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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.

one of my fave graffiti shots downtown

When I went for a run Wednesday morning, I passed the sweetest sight. A man was carefully removing falling leaves from a chalk message on the sidewalk. I couldn’t read the name written there (I was too close to the sidewalk to see the giant letters well). It said, “[NAME] I love U!” The word love was actually a heart.

It’s a ritual on this block: people send chalk messages to inmates held in the jail across the street from where I work. Apparently, they must be able to see the message from the jail and pass it on to whomever is named. Messages show up on both sides of my building, kitty corner on the sidewalk intersections, silently sending love up to the people in the towering building.

A couple hours later, I left my desk on the third floor and walked over to the windows to see if I could read the chalk name with a better angle. I looked out the window and felt like I was socked in the gut. All I could see on the sidewalk corner was a wide wet area, where the chalk had been scrubbed off. No, it wasn’t that the whole sidewalk had been sprayed. Just the message. Washed off.

I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I suddenly thought of oppression. I thought of a stifling work environment, and a totalitarian regime. I thought how easy it is for those in power to take tiny steps to squash the people. The people who scrubbed the message off probably weren’t even directed to do it by anyone related to the jail. The slightest details, perfectly, hegemonically aligned, will have devastating effects. And yet, no one can point a finger and legitimately make it stop.

“Take a stand! We must FIGHT the scrubbing of chalk messages!” See? That wouldn’t go anywhere. And yet, think of how devastating it could be to someone who has been waiting for a love message, to keep up hope while waiting for the court date or something. What does it mean to that person, who was assured by a loved one: “It will be there. Wednesday morning. You look out that window. I promise.”

Arno suggests that I could look at it with an entirely different perspective. “It’s a very positive idea, though,” he said, “that there is a means of getting messages to the people in the jail. They have a way to send their love.”

Arrggh. Pandora you wicked one.

image by Jeff Widener, China, 1989

I am astounded to be reminded that the tragedy of Tiananmen Square was twenty years ago. That long?

Mt. St. Helens, Washington, 1980

Ok, Ok, I am finally coming to terms with the fact that the Mt. St. Helens eruption is ancient history, though I can still remember the daily drama of facemasks and shoveling ash off bridges and roofs before they collapsed.

I have even begun to relax a little bit since the reunification of Germany. As I blogged about not too long ago, I am still trying to resolve my thoughts about walls.

Tiananmen was the same year as when the wall came down? Crazy. The pain and dread of young, beautiful, unarmed people standing up to an army is still so present in my consciousness. I can’t believe it is yet another one of those stories that is history.

Astonishing that the Chinese government won’t address it. They refuse to even allow dialogue. Really? Just like people believe there was no Holocaust, some people believe there was no Tiananmen? But, but, but… I still carry the pain of it! It was real! And I’m among The Ugly Americans, which normally causes us to forget. But this we remember…

And that image.

Thank you Jeff Widener for what you were able to give us. I recalled so clearly that there was a lone man standing with his hand up. But when I looked for the image, it is even more compelling: a man holding grocery bags. A symbol worthy of any activist’s respect. You can’t get more grass roots than: “I was on my way home from the market and saw the tanks and, well, something had to be done.” Mr. Widener said about his composition that he thinks it’s best not to know the identity of the man. Without knowing his name, he’s one of us, and that makes him so symbolically powerful.

I asked my partner if he remembers “that image” from the Tiananmen Square massacre? In answer, he raised his arm to stop the tanks in the exact way I remember it. He, too, has remembered the message the way I did. Isn’t that interesting?

Omar and his family are ok. He told me not to worry.

“How far away from Gaza are you?” I asked, since I recall he lives near Hebron, toward the east side of Israel/Palestine.

“50 km,” he answered. Or roughly 31 miles. Thirty-one miles! It’s such a small country.

30 miles from bombing, murdering, terror. He must be able to HEAR it, or at least hear the aircraft. How does one get up in the morning and go to work, pick up groceries, celebrate a child’s birthday…in an environment like that? I can’t even imagine. I am in tears just thinking about it.

I feel ignorant being exposed to both sides – my Palestinian and Israeli friends from Brandeis telling me different perspectives – yet I still know so little. However, it seems clearly off balance. I feel that if my family was trapped behind a wall some other country built around us, and lived in poverty, and in fear of the tanks on a nearby hill…  I am certain that in time my desperation would cause me to react violently in the way that some Palestinians have. And I’d like to believe I am a pacifist!

It is not fair that some Israelis cry that the reactionary violence is “terrorism,” because from my perspective, it looks like Palestinians are oppressed. Oppression is terrorism.

One of my many guises

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