Nearing the end of the VA claims tunnel…

Well, the big day is nearly here.

Which big day, you ask?

Why, the day when my VA Disability claim finally gets decided.  That day!

You see, I have been going back and forth with the VA for over a year and a half now, and after a lot of trials and tribulations it looks like my case file may have reached the last step on the journey to adjudication.  It is now “Ready for Decision”, which means that all of the required examinations have been completed, all of the paperwork filled out, and all of the supporting documentary evidence has been gathered.

As I wrote a few posts ago, I had initiated another inquiry into the status of my claim because it had stalled after my last round of physical exams.  Today I received an email from the VA explaining just what was up with my case just as they promised.  The system works!  I asked for information and they provided it within the timeline that was promised.  Sweet!

From the email:

Your claim has been determined as Ready For Decision, and as such there is no further update pending. You will receive a notification letter and rating decision copy via US Mail once our decision is complete.

You have not received a rating decision because there is a back log of claims in the same status, and your claim is pending a review and determination by your rating specialists case manager.

Barring any determination by the rating specialists responsible for your claim that additional information may be needed, your next update will be your actual notification letter and rating decision. At this time we do not know the time frame for completion until your case manager begins the process of rating your claim; this will be accomplished in an order based on date of receipt, in fairness to all claimants.

• Please be advised that we do not provide estimates for completion, as there are a multitude of factors that impact the speed at which each claim is rated, making it impossible to estimate said date. 

We can appreciate your desire to have your claim rated; please know that we are working to accommodate your desire in conjunction with that of each and every other claimant seeking completion of their claim.

We appreciate your continued patience during the process, and will inform you of our decision as soon as it has been accomplished.

So, in a nutshell, my case is resting on desk of the team which will determine my disability rating.

All I have to do is wait.

I wonder how long this stage will take?


The tragic loss of a great friend to all veterans: A Goodbye to James Gandolfini

Yesterday, in Rome, a great friend and supporter of the military and of veterans passed away.  James Gandolfini, the iconic actor who redefined the mafioso in cinema and popular culture, died of an apparent heart attack while visiting Italy.

Gandolfini, whose acting performances brought him into the top tier of the industry, was so much more than “just” a brilliantly talented actor.  He was also a compassionate and driven man who cared deeply for the members of the armed services who were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the veterans who rejoined society after hanging up their body armor and combat boots.

His contributions to the military are too numerous to recount here, but there are two of his passionate endeavors that have resonated with me personally.

As an actor, he has been at the top of his game for over a decade.  The roles that he has played and the movies that he has made took a level of dedication and passion and professionalism that would have left a lesser man unable to look past his own career.  Fortunately for me and for all who have served, however, he leveraged the professional capital that he had earned and selflessly gave back to those who were wearing the cloth of the nation.

He used his talents to produce two incredibly powerful documentaries, both of which I found to be moving and staggeringly relevant in a time of seemingly ceaseless war.

In 2007 he produced the documentary “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” in which he told the story of soldiers and Marines who were severely wounded and disabled during their tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  It was not a feel good driveby piece of pseudo-journalism, but instead a heartfelt and heartwrending journey with veterans who had come within an Angel’s breath of dying, yet survived the traumatic violence that robbed them of limbs and, for many of them, hope.  Gandolfini took everyone brave enough to watch inside the lives of those who paid the price of freedom with their arms and legs, and will continue to pay it for the rest of their days.  He pulled back the curtain and showed the tragic realities of war in such impactfully human terms that it brought the cost of war home in an undeniably compelling and emotional way.

Later, in 2010, he produced another powerful documentary about the unseen wounds that affect those who fight in war.  “Wartorn: 1861-2010” drew back the curtain on a different and equally debilitating price that veterans face: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Gandolfini provided a glimpse into the psychological damage that is wrought by war on those who fight it from the Civil War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As with “Alive Day”, the documentary makes the audience not just view the subject, but to feel it in a way that is unforgettable.

Yesterday, June 19th, 2013 was a day like any other except that on that day a great friend to anyone who has ever sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States was taken from the surly bonds of earth.  Although he is no longer with us in body, his spirit joins the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and other giants of entertainment who embraced the military even though they didn’t have to.

