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Classroom of adult VFW students in a hotel conference room.

October 2018 I stopped working at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Can you believe it’s been a year?! I applied for retirement, and my employer officially terminated me February 2019. The retirement was approved in June. Retirement paychecks began arriving in August.

Needless to say, before it all got worked out, I was nervous about how to survive while I waited (and supported Tara, still at college in Corvallis). A previous co-worker dropped my name to someone hoping to hire, and I got a job as a contract teacher! How exciting! I taught during one week in September, and will teach again during one week in November. The students are employees of Veterans of Foreign Wars, commonly called VFW. These people spend a lot of time assisting veterans applying for VA benefits, so the hiring manager told me that ideally they like to hire people who recently left VA, because those people are current on the VA climate.

And with me, they get an enthusiastic VA Cheerleader!

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They told me what my topic would be, and how much time I had, and how many students I would have, and the dates I would be teaching. They said they needed a powerpoint presentation, handouts, exercises, and test questions. Then I went to work. VFW bought my plane ticket and my hotel room, and paid me for my work. It’s a great opportunity. How much fun it is to be a contract worker – I had never even thought of this opportunity for myself before.

I was very, very nervous before I actually taught my first class. I had never been in the environment before, didn’t know the audience, didn’t know the format, didn’t know the area, etcetera, etcetera. But I am great in front of people. Though I only slept about 45 minutes the night before, by the end of my first hour teaching, I was fine, and completely in my element. I am good at this. The student reviews were good, the feedback from the hiring manager was good. I managed to address a problem with time right away and it worked great. The students were experienced employees who should already know the material, and they were engaged, open, willing to do the exercises, willing to share their experience and also to ask questions. They were encouraging and supportive and funny.

The view out my hotel window, of the pool closed for the season. Downstairs were the classrooms, as well as a restaurant. If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have to leave the building for 5 days.

Typical hotel conference room classroom.

Another conference room classroom. My point with these photos is only to elicit common memories from people who have been in these rooms before!! It’s so ugly and potentially so boring!!

VFW has annual training requirements. After talking with a lot of these experienced employees, I saw that many of them are eager to receive this training. In their level of experience, these classes are mostly updates (law changes, court cases recently decided, refresher training), and so it’s not new information, but a reinforcement of what they already know. I was grateful for their great attitudes and eagerness to hear what I had to say.

The students are also a lot of fun. I bumped into a guy who lived in Idaho near where I lived. We shared memories of tiny rural communities that most people have never heard of. He and a friend of his invited me to make the 3 1/2 mile walk into the city of Annapolis, one day after class. I had never seen the town and they insisted I would love it. Though it was autumn back home in Rainier, it was still summer and hot in Annapolis – yay!! We held a quick pace and it felt great to move after too much time inside the hotel.

What the what? Yes, that’s a cemetery in the median.

My companions explained to me that when the road was put in, graves were exhumed when necessary. All the graves in this center strip were left alone. But how to get there safely?!

I realized Annapolis must be a real New England town, and I began appreciating the buildings.

Don’t you love buildings created to fill awkward spaces?

Wall art always catches my eye..

Finally we reached a place where we could see the sea at the bottom of the hill. What a pretty town Annapolis is.

It was the end of the day and we had just worked up an appetite. One of my companions said that the last time she was here she had stumbled upon a place serving fresh crab cakes and she wanted to go there for dinner. Of course we did too! It was a no-nonsense crab cafe, and the crab cakes were enormous and reasonably priced ($17 for 1/2 pound of meat). While we sat there, other VFW people showed up, which was fun. After eating, we decided to continue to explore the town.

This was officially a “sandwich,” but I ordered mine without the bread. The plate is blackened from decades of use, I imagine.

We found a hat shop and tried on hats. I never wear hats and didn’t buy any.

If I did wear a hat, I might look like this!

We were only a few steps from the waterfront, so the three of us walked around in the lovely warm evening and watched the sun go down over the water of the Chesapeake Bay.

Annapolis waterfront.

Sunset in Annapolis Harbor.

All three of us are prior military, and the US Naval Academy was right next to us. We happened to have on us the ID that would get us through the gates, so off we went. It was getting pretty dark but we were awake and ready to explore some more. With little trouble and no questions, we were allowed onto the base where we began looking at statues and entering interesting buildings.

The Naval Academy Chapel, completed in 1908, is due some repairs. The famous patina green dome will be replaced with a new copper dome that will take 20 years to turn green again.

This one looked promising as we walked up to it.

And yes, it was enormous and gorgeous inside. Dahlgren Hall was once used as an armory, but tonight there were cadets learning to swing dance.

With a sort of mini-museum there at one end.

Ship accoutrements.

Inside Lejeune Hall.

