It was the appointment I was looking for…sort of. The continuing saga of my life with the VA

Every once in a while things make sense.  Unfortunately for my journey into the world of the Veterans Administration, that once in a while has not happened yet.

You may recall from my last post that two seemingly unrelated and paradoxical events occurred that centered around my VA disability claim.  Within the span of a single week I first received a telephone call to invite me to an appointment at the local veterans hospital, which I took as an augury that my claim was turgidly stumbling forward, and I secondly found out that my claim was marked “CLOSED” on the VA’s ebenefits website (which is the interface that veterans use to access their VA benefits information: ).

One step forward and a huge leap back?  To say I was confused would be a gross disservice to the concept of understatement.

At any rate, I showed up for the appointment earlier this week and learned a little more about how the various processes at the VA work, or at least are supposed to work.

Unbeknownst to me, my appointment was based on the interview that the VA social worker had conducted on the day I officially became a consumer of VA health benefits.  The survey identified some items in my history that required further evaluation, and the appointment that I attended a few days ago was one of those items (in this case, it was for a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, evaluation that was warranted because of my close proximity to noisy exploding things while in Iraq).

Fast forward to earlier this week.  I checked into the medical center, and after filling out yet another questionnaire about various things related to my mental state I was called to see the doctor.  After a brief introduction, I followed her through the physical therapy section of the hospital to a small office tucked away behind the treadmills and medicine balls.

I spent the next 45 minutes or so answering questions about the noisy things that exploded in my vicinity and the possible effects that they could have on me these many years later.  She then performed a series of physical examinations.  After getting whacked on the knee and following her finger with my eyes and a dozen or so other tests she announced that I was unlikely to be suffering from any long term effects of getting my bell rung in combat.  “Maybe a slight concussion,” said she, “but you seem fine to me.  Any questions?”

Ahhh.  Finally.  I did have a question or two.

I inquired as to the purpose of my visit.  Was I here for a disability related evaluation?  I explained my confusion, and she gave me the patient smile of someone who has explained this to people a time or two before.

“No.  This exam is based on the social worker’s evaluation from the VA clinic.  It has nothing to do with the disability claim process.”

She saw my blank and vacuous stare, and continued.

“We don’t have anything to do with claims.  The systems are completely separate.  If they want, they can access the records of this appointment, but that is up to them.  We are the medical side, not the disability claims side of the fence.”

With that bit of insight the lightbulb went on in my head.  Suddenly I understood why the two events that had occurred a month previously had confused me: I mistakenly thought that I was dealing with one agency when in fact I was dealing with two.  And neither of them talks to each other.

How governmentally bureaucratic!

The medical side had set the appointment, and it was proof positive that the system (or at least their half of it) worked.

The claims side, on the other hand, clearly had something wrong.

With that shocking bit of knowledge, I set out to find out just what was amiss with my disability claim.  I called the toll-free number for the VA.  Not once.  Not twice.  Not three times.

I won’t bore you with how many times I pounded the keys on my phone trying to reach a VA counselor, but after many fruitless attempts I resorted to calling at 5:20 in the morning in an effort to get through.  It worked.  After waiting on hold for nearly 30 minutes, I finally found myself at last in contact with a real live VA person!

I explained my dilemma to the gentleman, and he looked into it.  Apparently the ebenefits website was depicting the results of the most recent review that my case file had received and was incorrectly showing my status as closed.  What had occurred was that my file was being reconciled to determine what still remained to be done, and once that reconciliation was completed that review was posted as closed.

For whatever reason (which the VA rep could not explain) the ebenefits site “sometimes” picks up the wrong status.  I was one of the lucky few to fall in the wonderful world of “sometimes”.  Fortunately, my case was still open.  The status on the website was wrong.  Unfortunately, there was also no indicator of progress in my case, so it really didn’t matter what the website said.  I was still going nowhere fast, but apparently I am making good time.

Sensing my consternation, the VA rep offered to initiate an inquiry.  The inquiry, he explained, means that someone in the office that held my claim would have to call me within the next ten working days to explain what was going on.

