Back to the Veterans Administration, part 2: Entering the system

I left you, my dear readers, hanging with my last post.  When we last connected I was about to go to my first live and in-person post-retirement Veterans Administration engagement.  After months of waiting for a call that never came I shouldered the responsibility for my own situation and, after more than a few phone calls, set up an appointment to become a customer of the VA.

The instructions were simple enough.  I was directed to arrive at the local VA clinic at ten in the morning, and upon my arrival I would be meeting up with the Benefits and Enrollment specialist.

So arrive I did, right on time.  I walked into the lobby of the recently built and still sparkly building and sauntered up to the reception desk.  To my chagrin, there was no one at the desk, so I rather aimlessly just leaned on the counter until somebody arrived.  There were two chairs behind the desk after all, and they looked recently abandoned.

After a few minutes of pointless leaning I decided to find someone who could help me.  I wandered past the reception desk and into the halls beyond.  After walking from one side of the building to the other in hopes of randomly finding the office I was looking for I gave in and asked an employee (whom was readily identifiable by her hospital scrubs and prominently displayed VA Identification badge) for help.

“Go to the lobby and check in with the girl up front,” said she.

After explaining the absence of said girl, the employee shrugged and pointed back the way I came.  “Just go back to the lobby. Someone will call for you.”

I was not particularly optimistic that said calling would occur, but I meekly headed back to the lobby anyway.  Joining a few other patient souls in the chairs that ringed the perimeter of the room, I found a copy of Time Magazine from the previous year to fill my time as I waited for the call that I was not certain would come.

After ten minutes of reading about Time Magazine’s view of the world circa October 2011, a door that previously gone unnoticed burst open.  An energetic gentleman with short graying hair and an startlingly positive outlook on life fairly leapt onto the scene and immediately started asking each of us in the lobby why we were there.

After a staccato interchange between the people sitting next to me, he turned in my direction and asked if he could help me.  I explained that I was there to meet with the enrollment section.  He smiled and said “That’s ME!” and pointed me towards the still-open door and one of the vacant offices on the other side.  “Take a seat, I’ll be right there.”

So in I went, clutching my sheaf of medical records and other documents, wary to see what would happen next.

John, as I learned his name to be, had obviously introduced a few people to the VA system before I showed up.  Probably thousands of people.  He had it down!  He handed me a sixteen page long questionnaire to fill out and began firing questions at me faster than a belt fed machine gun.

“Retired?”  “Yep.

“How long were you in?”  “Twenty seven years.”

“Social?”  (As in what was my social security number, which is the key that opens my files in pretty much every government database).  I gave him my precious nine digits.

“Marine?”  “Yep.”

“What did you do in the Marines?”  “Where do you live?”  “Do you have TRICARE?”

Each question was accompanied by his furious banging on the computer keyboard as he entered my information into the computer.  I was trying to complete the form as he talked, which he noticed.

“Don’t worry about that right now.  That is for the social worker, who I will introduce you to in a few minutes.”

Social worker?  Really?  What was that all about?

“For now, let’s just get you in the system…”and from there we were off on a journey of questions and answers that lasted ten or fifteen minutes.  I won’t subject you to the lengthy details, but here is a rundown of the pertinent ones for those of you who will be headed to the VA:

– The difference between TRICARE and the VA.  He patiently explained that TRICARE is insurance, and the VA provides traditional medical care, just like your regular family physician.  While that statement sounds obvious, the ramifications are significant.   If you are injured in an accident or have an emergency away from your normal VA provider, TRICARE takes care of it because that is what insurance is for.  The VA is not insurance, so you would be in trouble when the bills came due for emergency treatment because the VA does not pay for such events because the VA is not insurance.  Kapisch?

– Online enrollment.  I had previously enrolled into the VA healthcare system because they had thoughtfully sent me an email several months ago.  The email, which suspiciously looked like spam (but wasn’t) encouraged me to register via the VA website by following this link:  I filled out the form, and I am glad that I did because it reduced the amount of time I spent with with the enrollment specialist by at least half.

– The Packet.  The sixteen page packet that he handed me was the OIF/OEF/OND (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn) enrollment questionnaire.  In a nutshell, it was a long questionnaire that asked a lot of questions about my mental health, combat experiences, and exposure to traumatic brain injury (TBI).  The form would be used by my social worker.  More on that later.

