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I’ve been reading through old emails this morning, looking for some details from my time in Japan back in 2012. I came across the following email, describing a meeting I had earlier in the day. While in Japan, my job was to actually meet with people all day long, whereas here in the states I typically only see their paperwork. During that temporary job assignment, I was reminded that I have a gift of being able to connect to people. I can put them at ease even when they have to talk about something difficult. That gift was finally put to use during my 2012 tour. This story is an example of why it is an honor to be able to serve my customers.

 

“Sometimes my job socks me in the gut. It’s the side effect of working with military people. There are some real, live, fucking heroes out there, and never an adequate way to say thanks. In this case, acknowledging the Sergeant Major would have been the worst possible thing to do. So I nodded, and said, “Uh huh. Ok.” and scribbled on my pad of paper. And I told myself to hold it together. Hold it together. Stop thinking. Turn your head to what you need to help this man. Facts. Law. Explanation of procedure. Acknowledgement. Respect. Confirmation and affirmation for him. Total brutal coldness and move on…

 

I had asked a question I always ask when I see in their medical records a Pre- or Post-Deployment health assessment. I asked the intentionally vague question, “Did anything happen during your deployment?” It’s in the context of making a list of health problems. I have all kinds of tricks to get people to remember stuff that’s bothering them. Sit somebody in a room, say “List all your health concerns,” and they’ll come up with about half of them. So I help. Deployments are a good one, because they’ll go “Oh, yeah, there was that time I banged my head on the turret without a helmet on,” or whatever.

 

He stutters just a little. “Well, a lot happened.” I can tell he’s answering me in a totally different way than I expected him to answer. He’s answering me literally. “I lost a lot of people. There were so many of my guys… I mean, you don’t want to hear this probably,” he looks at me to see if I want to shut him down, and I keep my face completely blank. He looks at the floor, “Well. It was bad.”

 

Sergeant Major was in Afghanistan and lost or sent home injured 70 men. Seventy. He said he wrote it all in a journal, to help himself deal with it. He told me he wrote their names in his journal, and wrote what happened, and what it meant to him at the time. He downplayed himself as though he wasn’t even there. Brought up his Combat Action Ribbon (major award) as though he was forced to mention it in order to explain something else. What he was explaining was this one time he was in a convoy and one of his kids – he stops to explain, “My kids. I call them my boys…the Marines under me, not my own kid.” – stepped on an IED. But he was lucky,” he tells me. “He only lost his leg. He was lucky.” I ask casually, “how far away were you from the blast?” “8 meters.” (fucking close) “And, did you have any loss of consciousness? Bang your head or anything?” He laughs, “Oh no, I’m fine. I was fine. Good body armor. I felt the concussion waves. Everyone did. But there was no damage. Yeah. It’s not like I earned the Combat Action Ribbon. The paperwork was done, and I had so much going on, I just accepted it.”

 

Fuck. I am reeling as he’s telling me this. Eight meters from an IED blast. He watches his own guy get his leg blown off. He loves them so much he calls them his kids.

 

The meeting goes on as we discuss other health concerns. He doesn’t sleep at night. Can’t explain it. “I get around 4 hours of sleep a night, but it’s not all together. It’s ok. It’s been going on so long I’m used to it now. I think the Marine Corps teaches a man how to live on less sleep. It’s not like anything’s wrong.” And his wife tells him he’s lost his interest in things he used to like. “Japan‘s a really safe country, as you know,” he says. “But even though I know that, I can’t help it but get uncomfortable in a narrow alley. I know it’s safe, but there are windows sliding open, with rifles coming through. It’s just not safe.” He lapsed seamlessly from Japan to Afghanistan as he was talking.

 

“When you’re over there, you’ve got to turn it off,” he tells me. “It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way you can do it. Turn it all off. Then when you come back to the states, and …well, normal things aren’t normal anymore. Nothing makes sense. Does that make sense? A guy here on base steps off a curb wrong, hurts his ankle, and there are 7 different documents written up on him, the incident, and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re spending our time worrying about stuff that small? Stuff that doesn’t even matter?’ It’s also a factor of coming from Camp Lejeune, say, it’s a ground base, where everybody is on the ground. The ‘real Marines.’ And now I’m here at an airbase, and it isn’t the same. The people here don’t… Their mindset isn’t… This is not Afghanistan.”

