When I was in the active duty military it was not uncommon for people to say to me when I was in uniform “Thank you for your service.” I always politely responded, “You’re welcome.” I believed they were sincere and I appreciated the sentiment. Upon reflection I also thought that it’s easy to thank someone for spending a year or more away from his or her family in some godforsaken country, but it would be more meaningful if they shared in the sacrifice in some way, or at least bought me a drink—I prefer top shelf bourbon. I think it’s sort of what is at the root of the problems in America today: we are too ready to let someone else make the sacrifice, pay the taxes, fix the roads, deploy to Iraq, or volunteer in the community. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s never minor surgery if it’s occurring to you. Likewise, it’s not a sacrifice to you if it’s someone else’s son or daughter going off to war.
I don’t hear those words of thanks these days because I have retired and no longer wear a uniform. I’m fine with that—my daughter still calls me “sir” and my wife thanks me when I deserve it, which is rare, but does happen. Unfortunately, not many veterans have a respectful hippy daughter or an appreciative spouse, and they often end up needing help. The Veterans Administration (VA) is our government agency charged with providing that help and its shortfalls are well known. I could explain my theory about why the agency is in such disarray, but I will save that for another time. I would, however, like to share my VA experiences.
When you retire from the military you have the right to file a claim for disability and receive compensation if the claim is valid. The disability must be the result of injuries or diseases incurred or aggravated during active duty, and the amount of compensation depends on the severity of the disability.
The first step is to file the claim, which of course means filling out and submitting lots of forms and documentation—I mean, a whole lot. It starts with a cover letter, then a VA Form 21-526EZ, the main claim form, and adds on a VA Form 21-22 for good measure, and throws in a VA Form 686c, and don’t forget your Department of Defense Form 214, a copy of each of your children’s birth certificates, a copy of your marriage certificate, your entire medical and dental records, and a partridge in a pear tree. After compiling my claim with the help of a local veteran’s service organization, and their Radar O’Reilly-like paperwork expert, I submitted what the VA calls a fully developed claim. The stack was nearly a foot thick of paper, and I aggravated my back while hauling it to the VA, which is ironic, because I had already listed it as one of my medical conditions.
The VA says that a fully developed claim is “in theory” faster and my Radar O’Reilly recommended submitting the claim the first day of my retirement, so I diligently filled out all the forms and arrived at the VA office in the basement of the base hospital on my first official day of retirement. I had steeled myself for a long line, but was pleasantly surprised that there was no line and the charming receptionist motioned me forward immediately. I explained that I was here to file a disability claim, but she said with an appropriate degree of chagrin that, “only Bob could take receipt of my claim and he had taken the day off.” Since the sole purpose of this office was to take in disability claims, I wondered exactly what her job was, or what she did exactly when Bob decided to take a day off? Play Candy Crush on Facebook? Then, being a highly trained military man, I wondered how could I get her gig? Be the receptionist for a one-person office who sat at their desk and told people to come back tomorrow again and again, until either they quit coming or tomorrow never happened. It reminded me of the odd character in the movie Office Space who had his cubicle moved to the basement storage area. I was in the basement and maybe this wasn’t the VA office, but rather they had moved this receptionist down to the basement by herself because she annoyed everyone. But she seemed rather pleasant, so I suspect the office had been much larger at one point, but everyone got downsized except for her and Bob. Hopefully, Bob would not get laid off or she would be the receptionist for no one. I could only imagine her answering the phone, “Hello, this is Carol at the VA, I can help you in no way, please call again tomorrow.” So, ended my first experience with the VA.
The next day I went back to the VA office and Carol informed me that our man was back on the job. Bob was by all measures helpful, pleasant, and efficient. He quickly reviewed my claim and said everything looked in good order. He said he would package up my claim and mail it off to the Cleveland office the next day. Mail you ask, in this age of digital wonders? You see the VA still did most things by paper;
I even spotted a typewriter in the receptionist’s office. I thought about bringing in my kids and saying, “Look it’s a rare Underwood typewriter. People used them in the Jurassic period before the Ice Age.” Sadly, the truth is more mundane: the VA and DoD were both amid transitioning their paper medical records to digital electronic records, but they forgot to talk to each other and found out, after spending billions, that the two systems were incompatible. Digital active duty medical records could not be electronically transferred to the VA system. So, when I submitted my claim to the VA, I had to give them a paper copy of my entire military medical record. It’s amazing to think that in 1968 we put a man on the moon, but in 2014 we still couldn’t transfer digital medical records between the DoD and the VA. Talk about Shock and Awe, what about Shock and Aw Shit! Bob alerted me that the VA would call in about 45 days to set up appointments to review and validate my medical conditions. Not surprisingly day 45 arrived and went without a call, then day 50, and 60, and 70, but finally around day 75 I received a letter in the mail.