Hooray!  All I have to do now is wait for the phone to ring and then I will be able to talk to somebody who can explain just what is happening with my disability claim.

All I have to do is wait.


Lessons Learned:

1.  The VA medical system and the VA disability claims system are two unrelated and unintegrated silos.  They each are performing their own important mission, but they do so independent of each other.  Make sure to find out which side of the fence your appointments fall on, or you will end up confused like I did by assuming that a medical appointment was for my disability claim or vice versa.

2.  Calling the VA during working hours is pointless and annoying.  There is supposedly a callback feature that you can use if you call after working hours, but I could never get it to work.  I resorted to calling early in the morning, right about the time that the call center opens, which is listed as 7:00 am Eastern time.  The number is 800-827-1000.  Good luck!!

3.  Write everything down, including the inquiry tracking number and the name of the person that you talked to.  It will be useful later on in case the inquiry gets lost or the information that you received turns out to be erroneous.


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.

Writing your resume, part 2: The Functional Format

As promised, here is the long awaited and thrilling post about resumes!  Today we’re looking at the Functional Format style, which is the best one to use for people who are changing careers (like transitioning military folks), those with gaps in their employment history, or people who want to emphasize their skills for a particular job or specialized company.

For men and women who are hanging up their uniforms the functional format is a very useful way of showing the talents and skills that they have developed and used during their time in the military.  Even though many of the functions that servicemen and women perform during their careers are not directly transferable to the corporate sector (think rifleman, tank gunner, weapons repair specialist – you get the idea), the underlying skills and capabilities are relevant and desirable to employers.  Things like leadership (that rifleman was probably a small unit leader too), teamwork (that tank gunner worked closely as a member of the team that formed the tank crew), and detail oriented task management (the weapons repair specialist worked on intricate equipment, ordered parts, and managed supplies on a daily basis).

The functional format is best to show those skills and to articulate how they can be useful for a corporate employer.  Remember, when you write it you need to direct it towards the Human Resources person at the company.  As with all resumes you really need to work hard to “de-militarize” it as much as possible; they don’t know what a rifleman or squad leader is and certainly have no clue about the operations of the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank’s gun system.  Don’t make it easy for the hiring manager to throw your resume in the shredder by making it too difficult to read with military jargon and whatnot.  That said, more jargon is acceptable in the functional format because the target company is probably more familiar with the skill set you are presenting and will likely know some mil-speak.  Just don’t over do it.

There are some great advantages to the functional format, and to take advantage of them it is best to target the resume on the job or company you are interested in.  That takes a little research on your part (hello, internet!) and the patience to make adjustments to tailor your resume for each company as you go.  Focusing on the target in job hunting is just as important as focusing on the target on the rifle range- if you don’t have a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish you won’t hit the target or find a job.

If you do your homework you will find the functional format easier to write because you can direct the reader (in this case, the hiring manager) to what you want them to notice about your abilities.  By researching the requirements for a particular job or needs of the company, you can show how you fit the bill with the exact skills that the employer is looking for.  You can also highlight all of those intangible things that you have been doing while in uniform, such as helping the community, training others, and developing leadership in those junior to you.  It also allows you to cut out anything that you don’t want in your resume, such as gaps in your job history or a lousy grade point average from high school or college.

Another advantage is that you can be much more succinct and direct with the functional format.  In resume writing less is more.  The HR person who receives your resume has a stack of them to go through, and generally speaking you have only a few seconds to grab their attention before they move on to the next one.  If they have no second page to turn to then you have a bit of an advantage because they all look at the first page, and if you can get yours down to one then they will see the whole thing an not have to decide whether to go flip to the next page.

The elements that I used in my functional resume (click here to take a look: Functional Resume)  are pretty standard.  After the standard header information (name, email address, phone number) there are four sections: A summary statement, Functional Experience, Professional Experience, and a bit about Honors, Education, and Publications.

It is the resume that I used when I was leaving active duty and had an opportunity to pursue a job with an organization that was doing fire support and aviation integration operations.  After researching the opportunity and talking to people who were familiar with the company and what they were looking for I highlighted those things that I had done in the past that were relevant and left out those things that weren’t.

