The sound of promises breaking

It’s funny, ironic, disingenuous, and sad that the clamor of support for the men and women who answered the nation’s call to arms has changed to a clamor for the evisceration of the benefits that were promised to them for risking their lives to protect those unwilling to serve.

Even though the bullets are still flying and Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the elected and appointed leaders of our nation are shamelessly backing away from the commitments they made to those in uniform.

It started with “pension reform”, which is a blatant and arrogant rewriting of history in order to shave a few billion dollars off of the promised pension benefit that those who devoted twenty or more years of their lives to the nation earned.  When I enlisted I was promised that if I served a career in the military, I would receive a pension that included a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) that was based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), not the CPI minus one percent.

I served a total of 27 years under that assumption.  Unfortunately, Senators Ryan and Murray (neither of whom has served a single day in uniform or watched their friends go home in a body bag) decided that my assumption was incorrect and that the promise my recruiter made in 1984 was a lie.

Awesome.

Then came the retraction in TRICARE Prime service area availability.  It turns out that if you retired from the military and took advantage of TRICARE Prime, you were entitled to utilize the program wherever you decided to plant your flag.  As of last October, however, 171,000 retirees found that the promise was subject to the expedient whims of the people who promised such coverage.  That is in addition to the intractable whining by those who have not earned the benefit of subsidized TRICARE Prime premiums and are eager to make sure that veteran retirees pay “a fair amount” for their health care.

Awesome.

Then came the news that the pentagon is working to eviscerate the commissary system.  Sure, I am now retired and can shop at the local supermarket, but since I live by a military base I don’t.  I shop at the commissary because it is a benefit that I earned through my service in a couple of wars and a few decades of peacetime service. Again, my recruiter is a liar because he promised me something that the DOD has decided I probably don’t need.

Awesome.

I say thank you to everyone who wants to cut the benefits that military men and women have earned in the service of the nation.  You have confirmed that you lack the moral courage to actually pick up a rifle and use it on the enemies of the United States, but you have the shameful mendacity to plunge a knife in the backs of those who have.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America event in San Diego

I recently had the good fortune to swap emails with a leader in the IAVA: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  They are holding a membership event this evening (Wednesday, 22 January 2014) aboard the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier museum that is on the San Diego waterfront.

It looks like a great opportunity to learn more about the organization.  From their website:

Join us for a gathering with IAVA staff and IAVA Leadership Fellows, Veteran Transition Managers and local IAVA members. Learn more about what IAVA has accomplished over the last year, the benefits of membership (it’s free!), and the exciting programs and events we have coming up in 2014. 

Member Veterans, supporters and anyone interested in learning more are welcomed!

If you are interested in attending, follow this link to register.  It seems like a pretty interesting event and an even more interesting organization.  I will certainly be engaging to learn more about what they do and how they help veterans.  Check out the event if you are in the area!

 

A truly insightful look into the 1st, 2d, and 3d order effects of breaking the military retirement promise

This is a repost of Tony Carr’s exceptional piece on the effects, both intended and unintended, of breaking the nation’s commitment to its military retirees.  The implications of changing the COLA for the military retirement plan go infinitely deeper than simply saving the taxpayer six billion dollars.  In my humble opinion this article is the best yet written on the COLA debate, and you can go to the original posting at John Q. Public.

Risk and Promise: Strategic Advice for Congress

Since 1973, America has relied on volunteers to fight its wars, and they have relied on America to take care of them when the fighting is over.

Led by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray but abetted by Barack Obama, Congress recently gambled with our nation’s future for an extremely modest short-term gain. In doing so, it was given aid and comfort by knowledge-starved pundits, axe-grinding editorial boards, and self-anointed armchair analysts everywhere, as it  left the military and veteran community standing with their jaws on the ground in despairing disbelief.  Exploiting pressure to strike a budget compromise, Ryan and Murray entered into an unholy alliance to reduce veteran pensions – including those already vested under previous covenants – by an average of $84,000 to $120,000.  They obscured this act, as often happens when attempting to mislead, by employing complex-sounding budget doublespeak to minimize the magnitude of the associated moral breach as well as the consequences to veterans and families.  In a way, this debacle can be seen as part of our nation’s continual inability to comprehend and bear the costs of being a global superpower with quasi-imperial interests secured by less than one-half of one percent of its population.  But the particulars in this case suggest something more disturbing lurking behind the standard wallet-grabbing Congressional milieu: a startling absence of strategic deliberation.  When such a deficit impairs elected leaders responsible for national security, potentially grave consequences attend.