 

He isn’t being eloquent, though this is a very intelligent and eloquent man. And yet, I feel as though I know exactly what he’s saying to me. I tell him he is describing classic PTSD to me. He blinks and looks away. “I’ve made peace with that. I’ve made peace with the idea that it’s probably PTSD. I’m not asking for anything.”

 

The way I deal with it is I flip through the pages of his medical records, I bring up something else, “Here it says there was an abrasion to your eye?” and distract the conversation. Let it cool down, then I pull it back later for an important detail. “So you did receive a Combat Action Ribbon? That will be reflected on your DD-214?” I pull out more details from Afghanistan, talk about something else for awhile, then pull it back to the repercussions of the desert. What’s going on now that he is not quite linking to his heinous deployment yet.

 

It’s worse because he’s in charge here. The Colonel’s right hand man. Sergeant Major is in control here, and I’m listening to him tell me what a mess he is inside. And I know he’s going to suffer from it his whole life. He’s young, handsome, has been married a good long time and his youngest is a senior in high school. He should be looking forward to retirement, and I won’t tell him his retirement could very well undo him. At least…from what I’ve seen in other people’s medical records.

 

Then I get reassurance that being cold was the right move, when he tells me once he went to talk to a doctor here on base about his symptoms of anxiety and trouble sleeping. He started to tell her about Afghanistan, “And she just got all upset, and started crying, and she left the room! She just left. I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be my rock, and you leave.’ So then I found this other doctor over here. He was in Vietnam. He knows. I guess he’s the kind of guy who tells it like it is. I don’t think everybody tells the truth. This doctor said, ‘It’s never going to go away. You’ll always have those memories. What we have to do is figure out a way for you to live with it.’ All the other people tell me ‘It’s gonna get better. It’ll all be ok.’ But I think… I think I’ll have to believe the doctor. He was in Vietnam.”

 

I think about what he said for several seconds, trying to decide where to go with that. “I have no medical training,” I start with. “All I can say is what I see in the medical records I read. And when people are young like you, it’s easier to manage. But when you’re 65, or 72, you are at a higher risk for having a harder time dealing with these symptoms. I don’t know why, but it seems to be harder for older people.” “Funny you should mention that,” he says. And tells me what his step-father told him just a little while ago. Another Vietnam vet. Never had a problem at all till he turned 55 when suddenly his Vietnam memories start bothering him. I try to give Sergeant Major hope instead of despair, “Well, look. I also see the opposite. I see guys who find themselves a distraction. A hobby. For example, a guy takes up fly fishing and he can stay happy.” “Well, I took up drinking,” he says. “That was my hobby. But I had to stop. My wife begged me.” I let out some air, disguised as a laugh, “Yeah, that’s the wrong hobby. Pick a different one.”

 

Anyway. He takes off. I address some email. Pack up my gear. At 4:30 I head home, and halfway back to my room I started crying. I knew immediately what it was. When those guys are in the desert, they have to turn it off 24 hours a day. They have to turn it off till they come home. But me, when I get to my room, I’m safe. So I only need to turn it off during business hours.

 

I’m sad. I’m aching for him. I want so badly to talk for six hours and give him hope, give him tools, tell him how grateful I am that people like him are out there having their lives ruined on my behalf. I want to talk to his wife, and tell her some things to help her understand, to help her have patience and to be strong. And tell the kids too. He’s a powerful, self-confident, fucking baddass war hero, and he was in my office scared. Scared of the future. Of what his mind is going to do to him. That sucks.

 

I’m still crying. Sometimes my days are like this in the VA. I am glad it’s so real for me. The war is never far away from me because of this. I’m just more used to seeing it in typed records and handwritten letters, not looking into a man’s eyes as he tells me how he wrote the names of his kids in his journal when they died.”
My view into the back yard from my new office at home.

My view into the back yard from my new office at home.

Yesterday was my first full day working at home. It’s too early to report on whether this will be a fully positive, and thus permanent change in my life, but I suspect it is.

I really love the work that I do. If I described it, you may find yourself thinking it’s “BO-RING!” but…it is great work for me and my particular skill set. Plus, our customers have earned my respect and my desire to help them. However, I struggle with doing the job at my downtown office. That environment is crazy distracting and unhealthy for me.