Based on my research, I wrote the summary statement to show how my experience was exactly in line with what the company was looking for.  The intent is to keep the hiring manager’s eyes on the page, and by grabbing his or her attention by showing that I had the skills that they were looking for up front it piques their interest.

The functional experience section is the meat of this format.  I chose the six areas that I felt best met the needs of the company and showed my expertise and experience in each.  Notice that there is no timeline associated with the areas,  but instead a series of concrete examples of relevant and specific experience in each.

The next section covers professional experience.  Again, there is no strict timeline associated with the bullets but I did include the years that I was deployed overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan.  I chose to include those dates specifically because it showed that I had recent combat experience in fire support (remember, this resume went out in 2011).  Only the jobs and deployments that are directly associated with fire support are included, though.  My tours and assignments in other areas are irrelevant for this format and would have just resulted in a lot of wasted space and an unneeded second page.

Lastly comes the Education, Honors, and Publications section.  This bit is where you can cherry-pick those things that you have done to highlight your skills and achievements during your career.  In my case I was fortunate to receive some awards that are unusual and have been published quite a bit.  You should look through your awards, professional military education graduation certificates, and other certifications or qualifications and include those that will help break you out of the pack and highlight why you are the best candidate for the job.


Lessons Learned:

1)  The functional resume format is best for people changing careers, with gaps in their employment history, or want to emphasize specific skill sets for a particular job or specialized company.

2)  Less is more- shoot for one page.  This format is the easiest of the three to get down to one page.

3)  Look hard at your career and pick out those things that are directly related to the job you are seeking or the company where you want to work.  Ruthlessly cut out things that are not relevant!

4)  Be selective in the military jargon that you include.  For companies that you know will understand it – for example, if you are applying for a job at Bell Helicopter it is OK to talk about your zillions of hours flying the AH-1W/AH-1Z attack helicopter – but don’t go overboard.  For those less familiar you would want to describe your extensive experience as a pilot who flew attack helicopters in the Marines.

Another column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times:

“So what’s it like over there?”

It’s a question that I get a lot. It is also a question that gets a different answer depending on who asks it.

The problem is not the curiosity expressed by the curious inquisitor, but instead with their ability to process the answer.

To be a combat veteran is to have lived through experiences that are completely outside the perceptive reality of those who have not walked in the same boots that you have. As a result, I have learned that I have to be very, very cautious when I answer such a seemingly innocent query.

“It’s pretty hot and miserable,” I say to most people, “except in the winter, when it is pretty cold and miserable. I like it here in good old America much better than over there.”

That’s what I say now, anyway. I didn’t always have such a benign response.

The first time that I realized that I needed to have a different answer for that question was a few days after I had returned from my first tour in Iraq. I had spent seven months in a tough place where I spent no small amount of time trying to kill people who were trying to kill me. So when a very nice civilian neighbor sidled up to me at a neighborhood get-together and asked what it was like over there, I made the mistake of actually telling him.

“Well, we got rocketed and mortared a lot,” I started, “pretty much every day. The insurgents were always aiming for the chow hall on our FOB, and they would hit us at meal times. One morning, a couple of Marines were walking out of breakfast when a rocket hit one of them in the chest. All we found were his boots and bits of his ribcage…”

The look of startled horror on my neighbor’s face was something that I had never even considered. I didn’t know what to say after that, and I suddenly realized that I had no way to express myself to those who had not “been there.” What was, to me, just another day in Ramadi was to a friend who had no experience in such a place a terrible shock.

It was then that I learned that such a simple question required a more selective answer.

Last Saturday I met an octogenarian at a veterans museum. After we shook hands, he asked if I had served in the military. After I told him that I had spent a little time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he visibly perked up and told me that he had fought in Korea. Then he asked that ubiquitous question:

“So what’s it like over there?”

So I told him. Not about the weather, but what it was like to fight a determined and wily enemy. He listened, nodded and told me about the frozen hills of Korea. How he had fought with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division against the North Koreans and how he and his unit had “bugged out” when they were assaulted by 150,000 Chinese soldiers from the other side of the Yalu River in 1950.