Good strategists always ask of any potential course of action two key questions.  First, what will this do for us?  And second, what will this do to us?  Given the dearth of statesmanly impulse at the national level in modern America, it is perhaps unsurprising that in crafting the recent budget, Paul Ryan and Patty Murray asked only the former question, leaving the latter for others to worry about.

The provision at issue retroactively renegotiated the deferred compensation of more than two million military veterans – including tens of thousands still serving in harm’s way — who did their duty in reliance on promises around which they structured their lives. The vast majority of these veterans endured historically abusive operational tempos. Most will carry with them the invisible scars of war for the rest of their lives, running up against psychological limits that in subtle but consequential ways – ways no one who hasn’t served could possibly understand even if veterans were immodest enough to attempt explanation.

Many transitioned out of military service (or will in the future) to find that their skills and capabilities did not translate well in the private sector.  This can slow earnings growth, making an earned military pension critical during the adaptation to civilian life in a down economy.  Those retirees fortunate enough to preserve their marriages have typically dragged spouses through a dozen or so relocations, never giving them a chance to establish professional footing.  This is key, not just in terms of the sacrifices rendered by military families, but in economic terms; in modern America, two incomes are now required to generate the same standard of living one income provided thirty years ago, and this is often beyond the reach of retired military families who have led very abnormal lives prior to retirement.

The All-Volunteer Force relies heavily on the 17% of its members who choose to serve for a career, most of whom are NCOs.

The shorthand employed by Ryan to sell his beloved pension cut envisions healthy, well-adjusted, fattened mercenaries stepping into corporate America to collect millions during the balance of their working years.  How he arrived at this vision boggles the imagination; most retirees struggle to integrate into a new workplace with skills that don’t directly translate while trying to keep pace with competitors roughly half their age.  73% of retirees are noncommissioned officers whose pensions are barely sufficient to keep them above the poverty line.  As a rule of thumb, these people are figures of sympathy rather than valid targets of the socialistic “they don’t need it anyway” notion behind Ryan’s sales pitch.

Ryan and Murray obviously weren’t thinking about these issues.  They also weren’t thinking about the fact that every veteran who has retired since the year 2000 made a decision upon reaching 15 years of service: either turn down a $30,000 career status bonus and retain an inflation-protected pension upon reaching retirement, or accept the bonus and also accept a 1% annual reduction in cost-of-living adjustment with a one-time “catch-up” at age 62.  Most veterans chose inflation protection, which ends up being worth far more in most calculations than the bonus. In summarily removing inflation protection from all military pensions, Congress breached the contract formed with those who turned down the 15-year bonus.  It did this without holding a single committee meeting or public hearing. In a clear signal it wasn’t thinking strategically, Congress did this in a back room not populated by the joint chiefs, who claim to have been surprised by the provision altogether.

But this all makes sense if Ryan and Murray were only asking “what will this do for us?” And it did a couple of things.  First, it bought them the public acquiescence of the service chiefs, who are desperate for funds given the limits of sequestration imposed without mission relief.  Their only option to preclude mission failure is to hold open the gate while others raid the pensions of the very people whose interests they’re charged to safeguard.  This perversely explains why they said nothing as a provision impacting the career decisions of every active duty and retired member of the military sailed through uncontested.

But what the provision really did for those who championed it was to lay the groundwork for a new funding stream to perpetuate pork barrel spending.  If this provision sticks, Congress will have retroactively renegotiated the compensation contracts of more than two million war veterans during a time of war.  If a promise of this magnitude can be rendered so cheap with so little effort, nothing is sacred. This will create broad legitimacy for further pension and benefit raiding, making this just the first of many breached promises and a lucrative source of cash by which Congress can purchase electoral advantage.  It does this by funding needless bases and infrastructure (to supply jobs in their districts), by acquiring and continuing to operate needless weapons (again, jobs), and by continuing to support the nation’s promiscuous involvement in wars of choice that are a boon for defense contractors and war profiteers . . . and therefore, a steady source of votes and contributions.  Footnote: this is an election year.