To my delight, the positive changes yesterday were more than I had anticipated.

  1. Natural light! It was my favourite discovery of the day. No more banks of fluorescent lights blaring into my eyes from every direction all day long. For a sufferer of migraine headaches…this is huge. My desk is next to a window, and for most of the day, that was plenty of light to work by.
  2. Inspiring view. At the office, my view is of the Portland Police Bureau and jail. I work downtown among the high rises, so the view available to me consists entirely of the buildings across the street. I’m only on the 3rd floor, so I can’t even see the sky when I’m at work. Yesterday, I realized my view is of the bird feeders in the back yard. I saw how busy the birds and squirrels are here during the day, and how the yard is filled with sunshine at mid day. Every time I looked up from my work, something made me smile.
  3. Music. At work we do not play music aloud because at any moment there are a dozen people within hearing range who will probably not share our musical taste. Unfortunately, there is a co-worker next to me who is totally oblivious to peer pressure, and chooses to play his top 40 soul hits all day long every single day despite multiple requests for him to use headphones. (Come on, I *know* Stevie Wonder had more than two good songs. Is it too much to ask to play something else?) Yesterday I played my kind of music, and loud enough to sing along to. And I didn’t offend anyone.
  4. Warmth, point 1. At work, the HVAC roars all day long, blowing air through the building. Loose papers actually flutter. And I’m cold all the time. So even though the register states it is 68 degrees, it’s way too chilly for me at work. There are a few of us who wear fingerless gloves at work, and keep our jackets on all day. Yes, it is that cold. At home, I just bump up the heat if I’m chilly.
  5. Warmth, point 2. For a full hour, the sun came in the other window at an angle that allowed a sunbeam to fall across my back. It was amazingly restorative. I wanted to curl into a ball like a cat, and just soak it up.
  6. Rainbows. For multiple hours, that same sunbeam shone through crystals hanging in the window, and cast rainbows all over the walls and the computer, and my scratch paper. I love rainbows inside the house.
  7. A helper. Speaking of curling up like a cat, our kitty Racecar visited me multiple times for some lovin.’ She attempted to help a couple times, by lying down on some papers, but I had to put her back on the floor. It was thoughtful of her though, and I appreciated the gesture.
  8. Convenient facilities. So, ok. Our office building takes up an entire city block and we have one bathroom. I hate to sound whiny, but it’s a very long walk to the bathroom, which is on the opposite side of the block from the break room. Yesterday, I didn’t have to pack a lunch, or a thermos of coffee, and haul it on the bus with me, because it was right there, mere steps away. When I usually skip breakfast because I won’t have time to catch my 5:50 am bus, I had breakfast.
  9. Less sick leave. yesterday I requested 45 minutes of paid sick time to take my daughter to the dentist later this week. If I was at the office, it would have required 4 hours of time off to leave work early enough to make it out to Montavilla from downtown, pick up my kid, and get her to the dentist on time. Her appointment will be over before my shift is over, but by the time I took her back home, and drove all the way back into town, there would only be 30 minutes of the work day left. Not worth it. But now, all our doctors are just a few minutes from home.
  10. Short commute. It’s a 10 minute walk from my house to the bus stop, a 35-minute bus ride, and a 12 minute walk from the bus stop to the office. It takes an hour to get to work. Coming home can take longer, because it’s during a much busier time. Yesterday, I woke up and was there! I’m saving 2 to 2 1/2 hours of commute time each day.

There are disadvantages, but so far they are outweighed by advantages. I have to log in remotely to a virtual computer desktop hosted somewhere outside of Chicago, which makes every task take a  l o o o o n g  t i i i i i m e. When I need to ask someone a question, I can only ask whomever is active in Instant Messaging at the time. And the way I’ve used my reference tools on my computer desktop for the past 6 years is no longer going to work, because of the virtual desktop thing…so I need to come up with a new plan. I still have to go to work one day a week, and when I do I am required to take my car because the sensitive nature of the documents I carry with me prevents using TriMet. So that will cost me in vehicle maintenance, gas, and parking fees downtown.