He will certainly join the likes of Hope and Crosby on the other side of the Pearly Gates, for as anyone who has ever heard the words to The Marines Hymn knows the gates of heaven are guarded by the United States Marines.

And they always open the way for one of their own.

Semper Fidelis James Gandolfini.  You will be missed.

A continuing test of patience: Yet another update on my VA claim

Well, I woke up early again this morning.  To be honest, I wake up early every morning, but this morning was earlier than most.  I was up at about 0400 (4:00 am for you nonmilitary folks), and the purpose of my early rising was to make yet another call to the Veterans Administration in regards to settlement of my disability claim.  I have learned that the only way to get through to the VA is to call them early before all of the lines are busy and the VA representatives are swamped.

The quick back story for those of you who may not be familiar with the saga of my VA claim, it began in the autumn of 2011 when I was on terminal leave as I was retiring from the Marines.  As a part of my transition from steely eyed killer to middle age and longer grey hair it was necessary for the Veterans Administration to examine me and determine whether or not I had incurred any service related disabilities.

Being rated for disabilities is a big deal because if you have sustained an injury which is chronic or if you have a condition that is directly attributable to your military service, then you are covered medically for that issue by the VA for life.  That is a pretty great benefit these days when you consider skyrocketing medical costs.

So anyhow, I began almost two years ago and have ridden the VA claims rollercoaster ever since.  I was examined and evaluated, and then my paperwork went into the mysterious void that is the VA ratings process.  Some nine months later I received a partial settlement of the claim, with the notification that I needed further evaluations before all of my conditions could be adjudicated.

Six months after that I reported to the clinic for another round of examinations.  At the completion of those exams I was informed that it should take a few weeks to get them into the file and evaluated.

After over two months of fruitless waiting I decided to give them another call, hence my early assault on the coffee pot this morning.

The gentleman I spoke with was very helpful and presented me the facts of my case in a professional and straightforward manner.  It was a very refreshing conversation!

Here is what is up with my case:

My case had run through the initial stages of evidence gathering and evaluation, and had actually made it to the adjudication phase.  It was then that the raters found that they needed more information, so my case was kicked back to gather more evidence that would come from another medical examination of yours truly.

Here is where my stock in the VA representative soared to unprecedented levels because he actually took the time to explain why a second set of exams was needed.  It turns out that when you are treated for an injury or condition, the doctor records the extent of the injury and how it is treated.  That is very relevant information for a health care provider, but the VA disability raters have a different set of responsibilities in terms of medical conditions.  The raters need to compare the injury or condition to a set of standards in order to determine if they are indeed disabling, and if so, just how disabling they are.

The example that the representative shared with me was what is needed for a joint injury (which, after nearly three decades of walking around with heavy things on my back in unseemly places, I had several of).  A doctor wants to cure the patient’s damaged cartilage and bone, and will prescribe medications, physical therapy, and perhaps surgery to alleviate the symptoms and heal the joint.  The VA raters need to know the extent of the damage that the injury or condition has incurred, which is different from trying to cure it.  For a joint injury, the raters need to have a documented range of motion test that the joint is capable of articulating that can be compared to the appropriate standards for a disability determination.  It turns out that very specific information about the condition or injury is necessary in order to rate the disability properly.

So that is why I found myself back in the VA clinic and wearing a modesty-shattering gown and sitting on a chilly paper-covered exam table.

Once the exam was completed, the information was supposed to be sent back to the rater and re-adjudicated in a timely fashion.  Certainly within a couple of months.

After assiduously checking the VA’s ebenefits website for weeks on end and seeing no progress, I decided it was time to pick up the phone and give them a call.

The VA rep was professional and told me the facts of my case as he found them.  He reiterated that my case was still in the gathering evidence phase, but that the results of my most recent examinations had been scanned into my file at the end of March.  The timeline for review of the case is supposed to be less than sixty days, and seeing as it is almost mid-June now that timeline has passed.