The Ryan-Murray pension-raid was not a “mistake” as some have claimed and as I’ve suggested elsewhere is a fallacious notion.  It was a calculated breach of the faith for short-term political advantage.  Ryan, Murray, Obama, Hagel, and the rest of those who pushed and supported this knew they were acting immorally, but were willing to accept doing so out of a rational calculation of what it would do for them.  What they didn’t ask is what it might do to them . . . or more importantly, what it might do to us, the nation they claim to lead.

In the modern age, politicians tend to be tacticians rather than strategists.  They’re interested in winning a series of short-term battles that supply them with talking points for use in the next election.  This is so because getting elected has replaced principled leadership as the contemporary political raison d’etre.  By extension, raising campaign funds has come to dominate the activity of elected representatives, displacing time and focus essential to strategic reflection. But in failing to take a sober, adult look at the future when making decisions, politicians assume huge risks on the behalf of the nation as they collect rewards that fall narrowly to them.  When it comes to the legal heist recently carried out against veteran pensions, the risks are enormous.

Alienating today’s warriors risks destroying the willingness of others to step forward in the future.  Military service is very much a family business; it’s difficult to find an active member who isn’t acting on the example of a relative or ancestor. Military service immerses individual warriors in a system of values rooted in honor, trust, and commitment.  This makes them particularly sensitive to moral compromises.  Ordinarily content to serve with quiet obedience, military members will not hesitate to sound off when they see an obvious moral wrong perpetrated (and woe betide us as a country if ever they became blithely accepting of such wrongs).  They’ve shown in the past few weeks that attempts to breach trust with them will not go unnoticed or unmarked.  The implication for politicians is clear: when you break a promise, you’re tampering with the delicate formula upon which the strength and vitality of the all-volunteer force is based.  The consequences to future American security could be severe, and should be studied carefully before risking even the perception of a moral breach.  Pension formulas were last disturbed in the mid-1990s, creating a retention crisis that sent the joint chiefs panicking to the Hill, where they persuaded Congress to restore a 50 percent, inflation-adjusted retirement package.  All we’ve done since then is ask even more of our volunteers, and nothing suggests they are today any less sensitive to these kinds of budgetary shenanigans.

Politicians claim a choice between readiness and personnel funding, but this is a false choice. Tampering with promised pensions could fundamentally injure readiness by hurting morale and chilling volunteerism.

But there’s a deeper and more insidious risk already touched upon, and that’s the risk attendant to avoiding genuine reform of our defense institutions.  It’s true that current defense spending is unsustainable.  It’s not true that this is a result of personnel costs.  They’ve remained constant at about 25% of defense spending since 2001 (despite two manpower-intensive wars) and are down from 30% of spending since 1991.  Other elements of defense spending have grown explosively over the same period of time.  The nation has expensively fast-tracked new capabilities from scratch as a result of being caught strategically off-guard by 9/11 (this, in turn, is attributable in part to the recklessly rapid pace of intelligence downsizing in the prior decade, which afforded America reduced global awareness as the calculus of national security shifted wholesale). It has also fielded costly new weapons systems in an attempt to contend with an uncertain future, virtually all of them coming up short of expectations and over budget as a result of a dated acquisition process riddled with misplaced influence and needless red tape.  Meanwhile, unneeded bases remain open and their facilities remain operating due to Congressional obstruction, and no serious discussion concerning service roles and missions has been undertaken in nearly three decades.  As a result, the services are tripping over one another with duplicate weapons and capabilities, a bonus for defense contractors but an injury to taxpayers.