I am fortunate enough to work for an employer (the Department of Veterans Affairs) who supports working at home for certain employees. Rumor has it that they want to eventually shift to 50% of the workforce at home. My specific job is processing disability claims, so it’s conducive to working remotely. On a typical day, I never see or speak to an actual veteran (other than my many co-workers who are veterans). Rather, I read pages and pages of medical records and scour VA laws and court cases and procedures manuals, and enter data and write up reports based on everything I read. All this can be done at home as easily as at work.

If things don’t work out for me, I can always go back into the office. To my (not) beloved cubicle sea. Where voices and telephones and radios and the HVAC and the cleaning crews’ vacuum cleaner all blend into a ceaseless din that drives me half mad some days. Where the fluorescent lights never stop their blaring. Where a dozen people a day ask, “How was your weekend?” and hope that I’ll ask them about theirs, when really all I want to do is get my work done.

Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’ll stay home as long as they let me.

Racecar on my desk yesterday, annoyed that I stopped scratching her head so I could take this photo with my phone.

Racecar on my desk yesterday, annoyed that I stopped scratching her head so I could take this photo with my phone.

Sunset to the south. A lovely view from my room.

When I first received the news that I would be spending all of July and part of August in Phoenix, Arizona on a work trip, my first thought was that it was going to be a HOT summer. Phoenix in July and August, really? Nice sense of humor, VA. But the more I thought about it, and now that I’m here, especially, I realize that it’s perfectly fine. I love the heat when it’s dry, Western heat and not that nasty summer weather in the central U.S., New England, or on the East coast.

You are here now

My group of instructors arrived the day after that big dust storm. I am the only one of the group to be truly disappointed to have missed it. Having a background in weather forecasting makes a person stand outside the normal inclinations of safety-conscious people. Weather geeks like to get caught in thunderstorms – any accompanying lighting or hail is a plus. We like to witness dust storms, or downbursts of any kind. We thrill at floods, avalanches, tsunamis, and tornadoes in a particularly deviant way. Don’t hate us: we don’t have anything against humankind, it’s just that weather becomes so fascinating that it’s impact on human life can become secondary to our genuine awe at the power of Mother Nature. It’s a side effect of the job that apparently doesn’t fade completely when a weather geek changes careers and goes to work for the VA.

pool below my room

my new home away from home. I already know the front desk staff, and Bertha from housekeeping

So yes, it’s been hot, but I am already finding it pleasant. Mornings I open up the slider in my room and let the fresh air blow through while I go for my run before class starts. Afternoons I luxuriate in the blissful blasting rays of the sun to warm me up again after suffering in the air-conditioned environment for 10 or 11 hours. It has been more humid than usual, because it is monsoon season. That makes the heat harder to bear, of course, but it did also result in one very good rain one morning. I told a friend that I went for my run anyway, and because it was so warm it felt like running in the shower. His response, “Wow, you must have a really big shower.”

critter on roof

wet from rain

My training background is limited to only day-long classes, workshops, morning training sessions, that kind of thing. I have never been the teacher in a class that continued day after day. I have not received any training for this kind of thing, but had a sense that I would be a natural. Here in Phoenix I am in a sheltered environment in that I am teaching official material that must be followed to the letter, and I must follow a lesson plan that has already been created. I am one of three instructors, so when I’ve pressed the students through 4 grueling hours of 38 Code of Federal regulations 3.1 through 3.309(e), I can sit down and let the next person pick up at 38 Code of Federal regulations 3.324. So it’s an ideal place to be initiated into being a teacher.

desert blossoms

Look at my gorgeous view of Camelback Mountain to the north!!

Ok, this is my actual view. The one above is with the benefit of a camera with an awesome zoom lens.

I am fortunate in many additional ways on this particular trip. For example, we have a great Course Manager, who is a representative from VA Central Office in Washington, D.C., ensuring that we are teaching what we are told to teach, and reporting back to headquarters about our ability to teach, and our ability to manage the classroom. Our Course Manager is very capable and has kept details like facility issues, computer access, file storage, personnel, etc., under control so that the three instructors can just teach. I am fortunate because my co-instructors are capable and easy to work with. We quickly realized we can trust each other to run the show, and so when someone else is teaching, the other two split the “free” time between researching and refreshing for our upcoming training topics, and pitching in to assist the trainer by running the power points, researching questions from students, and providing additional real-life examples when the students ask for them. It has been a great experience so far. After my first week of being a teacher, I am reassured that I was right in volunteering for this task.

reflection

art?