The representative offered to initiate an inquiry to the team who is reviewing my case to see what was up, and he said that they will contact me (via email this time) with their response.  Although I have heard that before (from the last inquiry on my case), I will be a glass half full optimist and see if my email inbox “bings” with the sound of an arriving email from the VA.

I won’t hold my breath, but I also won’t complain too much about the VA either.  They really are doing the best that they can in an overwhelming situation as they deal with me and literally millions of other veterans.  I’ll continue to be patient.

And wait.


Leadership and Transition

I am in the middle of writing a series of articles and a book about transition, and about a month ago I created a survey about the military transition process to help gather information on the subject (and if you have not taken it, please do!  I can never get enough data points:  Military Transition Survey).  The survey revealed some very interesting data points, and one struck me as being particularly revealing about how those undergoing transition are viewed and treated by their organizations as they leave the service.

The question was: “How involved was your unit and/or unit leadership in your transition process?”

The answers ranged from “Very Low” to “Very High”.  See if you can guess where the bulk of respondents fell on the scale…

Well, a startlingly low percentage felt that their units were involved in their transition.  Only 8% felt that their unit and their leaders were highly or very highly involved.  For an institution that prides itself on being the gold standard of leadership that is a pretty dismal level of effort.

What is shocking is how poor the involvement was.  15% of respondents selected “Neither High nor Low” (which was the middle of the scale), but a whopping 76% stated that the involvement of their units and leadership was “Low” or “Very Low”.  Ouch!

Upon reading the results I had to think back to my personal experience with transition.  As a leader myself, I had always thought that I had taken care of those in my charge, including those who chose to hang up their uniforms.  After reflecting for a bit I realized that although I was very supportive of their efforts I certainly could have done a whole lot more.

I would sit down and talk with every Marine and Sailor who left my command.  The conversation that we would have varied depending on what was next for them as they departed the unit; if they were transferring to another duty station we would talk about what was in store for them and how it could impact their career and family, and if they were getting out we would have a discussion of where their lives were headed.  I would try to guide and mentor them towards pursuing an education by taking advantage of the GI Bill, and in cases where he had no interest in further education I would try to get them to at least formulate a plan for the way ahead.  After we spoke and shook hands we parted ways.

That was all well and good.  But I could, and should, have have been much more engaged.  As I learned during my transition there was a lot to do after I checked out of my unit, and I was pretty much completely on my own to get it done.  As a leader I should have gone the extra mile and actually followed their progress as they navigated the path of transition, but I didn’t.  I should have gone to the transition assistance classes to see what was being taught and how my Marines and Sailors were being treated, but I didn’t.  Shame on me.

As I discovered out during my own outprocessing there are a lot of bumps in the offramp from military service.  As I transitioned I found the process to be both difficult and annoying, and I was a senior officer with nearly three decades of experience.  If it was hard for me, how tough was it for a young man or woman who served only one tour?

The answer to that question is that it was a lot harder for them than it was for me.  Part of the reason that it was harder is because they were just cast upon the waters of transition without the guidance and oversight that they had experienced during their time in the military.

From the day that they met their recruiter to the day that they decided to leave the military each and every servicemember was under the guidance and tutelage of a concerned leader.  Recruiters prepared them for bootcamp, and their drill instructors molded them into Marines (or Sailors, or Soldiers, or Airmen).  They were trained by professional instructors in their military trades, and became valued parts of units and teams in the operating forces.  They became leaders in their own rights as they progressed up the ranks, and they were always under the wing of those who had been around longer than they had.

Unfortunately, when they decided to get out the concerned leadership of their units disappeared.  They (and I) were no longer valued members of the team, but instead guys and gals who were getting out.  To be fair, there certainly is a lot going on in the military these days with things like combat deployments, training exercises, and everything else that is part of the military experience.  That said, as leaders we failed to be there for the final chapter of military service for 76% of those who transitioned out of the military.