If Congress is once again permitted to step over dollars to save dimes and mask the waste lurking in defense spending, we’ll continue tracing along the path of unsustainability without addressing it.  Eventually, those masked costs will come due, and it won’t be Ryan or Murray who pay for it, but every citizen who loses security.  To be fair to some counterarguments, there is a real need to study military compensation and benefit structures and ensure they fit within our means.  But this should be forward-looking in order to keep the faith with those who already kept their end of the compensation bargain, and it should be preceded by a genuine attempt to address the structural reforms Congress is avoiding.  If Americans really want to see a drastic reduction in defense spending, they must encourage their representatives to stop obstructing a Base Realignment and Closure Commission and to charter a Roles and Missions Commission. Moreover, Congress should bind itself to the recommendations of both in order to avoid the political mischief that has characterized previous reform efforts and led to the current morass.  But even more than that, if Americans want to see drastically reduced defense spending, they should stop electing and emboldening politicians who send American troops into wars without fully advertising the costs of doing so.

This is the greatest risk of all — a risk potentially fatal to our national life.  We’ve developed a nasty habit in the modern age of waging war without paying for it, and that has set us on a long road to ruin.  We’ve yet to pay for the wars fought in the last 12 years, having pushed the costs off on future generations by borrowing against the national debt (save for the $6B pick-pocketed from those who did the fighting).  No raised taxes (in fact, tax rates are at a record low as Congressional conservatives who voted overwhelmingly to authorize wars and troop surges complain about the national debt). No war bonds. No draft.  No appeal to our richest citizens to finance an expedition.  We’ve been at war for a dozen solid years without asking Americans at-large to make a single material sacrifice. Now we turn to veterans and expect them to foot the bill.

Veterans understandably refuse to willingly do so, not only because it is unspeakably wrong for them to have been asked in the first place, but because they understand covering up the cost of war is dangerous to our way of life.  When war no longer carries even the faintest whiff of sacrifice for the vast majority of citizens, they will readily support it without rigorously considering its necessity or the manner of its execution.  This is a path to endless war, and when we have warred enough that our interests have become overextended and we’re bogged down with inescapable obligations we can no longer sustain (hints of which are noticeable already), national collapse becomes inevitable.  It’s not a new story historically, and we’re not so exceptional that we can avoid it.  Paying our veterans what we owe them is one of the ways we feel the pain of having supported going to war (and by extension, failing to prevent it), and for that reason more than any other, we must pay what we owe . . . even (and perhaps especially) if doing so feels inconvenient.

So as Congress returns to session, it seems like a good moment for some unsolicited strategic advice, even if it disturbs the self-congratulatory saccharine party Washington has undertaken in the wake of a signed budget. Congress, you can either have an honorable military, or one that accepts broken promises.  You can either have a cheap military, or the world’s best.  And you can either have an expensive but secure way of life, or something less.  Oddly, doing the morally right thing leads to the best outcome in each of these choices, proving that strategy and morality need not be misaligned. Reconciling the two is matter of considering not only what a course of action does for you, but what it does to your country.  Thinking about it this way should compel a swift amendment to restore the promises made to our veterans and their families.

Posted by Tony Carr on January 2nd, 2014.  You can view the original here.

Well said.

So the government “partially” shuts down. What does that mean to veterans and those still in uniform?

Well, it is October 1st and as Halloween decorations are going up the government is shutting down.  Partially, anyhow.  But what does a “partial” government shutdown mean to those steely eyed killers walking on patrol in Afghanistan and the not-so-steely eyed veterans who are now reliant on the VA for healthcare, disability payments, and/or pensions?

Great question!  In an effort to help provide some clarity in the murky waters that surround the shutdown I have done some sleuthing around to find some answers.  So, in no particular order, here are the things that I discovered:

1.  If you are serving in the military, then you have little to fear.  The congress passed a bill, which the president signed, that guaranteed paychecks for active duty and reserve status military personnel (along with some government employees and contractors).  For more information go here.

2.  If you are retired and receiving a military pension, then you can rest easy.  Since pensions are considered an entitlement and are not funded by annual appropriations they are safe from the shutdown.  If, however, the government hits the debt ceiling then they may be affected.  For more information go here.

