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This pin acknowledges my time as a public servant in the Air Force, as a NOAA weather forecaster, and as a Decision Review Officer with VA. I am proud to have been able to give so much to my country.

While texting a friend last night about his career as a musician, he said he has been overcoming challenges and right now is focused on manifesting something much better.

This morning I got the email reminder that my Leave and Earnings statement from my federal government job is now available for review on the .mil website. It’s the one I’ve been worried about, and it took me a while to open up the website and take a look. With relief, I see that it was the best I could have hoped for, which is 73% of what I usually receive. It means that I was credited every last hour of vacation leave and sick leave I had left. Until now, I wasn’t sure if there were any wonky rules that would end up restricting use of some of those hours. But yes, I was paid for it all.

While Human Resources helps me through the paperwork, I am now in Leave Without Pay status. It makes me anxious. Today I received my last paycheck from VA. I’ve been questioning myself over and over and over: what the heck am I doing? Trulove, are you crazy?!

My job at Department of Veterans Affairs is stressful, and I may have expressed it now and then over the ten years I have been blogging. They do not manage people well, and it is hard on employees. The government takes forever to fix a problem, and that is only after they’ve taken forever to even admit there is a problem. VA has not yet realized, as an agency, that it doesn’t manage people well. Clearly the fix is not going to happen soon enough for me.

With the new White House Administration, the screws have been tightened more than ever before, and our managers are being squashed under unrealistic demands and expectations. It trickles down even though many managers try to shield us.

On a personal level, I have been struggling more than usual. I have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to multiple sexual traumas in the military. Since my job requires reading medical records of veterans so that I can make decisions about benefits, I’m reminded often of my own trauma. There is a case on my desk with someone who has PTSD every single day. It’s that common.

October 2017 sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein exploded into the #metoo and #timesup movements. I wrote, at that time, about how I can feel this kind of news story in a physical way. A jab in the stomach every time I hear the news. It has literally been in the news every single day for a year.

Beginning October 2017 my performance at work began to decline, and it just got worse. My managers had to get creative to protect me from getting fired due to my mistakes. A month ago, I hit a wall and could not go back. The combination of everything spent my resources and I couldn’t get out of bed. I have not gone back to the office. That explains why I used up every last hour of paid time off.

So here I am.

FYI, I can afford this for right now. I have talked with my financial advisor, and it’s ok for awhile. Tara can stay in college. I can make plans without time pressure. It’s a relief.

And I’m doing better. I’ve been sleeping through the night, which I think is the same as medication. I’m painting much more. I’ve had time to visit friends. I’m working on my photobook for my trip to Myanmar. These are the things that fill the fuel tank rather than drain it.

The surge of anxiety this morning with the notice that I just received my last paycheck was the most anxiety I’ve felt for a couple weeks. It feels normal to get anxious now and then over some scary news, instead of anxious every day.

A few hours ago I sat at my computer, carefully updating my financial spreadsheets, and worrying about future unknown expenses. The words from my musician friend came back to me and I realized he had given me the emotional boost I needed today. As scary as change is, I am doing a good thing. I am manifesting something much better, though I don’t yet know what that is.

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.

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki's coin

Shinseki’s coin

VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) ran out of money at close of business Monday. I work for VBA, which is not VHA.

VHA (Veterans Health Administration) is funded under a different system, which means they already have FY 2014 dollars. So hospitals, clinics, and other VA-funded health centers will continue operations without fear of running out of appropriated funds.

At my workplace, then, operations continued under normal conditions through Monday. Tuesday morning, however, people were called one at a time into their supervisors’ offices, and presented with either a furlough letter, or an excepted letter. Most of us at VBA are excepted from furlough. The two categories are drastically different. Furloughed employees were sent directly home. They were not allowed to dally, not allowed to finish up what they were working on, not allowed to use VA equipment at work or at home, not allowed to work at all…not even if they agree to do it on a volunteer basis. Excepted employees must work. They are not allowed to take time off, even previously approved time off.

No one gets paid.

We are told that excepted employees will get back pay, and that furloughed employees may or may not get back pay, depending on what Congress decides to do. IMHO Congress will not vote ‘yes’ to deny a paycheck to hundreds of thousands of federal employees. As unbalanced and unfair a painting as it may be, I can’t help but paint a picture in my mind of two categories of federal employees: those working for free, and those on paid vacation.