We explored different statues on campus that my friends could tell me about (they were way more in touch with Naval Academy tradition than me). One of them knew a senior cadet and texted him, and he came out to greet us and we stood in the dark courtyard chatting for some time before he had to go. We also entered Lejeune Hall, which holds an olympic sized pool, a “diving well,” boxing and wrestling arenas, and of course, a classroom. From the hallways up above, we could look down onto the cadets in swim training.

Navy mascot is Bill the Goat

Cadets in uniform move quickly through the night, returning to Bancroft Hall after classes.

Wins lauded in Army-Navy contests.

Cadets hard at work in the pool in Lejeune Hall.

My new friends wanted to end the night with a pint, and I couldn’t think why not. I had a coupla’ Guinness as a nod to my trip to Ireland with Tara earlier this year. Rather than make the very long walk home after two pints, my new friends called us an Uber and I was soon winding down, thinking about how soon the alarm clock was going to ring…

 

I came across this old post and found that it still resonates with me. Written in 2007, this was a few weeks into my current employment with the Department of Veterans Affairs…so some of my perspectives here lack the education I have today. It is a good snapshot of how I was feeling eight years ago, just coming out of Brandeis University, and not connected to the military community at all, like I am now. Guilt for not having served in a combat zone continues to be a topic that comes up between myself and veteran friends.

Conscious Engagement

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War. Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

It’s sad to admit, but I was almost going to leave out the “Gulf War” part of the title, because I didn’t want to trigger any negative responses. The word veteran is pretty easily used among my friends, and we say how proud we are of veterans. But “that damn war” is a different topic altogether.

Of course, no one blames the soldiers. They are the ones dying. And their families are the ones suffering for the loss of the youth and strength of their loved ones. As one friend reminded me, the ones who don’t die have a more difficult battle: coming home scarred. Missing limbs, unexplained ailments from the desert, gone wrong in the head. There is radiation poisoning from depleted uranium that gets passed down to their kids. There…

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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.

Happy girl with a fish

My T caught the second fish of the day. In fact, she caught one of only about five fish brought in all day. I hooked two fish, but they spit out the fly before I could get them to land. It wasn’t the best day to catch fish, but it was a good day to go fishing.

Lake Margaret

T and I had a hard time finding Lake Margaret, but it did not bother us to be tooling around the black curves arching over the green hills, because we drove through some gorgeous rural Oregon. The sun took turns with the stratocumulus today, and everything was bursting in bloom with green backdrops. We dropped through Oregon City and continued on south out into the boonies. It’s a private lake, and not marked, which is why we had such a hard time finding it.

getting the hang of it

getting the hang of it

The Healing Waters group showed up, as well as the volunteer experts who were there to teach us newbies how to fish. It didn’t take us too long to get it figured out, and I was grateful for Bill, the guy who worked with me today. Bill had never volunteered with the group before, and I had never fly fished, so we were a winning team.

yellow line

I had hoped to try out one of the flies I tied, but never got around to it. Learning to cast actually requires a lot of concentration, and I spent several hours working on trying to get the line and my limbs all coordinated.

bonding with wildlife

My daughter enjoyed the trainer who worked with her as well – a man who had most of his experience teaching young people, so he was perfect to work with her. By the time we were shooed off the property, Miss T wasn’t very eager to go.

All our gear was donated, and lunch was free. What a great day put together for us by Disabled American Vets and Project Healing Waters.

flies I tied

Lookit what I did today! I tied my very first fly. And my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth. Above are the flies I tied, and below are the flies they sent me home with.  My instructor, Bob, was 71 and was an awesome teacher! Bob gave me all the flies he tied, and Jay from DAV tossed me one, and so did Rob, a fly fishing guide. I started out clumsy and got better. I’m hoping that’s how the casting lesson goes on the 14th at Lake Margaret, south of Oregon City.

It’s a program for vets called Project Healing Waters. It’s designed for disabled veterans and active duty military members. They hold fly-tying workshops taught by volunteers and then sponsor fishing outings. The supplies are all donated and so are the expenses of the outings, so veterans do not have to spend money to find the peace they offer.

lots of chances to get tangled up in the bushes

I attended a workshop today at the Veterans Administration Vancouver campus, which is a really beautiful place. It poured rain all day long and I had not been in Vancouver since I was a kid (besides driving through on I-5), so I was rather nervous. But I made it up there just fine, and on time, and found the place without getting too soaked.

It did meet some of my expectations. As in: I was the only female to show up, and I was probably the only person under 65. But hey, that’s ok. I needed to shake my life up a bit to get my head out of my worries and focus on something else. So watching these old guys have a good time was fun.