3.  VA health care, pension, and disability payments.  There is good news and bad news regarding the VA.  The good news is that they are lightly impacted by furloughs and medical services will be unaffected, but the bad news is that they will likely run out of funds to pay all of their pension and disability payments if the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks.  Other programs, such as the GI Bill and others, will also be hit if the shutdown is prolonged.  For information on what is and is not impacted at the VA go here.  For information on the testimony that the VA provided congress about the impact of the shutdown (and how it will affect future payments) go here.

I hope this helps you get the information you need to understand the effect of the shutdown on you and your family.  Let’s just hope that the government of the nation that we swore to support and defend can get its act together and start moving forward again.

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.

An opportunity for Combat Veterans

I have written about the opportunity that Veterans 360 presents for transitioning veterans.  For those who may not have read my prior posts on what they do, here is a refresher:

It is very challenging to make a quick and successful transition from military to civilian life.  There are many obstacles that you encounter along the way, many new things to learn, and a unique set of experiences that you never want to forget.  It can really be daunting and confusing at times for any veteran to make the change back to civvie street.

It is particularly daunting and confusing for those veterans who are struggling with the effects of Post Traumatic and Combat Operational Stress as they leave the military.  Combat veterans, in particular, have a more difficult time making the transition.  I have spoken with many who are making the shift, and one theme comes through in every conversation: “What am I gonna do now?”

Being a transitioning Marine intimately familiar with the realities of PTSD myself I can fully relate.  It is tough to make the change from one way of life to another, and it is much more difficult for those with stress injuries as they wrestle the demons within while trying to adapt to a new life without.

There is an organization that I am affiliated with that aims to help combat veterans successfully navigate the challenges transition.  Veterans 360, a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Diego, is kicking off what I believe is a great program to help combat vets make a successful transition.

Here is their mission:

Veterans 360 has a clearly defined mission: to provide recently separated combat veterans with a carefully developed and managed program of support that will help them develop the professional and interpersonal skills needed to succeed in civilian life. Our goal is that through engagement, education, employment and healing, our student-veterans will utilize what they have learned, manage the resources that are available to them and become equipped for an exceedingly successful transition into civilian life.

They help vets by bringing them into an cohesive and immersive environment for the crucial first two months after leaving the service.  Veterans 360 brings a dozen or so combat vets together, forming a “squad” that will go through an integrated and comprehensive transition program together.  They will work live together, work together, and heal together in an environment that centers around engagement with the local community, education focused on basic skills and vocational training, employment facilitation that will help them find meaningful work, and healing to help deal with PTS.

All of this is accomplished through individual and corporate donations, and not one thin dime of the veteran’s post-service VA or other benefits will be touched.  This is a critical point, as many unseemly organizations and “educational” facilities have sprung up with the cloaked goal to separate the veterans from their money.  Veterans 360 is proudly not one of them.

Veterans 360 is about to kick off their inaugural squad engagement on April 1st of this year.  They are looking for candidates to participate in the program.  The details of the initial effort are listed in their recruiting poster:

Veterans 360 Recruiting Poster

If you are a combat veteran in the San Diego area who is looking for something innovative to help with your transition, check it out!

Back to the Veterans Administration, Part 3: This is not the appointment you were looking for…

In my last blog entry I promised that I would update you on how my first official appointment with the VA went, and, well, that appointment has come and gone.  It was interesting, but not really what I had expected.  Or what I was hoping for.  It was, however, insightful because it provided a glimpse into the road that lay before me as a “customer” of the VA healthcare system as well as introducing me to many of my fellow veterans who frequent the local clinic.

The appointment was with the VA Clinic’s PTSD Services unit.  As I wrote in my last post, I spent an hour or so with my designated social worker whose job it is (among other things) to assess whether or not I needed to be evaluated for the effects of combat stress.  Her assessment was based on our meeting as well as the sixteen page questionnaire that I completed beforehand.  Since the questions were all about combat, and having spent a whole lot of time in and around a significant amount of combat in two different war zones, she determined that it was certainly appropriate for me to go for an evaluation.

A week later, I returned to the clinic for my first appointment: the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Services Orientation.  I wandered into the clinic’s Mental Health Services waiting room and, after checking in, was handed yet another set of forms to fill out.  After ten minutes of answering questions about my propensity for self-harm, manic episodes, and depression, I was finished.  Just in time, too, because as my government issued pen scratched out the last checkmark a young woman opened the waiting room door and asked those of us waiting for the PTSD orientation to follow her.