We chatted about what it was like to fight. Our wars were different, but we were the same: two men who had gone “over there” and lived to talk about it. He told me how he swore that he would never again climb a mountain but had somehow ended up retired in Colorado. I shared my desire to never see a desert again, much less live in one. He wondered at the amount of equipment we carry in the wars of today, and I marveled at how he survived the amazing experience of fighting his way through the ice and snow of the Korean winter to escape certain capture or death.

So if you ask me what it’s like over there, don’t be surprised if you get a pretty boring answer. Unless, of course, you have been “over there,” too.

Then we’ll chat.

Memorial brings closure: this week’s column in the North County Times

Last weekend I was extremely fortunate to join many of comrades in arms from my first tour in Iraq.  I had not seen many of them since the 6th of March 2006 when I left the war-torn city of Ramadi and began the journey back home.  We gathered at a memorial service for the 83 Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines who were killed in action during our shared deployment.

It was a truly cathartic experience.  I was thrilled and honored to be able to join friends I had not seen in over half a decade as we paid our respects to the fallen.  I wrote about the experience for the North County Times:

I have been writing about PTSD for the last few columns because it is something that every combat veteran, including myself, faces upon his or her return to polite society. It is neither good nor bad, but instead just a fact of life that most veterans do their best to shut away in the dark corners of the soul.

There are occasions when light penetrates those corners, however, and this past weekend was one of them. A few short days ago I was privileged to be part of something that for me was visceral and heartrending and heartening and wonderful. I went home in a way that only those who have felt the bony finger of Death pass by without lingering understand.

Last Sunday, I attended the memorial dedication for 83 of my fellow warriors who died in Iraq.

It was a particularly emotional ceremony for me because it provided a bit of closure that been eluding me for over half a decade. It also brought me back together with comrades in arms whom I had last seen carrying rifles or driving tanks in the dust and heat of Iraq.

I spent two tours there, both in the war-torn city of Ramadi. I served there at the nadir when it was savage and bloody and relentless, with my first tour beginning in 2005 and my second ending in 2007.

Although I was a Marine, my unit specialized in fire support and liaison and we were tasked to integrate with non-Marine forces. We provided liaison and fire support to the infantry, tank and artillery units of the 2d Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division, a U.S. Army National Guard unit from Pennsylvania and 30 other states. We linked them into the 2d Marine Division.

We fought side by side for months on end. I made tremendous friends with the Guardsmen and women, and was never short of amazed at how hard they fought and how well they worked together as a team. It was an honor to serve with them, and an even greater honor to be counted as one of their own. It was with these Guardsmen that I first saw the elephant, and it was from them that I learned to surmount fear.

Many, too many, gave their last full measure in Ramadi.

I chatted with my friend “Mac” McLaughlin on a chilly January morning before he went out to recruit candidates for the Iraqi police forces, little knowing that he would be struck down by a suicide bomber before lunch. Brent Adams, another Pennsylvanian, took care of my vehicles as if they were his own when we could not get support from the Marines. He was snuffed out by a rocket before I could express my gratitude. Mark Procopio, a promising young Vermonter, was mortally shattered by an IED as he came to my aid in a tough fight.

This past weekend, you see, was the dedication of the 2-28 Brigade Combat Team memorial in Boalsburg, Pa. The memorial, conceived while the unit was still in the fight in Iraq, was completed with Sunday’s dedication and remembrance of those who died. It was also a celebration of life for those of us who could meet, break bread, and pick up conversations that lay silent for over half a decade. It was the catharsis of sorrow and joy that only those who have seen the elephant together can fully understand.

It was an honor to serve with the Pennsylvanians and the Vermonters and the Utahans and the North Carolinians and the countless other Army and Air Guardsmen and women who made up the brigade. It was a thrill to see so many of them again on Sunday, and it was closure to finally lay to rest those 83 souls who gave their all.

It was a light that makes the dark corners a little less so, and one that will stay lit.