That is truly a shame, and something that should be addressed.  In my humble opinion, the most significant portion of the problem is how the TAP/TAMP and transition process is performed.  Those on the way out are centrally trained for transition, and the centralization of training removes the onus of oversight from the units that they came from.  They are out of sight and out of mind, and as such quickly become forgotten in the churn of daily military life.  The close bonds that they formed with their peers, subordinates, and seniors quickly fade during the time when they need them most: the incredibly stressful and uncertain transition from the all encompassing world that they knew to an ambiguous future in a world that they left years before.

Another telling statistic from the survey is how well the respondents felt that their transition process prepared them for re-entry into civilian life.  Sadly, on 12% felt that they were fully prepared for the jump.  That number should be much higher, and perhaps it would be if leaders were more involved in their people who are transitioning.

How many would have felt more prepared if their leaders had stayed as engaged with them during their last days in uniform as they were in the beginning?

Post from The Decisive Leadership Group about Roles in Successful Crisis Resolution

Since I transitioned from active duty, I have been fortunate to be able to earn my MBA from USC’s Marshall Business School and start my own company, which is called The Decisive Leadership Group.  So, in addition to posting about the wonderful world of military transition I will also be posting some of the things that I write for that site as well.  Here is something that I think applies to everyone:  Roles and Responsibilities in Crisis

Here is the post in case you don’t want to follow the link:

How to Successfully Resolve a Crisis: the Roles in Successful Crisis Resolution (RISCR) Model

By Mike Grice, Founder and President of The Decisive Leadership Group

Every organization experiences crisis, but not every bump in the road does a crisis make. Some crises, such as the sinking of the Titanic, are unique and existential while others, like power outages and supply chain interruptions, are of the small ankle-biter variety and can crop up on a daily basis.  What differentiates a crisis from any other problematic event is the effect that it can have on an organization; if the event is merely an annoyance, simply uncomfortable, or a predictably stressful part of the business then it is not a crisis.  If, however, the situation is both unexpected and threatening to the success of the the person or organization, then it is indeed a crisis.

A true crisis situation consists of three elements:

1)  It is unexpected

2)  It threatens the organization, team, or individual

3)  It requires timely and decisive action in order to be resolved.

At The Decisive Leadership Group we define crisis is an unexpected and threatening situation that requires decisive action to achieve successful resolution.  It doesn’t matter where a critical event occurs — on the assembly line or in the executive suite — because if it meets this definition then it is truly a crisis and it is a situation which requires action on someone’s part to correct.  But how do you know if you are the right person to make the decision?  Are you in the best position to fix the problem?  To help determine what you should do in a critical situation it is helpful to look at a historical case study and learn from the experience of others.  The story of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 is a great example of the roles and responsibilities that are necessary to successfully resolve a crisis:

          Late on a dark and cold December evening in 1972 a shiny and new widebody airliner took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.  Headed for the much warmer and sunnier climate of Florida, the Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 lifted from the runway uneventfully and turned to the south.  Less than half full, the aircraft flew with 176 passengers and crew on board.  The modern three-engine jet had only been in service for four months and the crew that flew her was fully trained and rated to fly the aircraft.

       Captain Bob Loft commanded the flight that evening, with First Officer Albert Stockstill and Second Officer Don Repo filling the co-pilot and flight engineers seats respectively.  Also on the flight deck that evening was Angelo Donadeo, an Eastern Airlines technical officer, who by sheer happenstance sat in the cockpit’s jump seat as he returned home after completing an assignment for the company.  The cabin crew of ten was led by Adrienne Hamilton, an experienced lead flight attendant who led a tight-knit group of attendants as they tended to the passengers.

       Captain Loft was 55 years old, and had amassed nearly 30,000 hours behind the controls of various aircraft during his 30 year career.  With over 5,900 hours in the cockpit, 39 year old First Officer Stockstill was an experienced former Air Force pilot and flight engineer, and Second Officer Repo, age 51,  had almost 16,000 hours in the air.  They were all fully trained and certified to fly the then-new widebody L-1011.  They were a seasoned and experienced crew, flying a new and well maintained aircraft on an otherwise uneventful and routine run from one well established airport to another.