I was expecting a notice to call them to set up appointments, but instead it was a letter notifying me of my appointment times. Did they assume that all veterans were unemployed or that they could get off work at any time? Did they forget that most vets started new jobs and had little accrued vacation? I called and asked if I could move the appointments to my off day and they said the next available appointments were two months out. Their letter also stated that failure to keep the appointment may or may not impact my disability claim. But, they did close with a nice, “Thank you for choosing the VA to be your healthcare provider.” It resonated with that same, “Thank you for your service” that I received before I retired, but the fact they threatened to deny my claim solely because I could not make an appointment at the time of their choosing made the gratitude ring hollow. I was able to reschedule one appointment from 08:30 to 11:30 because it conflicted with a private medical eye appointment that I had already scheduled, but that was all the slack they would grant me. The next day I got another letter with the new appointment times, and the following day I got another letter with those appointments and some new ones. Then the following day I got another letter with the original appointments. Were they making up for their inflexibility in the original scheduling by being prolific in sending new appointment letters? I began to suspect that someone in management was tracking how many appointment letters were sent out and was gleefully reporting to his or her boss that they were absolutely crushing that metric. Thank you for your service!
So, the day of my appointment arrived and I showed up at the VA hospital with a little trepidation. After I parked my car a country mile from the hospital, I began the hike to the entrance passing a sign that said, “No Smoking Within 100 feet of the Building,” but as I approached the entrance I had to pass by a crowd clustered outside smoking. Did they have poor vision and couldn’t read the sign, or maybe their addiction to nicotine overwhelmed their desire to comply with common courtesy and VA rules? To me it was a tip that this wasn’t the Mayo Clinic. Upon entering the hospital my disillusionment continued because what I saw before me looked like a homeless shelter. The masses mingling around the main lobby looked like they were lined up at a soup kitchen waiting for lunch. And the lobby itself caught my attention as it was dated circa 1982. The walls, furniture, and décor were a depressing mauve and tarnished silver, and I half expected a Duran Duran video to be playing on the glass tube TVs. A few people looked at me confused. In their minds and on their faces were the words, “what are you doing here, you don’t look homeless?” I was wearing a nice wool overcoat and navy sport coat with gray slacks and black dress shoes—what I wear to work these days. The appropriate accoutrements for this soirée were clearly flannel shirts, jeans, and white tennis shoes. I felt like a fish out of water, so I proceeded cautiously on to the elevator for my 8th floor appointment, listening to a disconcerting Muzak version of Prince’s “1999” on the ride up. Upon arriving at the place of my appointment they asked me to take a seat. Expecting at least an hour-long wait, I got out some work but much to my surprise a doctor called my name within 15 minutes.
He politely introduced himself and got down to business, beginning by saying that he wasn’t sure why I was here because he did not see any indication of mental issues in my record. I told him there wasn’t any indication of mental issues in my record because I did not have any mental conditions, other than slight regret for having come to the VA hospital that day. I also informed him that I did not file a claim for any mental conditions, nor did I request an appointment to be seen by a mental health care provider. He speculated that maybe the Cleveland office saw something in my medical record that indicated a need for a mental health evaluation. They had no knowledge of the seven months I spent as the jester for the Admiral in Iraq, so I could not fathom why someone would think I needed a mental health evaluation. Drawing on my knowledge of how the military works, I suspected that maybe contractors in the VA’s Cleveland office got paid by the number of referrals they ordered up after reviewing records. Or, maybe they assumed that all veterans had mental issues. Sadly many do and benefit from these services, but I did not, other than occasional bouts of regret for drinking cheap bourbon at a young age and not being more active during the most recent presidential campaign. But, even after this exchange he proceeded to ask me questions. I suspect that he was required to do an evaluation of some sort to get paid. He asked me about where I grew up, and about my kids, and my lovely wife. He did not ask me if I had a fondness for Mother or require me to view any Rorschach drawings, where I would say “Looks like a butterfly,” or that “Looks like President Trump on a windy day.” As we talked, I looked around his office and noticed the books piled everywhere, and the sheet of paper covering the examination table that looked about two years old. Wrinkled, dirty, and torn, I wondered when was it last changed. The idea grew in my mind that maybe this was a Twilight Zone episode and this guy was the Maytag repairman of military mental health, the lonely guardian looking out for someone going postal in a mundane Midwestern town. I then looked out the window at what seemed to be a nice park but was in fact a military cemetery.