I joined a rather eclectic group as we accompanied her to a smallish room ringed with chairs padded with leather seats and backrests colored in the oddly disturbing green that is prevalent in hospitals and movies about psychiatric institutions.  They must have got them on sale somewhere, because I don’t think they would match anyone’s home decor.  To their credit, though, they were actually pretty comfortable.

Out of the twenty odd-colored seats ten or so were filled by my fellow attendees and me.  There was an elderly veteran of the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam (as his hat proudly proclaimed), a man in his sixties, a few gentlemen in their 50’s, a young woman who never took off her sunglasses, a tattooed young man barely out of his teens, and me.  Not at all what I was expecting, to be honest.  I had figured that my meeting would be with young veterans from the recent decade of war, but to my surprise we veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were in the minority.  There were three of us, one veteran of Desert Storm, the aforementioned WWII vet, and the rest were from the Vietnam War.

I know this because the young woman who led the session (another clinical social worker) had us introduce ourselves before we began the session.  In addition to asking where we served, she asked us to share why we were here.  The recently discharged veterans were pretty obvious, but the others were a surprise.  Each of them had been referred to the session by their primary care provider, which I found to be fascinating.  After hearing their introductions and listening to their conversations it became evident to me that many of these veterans were just now entering the VA medical system.  To me, that was a surprise because I had never really considered not entering the system.

That reveals a tremendous difference between the experiences that “new” veterans have in juxtaposition to the “old” ones.  Our transition process from active duty included a mandatory introduction to the VA, along with an education in the basics that the VA provides.  Many veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Cold War received no such exposure to the Veterans Administration.  As a result, thousands and thousands of veterans who are eligible for help and care never bothered to pursue it until they really need the services that the VA provides.  Unfortunately, for many of them, the help that the VA provides ends up trying to make up for years or decades of neglected conditions.  That was the explanation for why so many of the people in the room with me were there for the first time despite having removed their uniforms back when Disco Fever ruled the dance floor.

Anyhow, back to the session.  After introductions, the social worker ran through a dozen or so power point slides that described the multitude of programs that the VA offered in the clinic.  This particular clinic was focused on combat veterans who were at risk for PTSD, and the services that they provide were all focused on countering and healing the effects of combat stress.  She started with textbook (according to the American Psychiatric Association, who writes such things) definition of PTSD, which included things like experiencing traumatic events, re-experiencing previous trauma, hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal, and avoidance of things that remind you of traumatic events.  Considering that everyone in the room has served in combat, the probability that at least some of these symptoms would apply to us rocketed up to about 100%.

After the explanation of what PTSD was completed she assured that recovery from PTSD was possible.  They offered over a dozen different methods to assist with recovery; including individual and group sessions on topics like anger management, coping, spiritually based recovery, couples and family therapy, anxiety disorders, and women’s groups.  The goal of each program is to help the veteran reach a positive outcome within three months, with a positive outcome being that the veteran being better able to cope with his or her condition.

Not surprisingly the clinic was overwhelmed with veterans who needed help.  The wait time to join in the programs was eight weeks or more.  The social worker explained the process for getting into one of the groups, and that is where I realized that this was actually not the appointment I was looking for.  Actually it was not even really an appointment, but instead just an introduction and orientation to the clinic.

Towards the end of the session she explained that for us to participate in any of the offerings we would have to set up another appointment in which we would actually meet with a healthcare provider who would then assign us to a group.  An intake appointment, she called it.  That was the first indicator that this was not the appointment I was looking for.  The second indicator was her announcement that the clinic did not have anything to do with disability claims.

As you know from my previous posts, I was actually hoping to get my disability claim back on track.  It had been five months since I had been notified that the claim had been partially settled and that I should wait to be contacted by the VA for further evaluation.  After spending almost half a year listening to the sound of no telephones ringing I called the VA to get the ball rolling.  I had wrongly assumed that once I was in the system that the claims process would proceed as a matter of course.