The Phoenix downtown is hands-down the most boring downtown I’ve ever seen in my life. Our hotel is just north of downtown and three blocks from the VA Regional Office. Both downtown and the hotel/office areas are empty and sprawling and devoid of people. I mean, work with me here, “empty” compared to what one might expect in the center of a city. Downtown is populated with gigantic banks, conference centers, hotels, museums and a couple sports venues. There are plenty of buildings and parking lots, but no people. No little intriguing shops, mom-n-pops, funky alleyways, no non-conforming architecture… It is bizarre. The only people I ever see are during my morning runs when there is a rare local resident leaving their home to get into a vehicle and go to work, or an occasional person walking a dog, and in the afternoons I might see a tourist or even two of them, wandering the sidewalks looking for other signs of human life. Other than that – empty and creepy.

out of place in Phoenix, but beautiful nonetheless

How hot was it in Phoenix last weekend? Answer: this hot!

Thank you, Jesus!

My first Saturday here, I had the hotel shuttle drop me off downtown. I was a trooper. I wandered along the empty sidewalks for a good four hours and came up with nothing that more than mildly captured my interest. There are some nice buildings, a weird loopy net thing in the air, a bar with outdoor seating that had misters (misters are nice), and a multiplex theatre that could actually come in handy if I get bored. I gave up and called the shuttle to come get me.

The people here say, “Oh, well, duh. Don’t go downtown. Go to Scottsdale! Go to Tempe! Go to Sedona!” So apparently the cure is to actually leave.

National Conference Center complex in Lansdowne, Virginia

I’ve already mentioned that I had anticipated being sent on a work trip this summer. I am finally making time to write about my travels and the stuff I am doing to bring a bunch of VA employees up to speed on my job. The whole story boils down to: I volunteered to teach a class, and now I’m teaching it.

VA likes to have some trained instructors scattered around, available in the case a new class needs to be taught. This time we hired so many new people that there were not enough instructors in the pool. So they asked for volunteers. For example, they asked people with my job description to agree to train people newly hired to do what we do. Train people to do what you know – it makes sense. Since the training was anticipated to occur during the summer, when Miss T will be with her dad, I agreed to become an instructor.

After an extremely busy start to my summer, I was just settling down to organize my life and regroup, now that my daughter was gone to California to be with her dad for the summer. It’s nice to have a couple months where I can reset all the tables, counters, knobs, and dials, and get myself prepared for the next 9 months of teen craziness. I had not heard any kind of confirmation on my application to teach, and no locations or dates were settled. So, I looked forward to a summer of writing more on my book, cleaning my kid’s bedroom down to the floor boards (children do NOT inherit hygiene habits from their parents, btw), hiking the Gorge, find new places to camp, getting to know the new man in my life, and that kind of Me-Time. One week into Me-Time, I was notified of my upcoming training. It would be quick and direct, designed to give instructors a heads-up on this upcoming anticipated training (wherever it may be and whenever it may occur).

So, on Thursday at work, we scrambled around and got travel arrangements into place for travel to Lansdowne, Virginia on Monday. It would be an easy trip: fly out Monday, return Friday morning. I was not too concerned about the short interruption of my summer of kid-less bliss. I had enough time to clean the house a little bit, mow the lawn, pack, and pour an extra dish of food for the cat for my time away. Since I can’t get her to keep her fuzzy nose out of it anyway, I leave the toilet seat up for her in case the water bowl runs out – how clever is THAT?! I make fun of my cat for using the toilet. She’s all, “This round white thing is so cool! Sometimes it’s filled with toxic waste, sometimes drinking water!” Disgusting.

View from my room at the NCC was nice

The training facility, called the National Conference Center, in Lansdowne (near Leesburg, near Washington, D.C.) is a crazy, 1980s Era concrete bunker of sorts. Formerly the Xerox training center, it’s now used by many federal agencies for our own training. The place is described as “110 safe, secure acres in a distraction-free setting.” Which means it is nowhere near anything interesting to do or see. It is rather reminiscent of a military post with military style building. Our sleeping quarters, dayrooms, cafeteria, lounge, bar, conference rooms, and everything else were all contained inside one building. It is designed in such a way that without an elaborate identification system (room numbers include digits after a decimal point!), it was very easy to get lost inside. I wanted to wander the halls wailing, “Someone moved my cheese!”