How nice for the vets here in need of a mental health evaluation to bolster their confidence with a splendid view of the gravestones of their brothers in arms. Thankfully our chat only lasted about 15 minutes and he sent me on my way. He had done this due diligence and concluded I had no mental issues. Thank you for your service.
The next day I had an eye appointment at my own optometrist’s at 9 in the morning and on the way there my wife called and said that the VA had just called the house to alert me that I was late for their 8:30 appointment. I called them back and reminded them that this appointment had been rescheduled for 11:30, but they claimed they did not have record of the change. I promised them that I would get there as soon as my eye appointment was finished. I arrived at the VA around 10:30, this time in jeans and fleece jacket to blend in with the crowd a bit, and made my way to the clinic where I had the appointment. This doctor was doing my orthopedic examination and we spent the next three hours discussing every injury I had over the past 27 years, which was a lot since I had played intramural sports my entire career where I made a up for my lack of athletic ability by sacrificing my body. The doctor was a pleasant man and we had quite an enjoyable conversation while he meticulously plowed through my medical records one page at a time. We discussed our kids, politics, marriage, sports, the federal government, Abraham Lincoln, the history of the VA, and occasionally a medical detail. He was thorough and competent and a credit to the VA, and enjoyed my company, or maybe anyone’s company. He seemed a bit lonely. Well, he referred me to radiology where they proceeded to X-ray just about every bone in my body.
I received so much radiation that day I worried that I might glow when the lights were turned off. They next ran an EKG to confirm that indeed I did still have a beating heart, but afterwards the technician asked me what I wanted to do with it. I wasn’t sure, so I took the copy and gave it to the technician keeping my records. It appears that people walked in all the time requesting EKGs.
Finally, was a visit to the dental department. I was amazed when I walked in. It looked brand new, and was fully staffed. The dentist doing my exam was very professional and afterwards told me that retirees were eligible for a one-time deal of a free exam, cleaning, and (if needed) a repair of any fillings. I got the sense that he was bored and was trying to gin up some work for his staff. He urged me to go to the appointment desk out front to schedule an appointment. Not one to miss a deal, I did just that, but they said the place to go to make the appointment was actually the maroon desk in the front lobby. Taking the bait I went to the maroon desk and they pointed me to the “Freedom Center” to make a dental appointment. I am not sure why you need a “Freedom Center” in a VA hospital, but I did find one. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me. It was actually the dental clinic desk that scheduled those appointments. So I wandered back to the dental clinic after visiting every section of the VA hospital and found someone willing to schedule me an appointment.
So, after all the VA examinations, all I had to do was wait for the results . . . and wait . . . and wait some more. You see, although the number of veterans had expanded dramatically with the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA did not have the foresight or funding to expand their staff. This meant that the disability claims had a huge backlog. In fact, there was a news article stating that one VA center, a regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., had so much paper that it “created an unsafe workspace for [VA] employees and appeared to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building.” The article observed that at this one office alone, “37,000 claims folders were stored on top of file cabinets.”
The report said that this “creates an unsafe environment for the employees, overexposes many claims folders to risk of fire/water damage, inadvertent loss and possible misplacement, as well as impedes [the Veterans Affairs Regional Office] productivity by reducing access to many folders in a timely manner.” According to the report, the sheer weight of the combined folders actually exceeded the load-bearing capacity of the building itself.
Back when I submitted my claim in 2014, there were almost one million veterans waiting for their benefit claims to be processed and the average time for a disability claim to be resolved was 279 days. First time claims take longer, averaging 318 days, and the wait time has grown 2,000 percent in the past four years.
Recently the VA implemented a new automated claim review system, but the backlog was still over 100,000 cases.
So, I waited, and waited, and waited some more—much like the Grinch on top of Mount Krumpet, waiting to hear the Whos cry Boo-Hoo Hoo—but after a mere five months I received notice from the VA that I was entitled to a small disability benefit and I would receive compensation next month. Even better, I would receive backpay from when the claim was submitted eight months ago. Now that my friend is a “Thank You For Your Service” that one can take to the bank . . . or use to buy some top shelf bourbon!