Nope.

I would need to call another number for that, or I could stop by the Veterans Service Office that happened to be just across the hall.  They would be able to help those of us working on our claims, she said, but unfortunately not today because their office was closed.

D’oh.

She then reviewed all of the forms that we completed prior to the session, and then she called each of us out individually to set up appointments for the intake interview.  I was a bit disgruntled, but resigned myself to just go with the flow and left the session with an appointment for an intake appointment some six weeks in the future and the phone number to the clinic’s VSO office which would help me with my claim.

I also left reminding myself that the VA was a bureaucracy and that patience was a virtue.  I was still disgruntled, though, and not feeling particularly virtuous.  So it goes.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  The medical side of the VA is different from the disability claims side of the VA.  Make sure to stay engaged with your VSO to ensure that your claim is moving forward, and also be specific with the VA representatives when you are making your appointments.  I was not specific enough because I made some errant assumptions, and as a result I have lost another month or two of forward progress on my claim.

2.  Be ready to devote a lot of time to the VA.  There are great programs available, but it will take a long time and plenty of seemingly repetitive red tape, paperwork, and meetings to actually see a provider.  Breathe deep, think happy thoughts, and go to your happy place.  Time will pass and you will get the help you need.  It will just take a lot more time than you would like.

3.  Ask questions up front.  Had I asked whether or not this appointment would help with my disability claim I would have saved some valuable time.  Assume nothing!

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: https://www.1010ez.med.va.gov/sec/vha/1010ez/  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.

 

Still fighting a real war: my latest column in the North County Times

Ten days ago the Taliban launched a dramatic suicide attack against a major airbase in southern Afghanistan.  I know a lot of people who are there, and despite the waning attention of the media and the American people they continue to fight in a war that is a savage as it has ever been.  Below is my most recent column in the North County Times about that attack:

On Friday, Sept. 14, two Marines were killed in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Sadly, that is not a novel occurrence, as they were a few of the many combat deaths from Afghanistan in the last week or so.

What is novel, however, is that these Marines were not out on patrol in the hinterlands, but instead were killed in an insurgent attack on one of the coalition’s main airbases.

The Marines who were killed were members of a Marine aviation unit that supports ground forces as they battle the Taliban. They were on a joint US and British airfield named Bastion, which is home to the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that fly and fight each and every day that the war grinds on and on. They died doing what Marines have done for over two centuries: fighting our nation’s battles.

These Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, died in an attack that exemplifies the complexity of the insurgent war that we are fighting in Afghanistan. They lived aboard a base that until last Friday was largely considered as safe as it gets in a war-torn country.

The Bastion airfield, which is a joint American and British base, abuts the Marine Corps base known as Camp Leatherneck, which is the home to Camp Pendleton’s own 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s forward headquarters. It also is adjacent to the Afghanistan National Army’s Camp Shorabak, which is the headquarters and home for the Afghan’s military units responsible for the Helmand Province. All told there are several thousand uniformed personnel garrisoned on the complex.

Despite the defenses resident on the installations, the enemy was able to penetrate the perimeter, kill two Marines and wreak havoc on the airfield’s flightline and facilities. Six AV-8B Harrier attack jets were either damaged or destroyed, and nine other coalition troops were wounded in the assault.

From the safety of our living rooms in the United States, this seems absolutely intolerable and unacceptable. How could the Taliban attack such a well defended base? How could this have happened?

The reason is that our enemies are both cunning and willing to sacrifice their lives to further their cause. The enemy is also well-trained, well-equipped and completely dedicated in their convictions. In addition, they are patient. Very patient.

A difference between the counterinsurgent wars of the last decade and more “traditional” forms of combat are that our forces have been fighting from the same bases in the same places for years on end, and being in the same place offers a tremendous opportunity to the enemy. He can unwearyingly study the base defenses, waiting to attack until he is fully prepared. He can employ a network of informants to learn about the targets that he wants to hit, and the routines of the people who live and work there. As an indigenous person he or others can infiltrate the base to aid in its planning efforts.

With the benefit of time, the enemy can gather intelligence on the targeted base, plan an attack that exploits weakness, and rehearse the assault again and again until they get it right. In short, the enemy is doing exactly what our forces do.

Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are fighting a real war in Afghanistan, with good men and women paying the ultimate price to maintain the freedoms that we at home so easily take for granted. As they try to bring stability and peace to a turbulent and dangerous foreign land, they are fighting an enemy with centuries of hard-fought experience at war, and they fight well. All of the dumb ones died long ago, and the adversaries that we face today are as schooled in the ways of war as we are.

That is why two of our nation’s sons died last Friday. We are fighting a war in which the enemy gets a vote, and he grimly knows how to cast it.

http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/columnists/grice/grice-an-enemy-with-cunning-and-patience/article_f49fceb9-0811-5a9c-8812-9148fc2d6bab.html

Column from the North County Times: Drawdowns are necessary as wars end

Here is my latest column in the North County Times.  2014 is just around the corner, and that year will mark the end of our commitment to the war in Afghanistan.  Coupled with the end of the war in Iraq, 2014 will see the first time since the dawn of the 21st Century that we have been a nation at peace.

Whether we stay at peace or not, the end of combat operations overseas precipitates the reduction of military forces.  That is the subject of the following column:

All wars come to an end, and our current foray into Afghanistan is no different. Last year saw the departure of American forces from Iraq, and 2014 is the year when combat operations are to be handed over to the Afghan National Army.

This places the military and government in the ironic situation —- with the successful completion of the conflicts overseas, the very people who made it happen find themselves beneath the budgetman’s axe. Is that fair?

Historically, the size of the military has always shrunk after a war ends; indeed, it is perfectly normal. Our professional military system requires that the active and reserve components be ready to fight and defend the nation at the drop of a hat. The size of the military was more than adequate for Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and the initial operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Counterinsurgency, however, changed the game. Desert Storm and the early campaigns in the war on terror were based on destroying a cohesive, centralized and organized enemy. The doctrine of the U.S. armed forces is to overwhelm the foe with an onslaught of combat power that they cannot react to to counter the assault; it took only days to liberate Kuwait and a matter of weeks for the high-tempo combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to shatter Saddam’s forces and the organized Taliban.

What followed, though, was a path to a Vietnamesque guerrilla war. Instead of being able to employ the technical and tactical advantages that are the hallmark of American “shock and awe,” we faced an enemy who changed his tactics to those of the insurgent. Instead of slugging it out toe to toe, they embraced the booby-traps of the Vietnam War and created the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Counterinsurgency is a manpower-intensive way of war that has not fundamentally changed since Hannibal crossed the Alps over 2,000 ago —- you need lots of boots on the ground with the dedication and grit to fight the enemy on his own terms, and as a result the Army and Marine Corps grew in size.

With the war’s end and the current financial crisis it is necessary to look critically at the military establishment and prepare it for the challenges ahead. The president has begun the process by focusing on the Pacific Rim as that part of the world becomes more and more strategically significant. What tools are needed there? What skills must our military employ? How can the nation best employ its military resources?

Those are the questions that face the Pentagon as it looks into the future. The military is often accused of being prepared the fight the last war —- and to ensure that it is ready for the next one, a significant change in momentum is necessary. It is time to get the military back into being the world’s premier agile fighting force that is prepared to fight across the spectrum of conflict; we should remember the lessons learned fighting against insurgents, but not be hampered by devoting resources to capabilities in that area that are no longer needed —- including the number of people in uniform.

It is a harsh reality to face, but it is not unprecedented. Our best hope for a strong America is having a military that is prepared to meet any challenge, and in order to do so we need to refocus and rebalance our military. A significant part of that rebalancing is a thoughtful reduction in troops. It is fair to expect that the military will shrink after a decade of war, but that reduction must be made with studious attention and not made haphazardly.

It’s not personal. It’s just business, but a business that the Pentagon simply must get right. We will always be thankful for the sacrifice of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it is time to prepare for the future and ensure that the American military, although a bit smaller in size, remains second to none.

http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/columnists/grice/grice-drawdowns-necessary-as-wars-end/article_4be98c81-8ec7-512c-b96e-f5af8c984211.html