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.


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.


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.


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!


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!

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.

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.


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.


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:  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.


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.

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.