Any veteran who comes to see nurse Missy Robel knows how regarded they are in her eyes the moment they see The Room.
Robel's small office at the McHenry clinic of the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center is a shrine of sorts to the men and women who have served their country. The walls, and a small end table in the corner, are packed with photos, paintings and other mementos from service in peacetime and war.
More than a few veterans who come to the McHenry clinic – one of several annexes of the main care facility in North Chicago – don't need medical help. They just come to see The Room.
Veterans – both patients and tourists – in turn share their stories with Robel, not knowing that she considers herself much richer for the experience.
"There's lots of history, and lots of stories, and I love it when veterans from all walks of life come in and share their stories," Robel said. "It's just so humbling to be in their presence."
Whatever Robel can do for veterans, on the clock or off, she does it, said fellow nurse Terri Hnilicka, who nominated Robel as an Everyday Hero. If a veteran says he's having a hard time making ends meet or finding food, she calls the right people in the veterans' care network to get that need met.
When she arranged for the color statue of the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day to be delivered to the clinic, she invited a veteran whose daughter wrote a letter to the editor about his desire to see the statue up close as the guest of honor for its unveiling.
"Missy does things with such passion and love without expecting anything in return. She is the most genuine human being I know. Her love for our veterans and our country make her a hero in my eyes," Hnilicka wrote.
But it all started with The Room.
Robel noticed when she took the clinic job at Lovell about 2 1/2 years ago that the decor looked, well, downright depressing.
"When I first came here, they had all these flowery pictures that looked like they belonged in a funeral home," Robel said.
The first few pictures on her wall came from her collection. They include her father-in-law, seaman Ed Robel, and the battleship USS Nevada on which he served in World War II. A picture of her father, Thomas Gilkey, a firefighter on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet during the war, hangs on the wall, and his hat rests on the table in the corner.
The pictures became conversation pieces for the veterans during their appointments with Robel. They opened up and relaxed. They then shared their own stories – and began bringing her pictures of their own from their duty days.
And like any decent art collection, Robel has more than she can display. Other pieces have made their way into the other nurses' offices, in the hallways and in the waiting room, near a montage of photos from the Special Education District of McHenry County, which last Memorial Day hosted an outreach program she started, "Take A Vet to School."
But Robel insists the label "hero" is much more fitting for her patients and not herself. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, according to Robel, are heroes just for wearing the uniform. Her philosophy of service is best summarized by a quote that graces her desk from former president and Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt: "A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards."
Robel, who turns 60 this year, said she cannot think of a better way to end her service, or helping a better group of people.
"It's so wonderful to end my career on such a beautiful note," Robel said.