It was 1995 when I went through this the last time. I was a forecaster with the National Weather Service back then. As an employee whose mission statement was the “protection of life and property,” I felt -a little miffed- but mostly proud to be facing the political storm with a brave face and serving my country. As a nation we MUST keep abreast of the weather situation. Knowing the weather is critical to public safety, to agriculture, to commerce, to wildland management, fisheries…. ok…sorry. My point is, when I helped my team to forecast the weather, it was obvious that I needed to be there.

This time around, I don’t feel the same kind of calling. Yes, taking care of veterans is a job to be proud of, but this is not the same as protection of life and property. It’s deciding who is entitled to benefits checks. The veterans already receiving checks will continue to receive them, but my job is to decide if more people should get checks, or if those checks should be in greater or lesser amounts. Remember VA healthcare is not in jeopardy right now. If a vet is sick, she can go to the hospital.

Working during a government shut down doesn’t feel very noble this time.

Not when I compare it to other jobs in terms of who is Mission Critical. FEMA was sent home. I can hardly believe it was successfully argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is less important to our nation than paying somebody $129 a month because their ears were damaged while working on the flight deck. Honestly, I’d be glad to forfeit my $129 till next month if we could send FEMA back to work.

I’ve been trying to discover why I feel so sour about this, and I suspect it’s because I don’t want to go to work. I am dying for a break. It’s a hard place to work, with constant production pressure (each veteran’s claim is a point, and we must earn so many points per day, without making mistakes, in order to keep our job), no end in sight (something like 13,000 pending claims in the state of Oregon), media harassment (the backlog!), and mandatory overtime on top of all of that. The government shut down means all of that is still true AND we aren’t getting paid.

Motivation in this girl is about as low as it gets.

The bright side is that during a government shut down there is no mandatory overtime! Woo hoo!

The bright side is that I love my co-workers and my supervisor, and even the veterans (many of us ARE veterans), and we are all in this together.

The bright side is that I cashed out a certificate of deposit, so I have enough money to get by for at least a month.

The bright side is that I live in the United States of America, and even though my Congresswomen and men are behaving like second-graders and I am embarrassed for this to be witnessed by the rest of the world…I can say to them, “You people are a bunch of effing idiots!” outloud, and in public, and I won’t go to jail for it.

Today the number 117 is my lucky number. As I was coming home after errands this morning, I glanced at my odometer for probably the first time in three weeks, and it said “117117”. Funny. What are the odds of a pattern showing up right at that moment? I decided it was because 117 is my lucky number today, and that is the Universe showing me. So I’ll be on the lookout…

growing puppies

Puppies have their eyes open now. Their fur is furrier, and they are peeping instead of mewing. I should be blessing the days when they don’t know how to yelp yet.

I’ve been taking my daughter to school early to meet her other Junior Girl Scout friends to help the kids find their way off the busses and into their new classrooms. It’s so fun to watch the girls play together. They are at an age where they want to express their individuality and their maturity.  … and then they run back to their parents for hugs… then run back to their friends. These kids are a delight to watch.

Junior Girl Scouts having a blast

The local Boy Scouts were also out there leading kids to their classrooms, and it was fun to see the different ways the boys handled it than the girls. It could merely be a result of the atmosphere of their group in general, and their group leaders. The girls would eagerly place themselves in the best location, stand politely at attention, and wait for an adult leader to call them over to help. The boys would walk right up the steps to the kids coming off the bus, take hold of their arms and pull them gently aside and ask “Do you need help finding your classroom?” Come to think of it, the Boy Scout parents stood out of the way, but the Girl Scout moms wanted to be the first on the buses, and the ones orchestrating the flow. I’ll bet that explains the kids different behaviors.

tram to the hospital

Then I had to give some of my blood to the VA. Yep, my doctor told me that I’m getting into middle age, and they want to have a record of my healthy blood to have something to compare to when I start getting sick. Yay. I love it when someone is able to just tell me I’m getting old.

*sigh.*

The Veteran’s Hospital is on top of a mountain in Portland. It’s a gorgeous location, and surrounded by park. Portland has the only public transportation system I’ve ever heard of that includes a tram. Yep – just like the bus or the metro – just buy a ticket and get on the aerial tram to take you to the top of the hill.

It was a good morning. Now I’m going to apply for jobs again – whee!! It’s actually cool that I haven’t been employed yet, because I have been able to do the Junior Girl Scout thing. It’s all good. The job that is just exactly what I need is out there. Maybe I should start checking businesses with 117 in their address.

Lots of love! (can you tell I got some sleep last night?!! ha ha!)

One of my many guises

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