Second floor dayroom and third floor sleeping quarters.

My room was at ground level, and called the third floor. There were about 8 floors. All the hallways were named after states, so I had to memorize the way to the cafeteria on the second floor (which dropped underground) as: follow Michigan for a long time, cafeteria is right after Delaware. Or to the training room on the third floor, where I would follow Arkansas and turn left onto Ohio and follow that. There was no cell phone reception inside the wide and deep concrete building. Luckily our rooms were on the outside, so we were able to communicate with the outside world during our personal time.

Training was good: direct, brief, effective. It was called Train-the-Trainer. I found great personal enjoyment in the trip because of two events: getting caught in a monstrous thunderstorm (remember I was a meteorologist in my former life), and seeing clouds of fireflies.  My delight in fireflies makes me like a child again. I was giggling and crawling through the grass on my hands and knees trying to catch them. I managed to catch one and had it on my hand, blinking.

Saw lots of deer and this rabbit during my morning jogs

Wednesday we “got our orders.” In other words, during training I found out when and where I would be teaching my class. I found out I would be flying to Phoenix to teach in less than a week! (I was immediately disappointed for not being granted a spot in Seattle, as I had requested and hoped for, but I gradually got over it.) Let’s put that into perspective: In less than a week I would be leaving my home for FIVE full weeks and I had not yet returned home from Virginia. I needed to find some accommodation for my cat, make some kind of lawncare related plan, deal with mail, neighbors… arrgh. The five-week time frame was longer than I had anticipated, and this particular summer Miss T decided to return from her dad’s house early so she could go on a church camping trip with a girlfriend. So I had to get all the details worked out for her arriving when I was not there, then packing, and then leaving on a new trip when I was still not there! Not to mention, working out the details for her to return from the weeklong camping trip and be alone for two days before I finally returned from Phoenix.

In February, I had received the coveted 4th of July holiday leave approved for the whole week after the 4th. I was planning to go to my Pa’s house in Idaho, but had to bail on that trip, to my great disappointment.

My Pa and I have been having some very tough times in the past year with poor communication skills resulting in some fighting. e.g. He most recently crushed my feelings by telling me the new guy was not welcome to visit his home because it’s too hard on him to meet someone who will just become my next ex-boyfriend or next ex-husband. Ouch. If he was an acquaintance, I could easily deal with it by telling him to piss off. But since he’s my dad, I am desperate for approval and reassurance that he still loves me, even though he apparently has no censor on his mouth, nor any concern for my feelings.

So I flew home on Friday, bought a new piece of luggage (since I had sent my stuff to California with T) and tossed everything I could think of into it. My man spent the whole weekend with me and helped in the house with dishes and mowing the lawn (again with the grass!), and keeping my spirits up while I felt rather discombobulated and tried to get the rest of my summer organized during the holiday weekend. In celebration of pulling it all off in a few days, I went out to Hood River to watch his hometown fireworks celebration. It was a much better choice than to brave the 10,000 Portlanders in my own town. The next morning I said goodbye, headed back into the city, took a deep breath, and got ready to be gone till August. I also ate all the leftovers I could stomach, in a last-ditch attempt to clean out the fridge. Ha!

Alright, VA: Bring on Phoenix!

{Boring side note for anyone who really needs more information about what I’m doing: In a nationwide push to take care of our “backlog” of medical claims from veterans, one aspect of VA strategy was to hire a ton of new people. Backlog is the term we use to refer to cases pending – i.e., vet has made a claim, and we are not done making a decision yet. There are many kinds of jobs in a Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office, like the one where I work. (We do not do any healthcare whatsoever – that is a different part of VA) There are multiple teams responsible for multiple aspects of handling veterans’ disability claims. My particular job is to take a claim that has all the background work completed on it (medical records retrieved, military records retrieved, instructions and education sent to the veteran about the process, etc.), and review the entire record and make a decision on whether the evidence in the claim meets federal law to a sufficient degree that we are allowed to grant a benefit. If the criteria spelled out in the law (38 Code of Federal Regulations) have been met, I can grant the benefit. If they have not been met, I need to explain this to the veterans, and explain precisely what they need to do to get a positive decision.}

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