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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.

Park in Kumamoto

Park in Kumamoto

I have continued my busy life at a pace that seems sometimes unsustainable. I have caught myself looking back into the past, at times when I thought I was busy, and wishing for only that level of activity. I do need to schedule in some peace.

My Great Uncle Loren died a little over a week ago. I took Saturday to drive to Springfield to be with Great Aunt Nealie for a few hours. It was all I could spare (4 hours of driving plus 4 hours of visiting = day used up), and I hope it did some good. Sunday afternoon I spent with Arno, because we hadn’t seen each other for a week, and it’s so important to keep a relationship strong by being physically in each other’s presence when it can be arranged. (We’ve taken to calling the 60 miles that separate us the “6000 miles,” because sometimes that’s what it feels like.) Monday was a federal holiday, so I went out to see Grandma Trulove in the town of Sandy. Thankfully, she’s only an hour away in good traffic. I have a standing date to spend federal holidays with Grandma. At 92 years old, she’s earned my time.

Tara’s been working her athlete’s butt off every night, getting ready for a Choreographer’s Showcase this weekend, plus getting ready for the big Spring performance, Coppelia, that began rehearsals and meetings this week. All week long, I was working extra hours (don’t tell anyone: I work for the government and it’s not allowed), trying to get my bean count up. Numbers, numbers, numbers. It’s all our lives revolve around there. Then after work, I made the commitment to stay awake till my kid got home from ballet practice, make sure she got a healthy dinner into her, then gently push her toward homework (by this time it’s 9 pm, which is typically her bedtime, but I am forced to make an exception this week) before stumbling into my own preparations for sleep.

The funeral was this Saturday, only Arno had stayed the night and (as a result of the tremendous pressures at his own job because they have been working toward an important deadline) around 3 am got the worst migraine headache I have ever witnessed in a person – vomiting for hours. Wow. Awful. So I missed the funeral to take care of him. He took a nap at one point and I was able to begin page design on my Japan photobook. I am going to use the photo above for the cover. I sent my girlie out the door at 9:30am, and she didn’t get home till 9pm. What a trooper. The good news is, I had time to make a dessert to contribute to the ballet studio open house, and attend the Choreographer’s Showcase  last night.

But I still have things to do with Aunt Nealie (lots of VA paperwork I can help her submit), and I still have family members in Springfield I’d like to meet up with. So, I will take today and go down to Spring field a day late, and do what I can. I hope to get home in time to make a healthy dinner for my daughter, check in to see how much studying for finals she managed to do on her one day’s rest from school and ballet, and find 5 minutes of peace to get myself mentally prepared for Monday morning.

Maybe it sounds just like any other Soccer Mom lifestyle, but I want more. I don’t want to be always trapped in things I must do because I’m responsible. When do I finish writing my book? When do I finish editing the photobook and submit the software to the publisher? When do I pull out my oil paints and remember how to lay paint on canvas? I find unexpected bursts of time here and there, when I can do something to feed my peace-hungry soul: I take care of my sick man, I listen and encourage Miss T to rave about what a great group of girls she dances with. Tara and I even blow off dishes and homework sometimes and watch half a movie (it’s all we have time for).

I haven’t made a New Year’s Resolution yet. Maybe this is what I need to focus on: make time for peace.

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