Combat Stress and PTSD: My latest column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times.  As a veteran of multiple tours in two wars I have personally experienced and witnessed first hand the the wide spectrum of combat related stress and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  To me it is a truly important subject, and I am writing about the subject as a columnist in our local newspaper.


Stigma still attached to PTSD

Every person who goes to war brings a little bit of it home. For some, they carry memories of their adventures and some stories to tell. Others, however, bring home a burden that weighs upon their psyche and may accompany them for the rest of their lives.

Even though two combat veterans may have been in the same places and experienced the same stresses, joys, horrors and camaraderie that are all factors in the personal experience of warfare, they will return home affected by their participation in very different ways.

There is a wide range of emotional and psychological effects that result from an individual’s involvement in conflict. No veteran returns home without some change within themselves, and in that regard they are no different from any other person who experiences a stress and separation for extended periods of time. Research and common sense both irrefutably show that prolonged exposure to stress, as well as involvement in terrifyingly brief but immensely stressful situations, results in psychological change. Just how much change varies with every person, and the effects of the experience differ for each and every person who goes through such an event.

These effects are not limited to participants in war. Anyone can suffer from long-term exposure to stress or from short-term specific events. Battered women who endure abusive relationships agonize long after they leave the abuser, just as survivors of disasters such as plane crashes or earthquakes endure inner turmoil even though the actual event has come and gone.

Veterans of war share the same inner conflict and anxiety as anyone who has been through the emotional wringer.

Does that mean that we have over a million sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder? Nope. The majority of veterans return from the combat theater with no psychological damage, but instead with a broader perspective on life that shapes their worldview and subtly alters their thought processes and reasoning as they move on with their lives. They live as they did before they left, except for a greater reservoir of experience to draw from.

That said, a significant number of combat vets experience real difficulty adjusting to life at home when they return from overseas. They suffer from combat operational stress injury, or COSI. Their symptoms range from mild to severe, and from acute to chronic. Some sufferers require little assistance to overcome the challenges they face when they come home, while others are completely incapacitated by the ravages of PTSD.

To the tremendous credit of the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration those who suffer from COSI are encouraged to participate in treatment that is comprehensive, effective, non-attributional and free. Active-duty personnel can take advantage of Deployment Health Centers that offer a wide range of assistance and treatment options that are designed to help the service member understand and cope with their stress injury while still wearing the uniform. The Veterans Administration likewise offers a wide array of services for veterans who are no longer actively serving; all a veteran needs to do is contact the Veterans Affairs office for assistance.

And therein lies the rub.

There are dozens of programs in the DOD and VA to help people who have fought for their country, but surprisingly few actually seek help even though they really need it. The programs are free, so there is no financial reason to stay away. They are also non-attributional, meaning that there is no official retribution or black mark on a person’s record should they seek help.

Why, then, do so many fail to seek treatment?

The answer is simple. Even though society has come to accept that the mind can suffer injury just as the body can, the same cannot be said for the members of the armed forces. There is a very real stigma attached to those who seek mental help while in uniform, and the perception of the stigma follows closely behind servicemen and servicewomen as they transition back to civilian life.

So why does the stigma still exist in the military when society has largely come to accept it?

The military exists to fight the nation’s wars. Sure, it does a lot of other things, too, like perform humanitarian missions at home and abroad and provide employment —- but the true purpose of the military is to fight.

In order to go to war and win requires that the people in the military be aggressive, fit and mentally inured to hardship in order to do the things required of them in combat. The cultures of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all revolve around things like strength, resilience, aggressiveness and toughness. Any form of weakness is contrary to the warrior culture, and individuals who exhibit weakness are viewed as lesser beings in the eyes of their peers.

Seeking help for stress injuries is viewed as weakness. Even though thousands of people really need help, they won’t pursue it. The official DOD policy states that seeking help is non-attributional and that there will be no detriment to a person’s career, but the truth is different. Warriors don’t want to be seen as mentally frail, so they just suck it up despite all of the opportunities to help overcome their injuries. They fear ostracism, so they just hide their pain and soldier on.

I know, because I have seen it first-hand. I’ll explain in my next column.
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