved should call his Chicago office at (312) 886-3506.
“When we say ‘battle buddies’ that is the highest form of praise inside the U.S. military,” Kirk said. “When you both face something as serious as stroke — that can nearly take your life — you really do feel a bond with people.”
“This path has been traveled before. If we all can be open and honest and describe what we are going through” that can help other people on that same path.
In addition to the meeting Friday, Kirk again did the “Hustle Up the Hancock” on Sunday.
Kirk said he planned to have more meetings like the one he had on Friday at RIC in the future.
Creating his “Battle Buddies” isn’t the first time Kirk has been vocal about helping people who have had a stroke.
He is leading what he calls a “stroke agenda,” which has a national goal of enabling all stroke survivors to get the best possible rehabilitation and help them get a higher income when they return to work.
Kirk also says he has called dozens of Illinois people who had a stroke to find out how they were doing, and to encourage them to “stay away from watching TV all day, which you may want to do, and just follow the direction of [your rehabilitation therapists] as if they were God.”
As for Kirk’s political battle ahead in 2016, the Senate Republican said he’s ready.
“I have a lot of tough races behind me, and 2016 looks to be a bad brawl in the Midwest here,” Kirk said.
Four Democrats so far have expressed interest in running against Kirk in November 2016, including Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.