– Explanation of how the clinic works.  This particular clinic is divided into three teams (Red, White, and Blue…pretty catchy!) and each team had a staff of its own.  In my case I became a member of Team White, and with my assignment came my choice of primary healthcare providers.  Since I did not know any of the doctors personally, I happily chose the one with the next available appointment time (which happened to be a month away).

– My first appointment with the doctor would be a “welcome aboard” type of physical examination, and I would be required to visit the lab and submit various bodily fluids beforehand.  Joy.

– Appointments.  In order to set up an appointment, I would not be allowed to call the doctor or the clinic directly.  I must call central appointments (via a 1-800 number) in order to contact someone at the clinic.  That is pretty much the same as life in uniform, so it wasn’t a shock, but it is annoying.  If I want to ask the doctor about a medication, for example, I need to call central appointments and leave a message for him.  Then, when he gets the message and has the time, he is supposed to call back.  I hope I don’t have any time critical severe allergic reactions!

-ID Card.  Towards the end of the interview he announced that it was time for me to get my VA ID.  I sat up straight and looked at the camera that was mounted above his computer screen, and when he said smile I did so.  In a week or two my card should show up in the mail, and then I will know just how stupid I look.  No second chance for a new picture!

As soon as John was done with me he guided me to another office and introduced me to a very nice woman who would be my social worker.  She asked if I had completed my form, and as I had not she gestured for me to take a seat and fill it out.

I did so, and after ten minutes of scribbling I knocked on her door.  She invited me in, and after taking the sheaf of papers from my clutches she began her own interview.

Now, you should understand that this is probably the first time in my life that I have ever been in a room with a social worker.  I have met people in that line of work in the past, but never have I actually been professionally engaged by one.  Honestly, I had no idea what social workers actually did, but after spending a half hour with a pro I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they fit a niche that is needed in the VA: helping veterans who are having difficulty transitioning back to the civilian world deal with the often confusing processes that come with  the title “veteran”, not to mention little things like PTSD, TBI, and other psychological issues.

At any rate, she had the unenviable task of manually inputting the responses I scribbled on my questionnaire into the computer database.  Obviously some parts of the VA could use a little modernization, but she explained that she actually got more out of re-inputting the data because she could interact with the client (me, in this case) and flesh out her perspective on the information.  This is important because she was evaluating things with real impacts on veterans, such as combat stress problems and indicators of violence, self harm, and suicide.  She was there to make sure that we, the combat veterans, were looked at objectively and offered the appropriate levels of care.

After an hour or so spent chatting with the social worker, she led me to the appointment desk at the combat stress clinic.  The results of my survey indicated that meeting with them would be a good idea, and to be honest I believe it is a place that all combat veterans need to visit.  The wars of the last decade have seen an unprecedented  level of stress on the military forces, with many veterans deploying to war time and again, and then again, and again.  The frantic deployment tempo means that many veterans bring issues and problems home, and the VA is there to help deal with them.  Going to the clinic is the first step along the way to getting better, and whether you think you need it or not you should stop by.

So now I am officially in the VA system, and I have several appointments in the future that I will tell you all about.  Stay tuned!


Lessons Learned:

1.  After your claim settled, either partially or in full, you should be receiving an email inviting you to enroll in the VA via their website.  Initially I thought the email was spam, but after several attempts I finally paid attention and registered.  Doing so greatly streamlined my in-person registration process.  As an aside, they used the email address that I provided months earlier as I was transitioning out, so it behooves you to make sure that you provide an address that you will utilize for a long time to come.

2.  The VA is just like every other government bureaucracy.  Get ready to do some things twice, and if your are lucky, three times or more.  It is just the way it is.  Suck it up and march on.

3.  It will help for you to bring whatever documentation from the VA you have accumulated thus far.  I recommend that you buy a pocket folder or folio to keep everything in.  Even better, get yourself a dedicated filing system for all of the stuff that you are amassing because if you don’t you will end up with a disorganized pile of documents approaching the stature of the Eiffel tower.  If you don’t believe me, just look at the pile next to my desk at home.



4 responses to “Back to the Veterans Administration, part 2: Entering the system

  1. Thanks Mike. I hope you are working on a book. As I begin to think more about my own transition (time TBD but not too far off), I hope to learn from your exeriences and I very much appreciate you continuing to take care of Marines and others. Your superior leadership continues. S/f, GREG

    • Greg,
      Thanks for reading my blog and commenting! I am indeed writing a book that brings this blog and other transition related info together. It is currently under review at the US Naval Institute’s publishing branch. Hopefully they find it an acceptable candidate for publication. I am glad it helps! Keep reading, and thanks again!

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