          The flight was routine until the aircraft approached the Miami International Airport.  As the crew prepared to land they went through the procedures necessary to complete the flight.  It was when the landing gear handle was placed in the “down” position, however, that the flight ceased to be typical.  A small green indicator light which would indicate that the aircraft’s nose landing gear was down and locked into landing position failed to illuminate.  The captain re-cycled the landing gear control handle, but the indicator light still remained unlit.

          In accordance with established procedures, the captain asked the Miami control tower for permission to circle the airport in order to get a green light on the landing gear.  At 11:34 pm, seconds after Captain Loft initiated his request, the tower directed the crew to climb to 2000 feet in altitude and to fly out over the Everglades in order to be clear of the landing pattern and to fix the landing gear problem.

          One minute later, at 11:35, the aircraft climbed to an altitude of 2000 feet and headed towards the pitch darkness that marked the Everglades.  A minute after that, copilot Stockstill engaged the autopilot at the direction of Captain Loft and changed the aircraft’s heading in accordance with the Tower’s instructions. 

          At 11:36 the copilot attempted to remove the indicator light’s cover assembly, but it jammed.  Unable to determine whether the indicator was at fault, the captain decided to have the Second Officer visually verify the status of the landing gear, and at 11:37 he directed Don Repo to go into the aircraft’s avionics bay (which contained a window through which the landing gear could be observed) in order to determine whether or not the nose gear was down and locked.  In that same minute of time the tower directed the crew to change their heading again, and the crew complied.  Also in that minute something else happened: as they wrestled with the light cover assembly one of the pilots nudged his control yoke, which despite being on autopilot placed the aircraft into an imperceptible nose-down attitude.  The aircraft, flying at only 2000 feet above the Everglades, began to descend at a rate of 250 feet per minute.

          As the pilot and copilot debated what to do with about the indicator light, the second officer left his station and proceeded to the avionics bay.   While he was gone, at 11:40, an audible “C chord” chime sounded for a half of a second to indicate that the aircraft had deviated from its set altitude by 250 feet.  With the flight engineer station empty and the pilots discussing what to do about the lightbulb, the warning chime’s sounding went unnoticed.

           At 11:41 Repo popped his head back into the cockpit to report that it was too dark for him to see whether the nose gear was in the proper position.  Technical Officer Danadeo then joined the second officer in the avionics bay to see if he could help determine the status of the landing gear.

          Also at 11:41, the tower controller asked how things were going, and in response the crew requested to turn to a new heading.  The request was granted, and at 11:42 the first officer turned to the controls in order to initiate the heading change.

           11:42:05, he announced to the captain that “we did something to the altitude”, to which the captain replied “what?”   The first officer responded with “we’re still at 2,000, right?” to which the captain exclaimed “Hey!  What’s happening here?”

          Seconds later, at 11:42:10, altimeter warnings began to beep only to be cut off by the sounds of impact as the aircraft disintegrated into the Everglades, killing 101 passengers and crew.

          What had happened?  How could a highly skilled and experienced crew allow a passenger aircraft fly into a swamp and kill two thirds of the people on board?

          The answer lies in how the crew responded to the unlit landing gear indicator light.

           In every crisis there are actions which must be taken to achieve a successful resolution.  Failure to take appropriate action invariably results in a less than optimal outcome, and in the case of Flight 401 the actions taken by the flight crew that dark December night provides us with a stark case to study how roles and responsibilities are a critical part of successful crisis resolution.  

          The crew of Flight 401 was confronted with a crisis when the landing gear indicator light failed to illuminate.  At that moment, the normality of a routine flight from New York to Miami became abnormal, and consistent with their training and experience, the flight crew responded to the problem.  Not having the nose landing gear in the down and locked position prior to landing the aircraft was clearly a critical situation that required resolution.

          The captain focused on the problem.  The first officer focused on the problem.  The second officer focused on the problem.  Even the hitch-hiking technical officer focused on the problem. 

          Unfortunately, in doing so, nobody focused on the larger situation: bringing 176 people safely to their destination.  Instead, everyone focused on the status of a $12 light bulb, which the investigation later determined to have been burned out.