I couldn’t help but think of my dad who is the only fly fisherman I know. Memories pulled me back in time, when I recalled standing out on the wide, rocky beaches, watching his line fly so far back and so far forward. Back and forth and back, and then dropping silently onto the surface of the river. For a few minutes I was in my homeland from far, far into my past.

I spent six years of my childhood living on the North Umpqua River. We were part of the now defunct Steamboat Ranger Station, across the river from the Steamboat Inn, and the lovely lovely owners and friends, Jim and Sharon VanLoan. Hard to believe it has taken me this long to learn to tie a fly, when I grew up on some of the most coveted Salmon fly fishing riverbanks in the world.

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

It’s sad to admit, but I was almost going to leave out the “Gulf War” part of the title, because I didn’t want to trigger any negative responses. The word veteran is pretty easily used among my friends, and we say how proud we are of veterans. But “that damn war” is a different topic altogether.

Of course, no one blames the soldiers. They are the ones dying. And their families are the ones suffering for the loss of the youth and strength of their loved ones. As one friend reminded me, the ones who don’t die have a more difficult battle: coming home scarred. Missing limbs, unexplained ailments from the desert, gone wrong in the head. There is radiation poisoning from depleted uranium that gets passed down to their kids. There is traumatic brain injury.

This does not describe every veteran. Many odd vets are like me. I don’t have physical scars, yet I’m burdened with conflicts. I am proud to have served my country. Proud to have sacrificed some comfort and some personal freedom in order to be at the President’s beck and call to answer some future unknown summons and do the job I was trained to do. It’s a proud calling. It’s just that, among civilians and military both, my calling was support staff. I wasn’t in the battle. I worked in weather, ensuring that the aircraft could take off and land safely. A critical part of every operation is support staff…but support staff (in any possible meaning of the word) are rarely lauded as they deserve to be.

Out of frustration of the pressure of this social inadequacy, I and other members of my unit volunteered to be sent directly to the desert sands, at the onset of Operation Desert Shield in August of 1990. Our offers were rejected because our mission at that time was too important for us to be let go. We were in Alaska, and our mission was support of the Star Wars program (it has since been declassified, so I can tell you and I don’t have to take you out, heh heh).

But the thing that sticks with me is the idea that our image of ourselves: “defenders of the country,” prompted us to volunteer to be sent directly into battle, rather than stay safe in Alaska. Isn’t that curious?

Then there is the civilian side of it. I just came from years at a University: not the best place for solider support. People asked me how I could agree to become a soldier when it meant that I could have to kill others. People asked me how I could agree to support the Air Force when I believed that war didn’t solve problems. Didn’t I ask all these moral questions of myself before I joined?

Well, actually, no. I believe in my country. I had committed myself to the support of my nation, and committed myself to obeying orders as I was trained to do. I didn’t think about politics, or morals, or peace tactics vs. war tactics. It was simple and elegant: I wanted to give of myself to the country I loved and was proud of. I left it up to my superiors to decide what should be done with me.

I did not ask moral questions when I volunteered to join the Persian Gulf conflict. I was a member of the US armed forces. My country was at war. I saw myself as a warrior, and I felt impotent while stuck in Alaska observing weather for secret spy missions to Russia. The mindset is hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself.

McCormick & Schmick’s is a seafood restaurant that – at least locally – offered up free dinners to veterans last night. My partner and I went to sample the fare, but sampled more of the atmosphere than we were expecting. The place was jammed with members of the 187th Helicopter Company, Vietnam Vets and their spouses. I met a woman with the 187th group in the bathroom who was visiting from Texas. I asked if she was a veteran. “No, I’m with my husband-” she began. Then she said, “Yes. I am a veteran. I stayed home all by myself and raised 5 kids!” I saw her point. “You served your time,” I affirmed.

I am glad that our nation stands behind our soldiers now better than we did during the Vietnam War.

It feels like there is a persistent collective recollection of how we further injured returning Vietnam Vets by taking out our political frustration on them. Americans are careful not to do it openly anymore. But… I can see the confusion lingers with us still. While we do not spit on vets any more, many of us have unvented anger. Many Americans are frustrated about the war, and have no one else to engage with. Washington authority is this Wizard of Oz idea, mystical and powerful and unattainable. Returning vets ARE attainable, sitting in a University class for example.

My message here is getting to be about as convoluted as my feelings. But the final point I’ll come back to is this: aside from all the anxiety I feel about the war we are in that I don’t believe in, and aside from the strange sense of shame I feel for having been a soldier but not having been in a battle, and aside from the pure anger I feel about how our military is a perfect hegemonic weapon to keep the weak and poor down while buoying the strong and rich, I am proud to have served. I am proud to have been a solider who supported Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I love my country fiercely, and I have done something about it.

One of my many guises

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