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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.”
Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

America, you piss me off sometimes. I feel like a parent who knows how much greatness her kid is capable of, and yet must watch while that kid takes the lazy, irresponsible route.

I work for VA. Not in a position of any influence, I work amongst thousands of other anonymous civil servants who take our responsibilities seriously. We endure the often ridiculous demands of the D.C. Central Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, because when we are able to contort ourselves into their expectations of us, they leave us alone to do our jobs. If we check the boxes and count the beans the way Central Office wants it, the end result is that we get to serve, and educate, and literally change lives for the better for our favourite group in the whole world: U.S. Veterans.

Until yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a good leader in Eric Shinseki. Not a perfect man. I’ll tell you from experience that under his watch we were worked very hard while under enormous pressure. I am not kidding when I say at times I wavered between fearing I would get fired and plotting how I would quit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some stressed out VA employees who cheer his departure. Shinseki is direct, and sincere, with high expectations, and he makes decisions and then follows through. It was usually hard to comply, but in 5 years we did some impressive things in VA. Improvements I am proud of.

The fiasco regarding VA medical facility waitlists that has shocked the nation has been identified – by Shinseki himself! – as systemic. That is ugly to hear. Painful to consider. Embarrassing. Inexcusable.

What I found most interesting about this whole ordeal was that my strongest reaction has been to feel deep regret that the employees of VA medical facilities have been under so much pressure that they had to lie to save their jobs. See, what makes my reaction different from a lot of you is that I’m not instantly thinking of the vets. I give the better part of my life to vets, I *am* a vet, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  The story I see is one of oppression in the workplace.

I think Secretary Shinseki would have been the man to get to the bottom of the problem. The work he already did to begin addressing wait list problems was lightning fast (by government standards). He knows the Agency, he knows how we keep it running, he knows what we’re up against. Now that he knows that some parts of it are infected with lies, he would have been ALL over that. Dr. Foote, now known as the whistle blower, also felt that Shinseki should stay onbronze side

HOW will forcing his resignation and bringing on someone who doesn’t know what’s going on fix anything? How will Sloan Gibson merge into this breakneck pressure we’re already negotiating within? The pressure of eliminating the backlog of disability claims. The pressure of getting veterans quick appointments. The pressure of constant media disdain and misleading news headlines.

You bastards, whoever you are. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for forcing Shinseki to resign. By implying that this could be a partisan issue, and by directing your fury at the Secretary, you have successfully allowed the public NOT to have a discussion about how to fix the problems. You have hurt veterans more than you know.  Your demands should have been to insist that the Secretary fix the problem, not for him to leave. Now the sheep among us will think something was done to address the problem, and that the problems are as good as fixed.

We missed our opportunity to do the only thing that really would have helped the situation, which is to have public outrage centered on how we got into this mess. Members of our U.S. House and Senate were screaming to take down Shinseki, but they cleverly did not clamor to hold themselves responsible for providing the funding to increase VA medical facility size and staffing to fix this problem.

Just think about it sensibly. The reason why a hospital can’t bring in a patient is either because there is no room, or there is no doctor available to see the patient. Can’t you see that firing people is not going to fix the problem? Isn’t that obvious to anyone but me?

That’s why I feel such empathy for the employees at the medical facilities identified. I can imagine how dreadfully stressful their jobs must have been up to this point. And now some of them have been fired, adding insult to injury.

Possibly the first person to attempt to change things at the Phoenix VA facility was Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who contends that after confiding in hospital director Sharon Helman, she was subsequently disciplined and transferred. She then tried to confidentially complain again, this time to the Inspector General, but instead of being touted a hero, was put on administrative leave and threatened that she may be held accountable for violating patient privacy by her allegations. The one who finally got this recent ball rolling is Dr. Sam Foote, who first retired, then took on the role of whistle-blower. These are only two people, but the environment is made very clear to me: if doctors – the power elite  of hospitals – if doctors’ complaints are met with disciplinary action, then there is no hope that a complaint will be taken seriously from the scheduling clerk who answers the phone and handles appointments. In fact, it’s pretty clear that anyone who resists the system can expect to get fired.

Have you been spouting off about the integrity of those VA employees? Well ask yourself if you’re willing to get fired today. Are you? It is another example of asking the victim to be the one responsible for changing their environment.

When this nation found out what was happening to our veterans, having to wait so long for an appointment that they missed critical care, and in some cases may have died while still waiting, we were right to be astonished and offended by the news. Our next step should have been an outpouring of support to the hospitals, asking them “What can we do for you? How can we help?” And most of all, we should have all apologized for ignorantly allowing them to suffer for so long. Newspapers and television networks could have used their fabulous investigative skills to root out VA facilities that were finding ways to succeed without lying, and to identify proposals to improve the system that no one was taking seriously yet. Reporters could have spun the story so that the American public learned that our representatives in Washington, D.C. had been the source of the edict to get vets into facilities in two weeks or less, but had not provided the financial support necessary to make it happen. We could have begun campaigns to let Congress know that we love our vets so much, we want them to approve a VA hospital budget that will actually allow us to take care of them the way they deserve to be taken care of.