          As it happened the night of the crash was moonless, and the swampy area over which the aircraft was flying was devoid of artificial lighting which could have visually alerted the crew to the change in altitude.  Even though the crew could not see outside the cockpit and see the ground due to the darkness, it was not as though there were no indications or warnings that the aircraft was in danger.  Myriad instruments such as altimeters, vertical speed indicators, airspeed indicators, pitch attitude indicators, and vertical speed selectors showed that the aircraft was not in level flight.  In addition to the visual instruments, the altitude change alerting ½ second C-chord chime announced the deviation in altitude.

          As experienced aircrew, the pilots and flight engineer were trained to scan their instruments routinely in order to see if there are any circumstances that require their attention.  Unfortunately, in this instance, the cockpit crew was so myopically focused on the nose gear situation that they failed to follow one of the basic rules of a pilot’s craft: keep an eye on your instruments.  They collectively failed to observe what their airplane was clearly trying to tell them.  Had just one of them paid attention to just one of the indicators and warnings the crash could have been averted.  Unfortunately, none of them did.

By solely focusing on the landing gear crisis the crew failed to accomplish their real objective, which was to bring the aircraft and the people aboard safely to Miami.  While they got pretty close to solving the problem with the landing gear, they utterly failed at landing the plane safely.  They did not perform the actions necessary to achieve a successful resolution to the crisis.

There are essentially three roles that must be filled in order to successfully resolve a crisis. A leader must take charge and define the successful resolution to the crisis, the crisis itself must be resolved, and normal operations must continue to be performed.  In a nutshell, successful crisis resolution relies on a triad of roles: Taking ChargeAttacking the Crisis, and Minding the Store.

Three Roles in Crisis

Captain Loft was the designated leader of Flight 401.  Among his other responsibilities Loft was singularly responsible for the success or failure of the flight.  As the captain, he had the duty to ensure that any emergent crisis would be resolved in such a manner that the passengers and crew would be safely delivered to their destination.  He was responsible for establishing the Resolution Imperative, with is the overarching purpose of the endeavor, and in this case the endeavor was landing the aircraft in Miami.

The leader exercises his responsibility for crisis resolution by ensuring that the resolution imperative is fully understood and by aligning the others in the organization towards meeting the resolution imperative. He or she also assigns the roles and responsibilities necessary to ensure that the resolution imperative is met: Attacking the Problem and Minding the Store.

Attacking the problem is self-evident.  Captain Loft clearly attacked the problem and also had the rest of the flight crew attack the problem too.  The problem with having everyone attack the problem is that only the emergent problem was addressed; the resolution criteria of landing the plane safely was missed entirely as they all worked on the emergent crisis by monkeying with the  lightbulb assembly or trying to visually confirm the status of the landing gear.  All of the cockpit’s eggs were in the “Attacking the Problem” basket.

None of the eggs were in the Minding the Store basket.  Minding the Store is the performance of duties required to keep the enterprise functioning outside the realm of the emergent crisis.  In terms of Flight 401, Minding the Store would have been to have someone cognizant and responsible for ensuring that the aircraft remained in flight.  In this case, the responsibility for flying the aircraft was delegated from the co-pilot (who was the last pilot to handle the controls) to the plane itself in the form of the autopilot, and with that assignment unfortunately came the abdication of responsibility of any of the crew to make sure that the plane remained in the air.

Flight 401 is a remarkable case study that clearly articulates the need for those in crisis to fill all three roles (taking charge, attacking the crisis, and minding the store).  By focusing solely on the status of the landing gear, all of the flight crew became decisively engaged in attacking the crisis.  With nobody taking charge and reinforcing the resolution criteria and with nobody minding the store the minor crisis, a malfunctioning $12 lightbulb, became catastrophic.

The importance of roles and responsibilities in critical situation is something that we can learn from the tragedy that was Flight 401.  From the lessons learned so painfully on that dark December night, you should ask yourself what you will do when the next crisis hits: Will you take charge?  Mind the Store?  Attack the Problem?

It is worth spending a few minutes to think about it.  After all, crisis only occurs when you least expect it, and you probably won’t have time to think about it when the next one erupts.