When faced with a critical decision to make, our country’s leaders copped out and picked a scapegoat on whom to blame their problems. American citizens, we are bad parents of our government. They will never learn to live up to their potential if we don’t teach it to them.

My friend, Mohamed

I’m going to have some anxiety mixed with my joy till I clear it up with my Egyptian friend, Mohamed, who has insisted I don’t know all sides. I heard the news of Mubarak acquiescing the reins of the presidency with joy and with a marked dose of astonishment. I also worried that I was the butt of a joke, and had to check it for myself, since all day Thursday at work, as rumors from Egypt flew to us here in the U.S., we had been launching the joke back and forth across the cubicle sea.

“I heard Mubarak has stepped down.”

“Really?”

“Oh, looks like he hasn’t. Nevermind.”

And it continued like that. We’re mostly early risers where I work, and by 6am (the earliest we’re allowed to begin) that place is hopping. Friday Chris came in early and headed for his cube in his bicycle gear. He said, “Hey, I guess Mubarak has stepped down!” “Really?” I asked. “No,” he laughed.

But a couple hours later I heard the announcement. About 8:50am, I knew it was for real.

Earlier in the week, I had finally heard from Mohamed, a young man from Upper Egypt who recently received his degrees in tourism and business management. The week before I had jetted off an email in the thick of things, then remembered that he probably had no Internet. D’oh! So Wednesday he got back to me and assured me that he was safe. Our communication is poor, since I speak about thirty-five words of Egyptian Arabic and he can probably triple that for English words. We are pathetic, but determined! Ha ha.

Mohamed’s message was brief, but it chimes in with Middle Eastern media voices I keep hearing whose theme is that Americans just don’t have a clue. My message to Mohamed was simple enough. I told him that I send my love and I hope he is safe. His response to me was that of the 80 million people in Egypt, there are many sides to the situation, and not to think I know what’s going on. He said the Egyptian media only gave one story in the beginning. With our emaciated language skills, I can’t tell what he thinks of the protests, or the Mubarak regime, or what.

Then he expressed his doubt and fear about being a citizen. He didn’t say “doubt” and “fear.” On Wednesday, prior to news of the departure of Mubarak, he wrote to me: “Now all things may be back like last in street and in government. What the result! Problem in economy for example ( tourism ) after that no tourists.”

And this is going to be the looming story for Egypt through the remainder of 2011 and beyond. His words touch my heart with their poignancy, and they still hold true. What the hell are the common people going to do now? So many people were struggling anyway, and now the entire system has been ravaged. It’s not like Mohamed can go back to work on the tour ship Monday. It’s not like his Uncle can set up his shop at the dock and sell anything this week. In Mubarak’s speech Thursday he called to the young people in Tahrir Square to “go back to your jobs.” That made me furious and I don’t even live on the same side of the planet. Talk about not having a clue. The victory here is undeniable and I hope it will carry some Egyptians through the painful coming year.

I don’t think Mohamed (or his countrymen and women) understands the American perspective. He has so many fears and stereotypes about Americans that battle in his brain. he’s always telling me how unusual I am for befriending him. But that isn’t true! Americans are no more haters than Egyptians are. On a one-to-one basis, outside the bark of Fox television, we are just like people anywhere. We can love you no matter what your native language is.

I want the people of Egypt (all of them!) to know that we, over here in the United States, have been concerned much less about the type of government that reigns in the end, if it was placed there by the popular voice of the people. Argue all you want, but think about it, and it’s true. We have not been tuned in to the news out of our concern for the quality of the regime overhaul.

Americans value voices freely raised!

THAT is why we are so excited. That is why we have been tuning in every day for the past 20 days. The silly commentators keep bringing up the implications in world markets, in Israeli relations, and whether President Obama is saving or losing face with his reaction. But we don’t really care. We want to hear the shouting, see the banners raised, hear thousands of people holding their country’s flag and chanting their pride and patriotism. We particularly loved hearing an authority organization – the army – supporting the people!

Mohamed is afraid that I’ll make a judgment based on inadequate facts, but all I needed to know was that Egyptians were speaking up, which the media certainly provided. And I wanted to see a result that incorporated their voices. The particular demands are not so important for me to understand. Some Egyptians expressed that Mubarak was not so bad that he needed to be ousted.  So ok, it’s not my country; I won’t judge the Mubarak regime because I don’t know enough.

But that does not dim my enthusiasm for an Egyptian revolution. I was invested in getting proof that their voices were heard. Come on, admit that’s what you wanted too. I wanted to see the people express a common demand and have it met, and I wanted so badly for it not to end with bloodshed and mass imprisonment. Sadly, over three hundred people did die, and their deaths are not forgotten. I hope the death toll holds steady as governing negotiations ensue.

Americans value voices freely raised. And for that fact above all others, we have stood in support of Egypt for three weeks. Americans value a people’s victory. And for that fact, we too are celebrating. Mostly to ourselves, our friends, or in our facebook status. But we are celebrating, nonetheless.

That most of the time, if you’re patient, I’ll eventually get it. Thanks for waiting for me and for having faith. ❤

One of my many guises

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