The above was quoted from a Yahoo Internet news story today May 25th 2006, one of about ten thousand this week dealing with the theft of a laptop computer containing Veterans social seurity numbers and other private information.
"... to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan..." Abraham Lincoln
Thus began what became the Veterans Administration according to popular lore.
The above quote is inscribed in granite above the headquarters building of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. Of all the quotes inscribed above all the buildings in that town so famous for fluffing up famous sayings, none is quite as stretched out of proportion as that above.
Ask any Veteran of United States military service today what the VA has done for them since they were discharged. Before you ask, get prepared. You'll hear the same story again and again.
At first you'll think that all Veterans are simply a group of disgruntled, angry, drug abusing, alcohol swilling, shell shocked, sour-grapes sorts of people. You'll tell yourself that there can't possibly be a government agency this corrupt, this arrogant, this innefficient and this...wrong, allowed to exist. It just can't be. This is America isn't it? If it were really this bad, it would have been fixed long ago.
So, your easy answer will be that all the Veterans you talk to are angry and bitter. Angry and bitter about...well, what?
We're angry that not one of us are surprised that the incident of the stolen laptop occurred.
The congress and senate and other capitol hill power people are all acting shocked & awed and demanding answers and thumping their scrawny chests in unison but nary a single Veteran who has ever called the VA is surpised in the least.
The VA answers to no master.
The good employees of the Internal Revenue Service look over at their cousins at VA with admiration and wonder how they managed to create such a perfect world.
And it is a perfect world. For the VA, not for the Veteran. First, you must understand what the VA is. It is a Hydra, a multi headed beast loosely connected to a massive, sluggish body.
It's stated goal and purpose is service and support to a unique breed of Americans. These Americans are warriors who have joined an exclusive club. A club so exclusive that enrollment is limited to those who are qualified by certain physical and mental traits that it encourages them to travel to foreign lands, meet strange and beautiful people, use deadly explosive or chemical or radioactive devices that cost billions of taxpayer's dollars and kill hundreds of thousands of those people legally and then return home as if not much had happened.
Some of the Hydra's heads seem to function reasonably well. Most Veterans get a home loan without a problem. Education is usually pretty smooth. Getting into the health care sytem can be a challenge but if a Veteran needs care, once in, the VA health system is suddenly being seen as a model for other systems in the country in many areas.
But then...there's the rub. Getting in the system.
The VA has a "disability benefits system". This is the dark secret, the large part of the Hydra, the ugliest head that nobody wants to talk about. This head controls all the rest. If VA has a multiple personality disorder, this is the dominant personality that comes out at all the parties, right at the worst time and ruins it for everyone. The other heads talk about this one when it's distracted and they fear it.
Most Veterans never see combat. The average Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman is in a support role. I never had a bullet fired at me. I wasn't exposed to agent orange or atomic radiation. No gooks or slopes rushed at me and I didn't storm any nazis. No punji sticks, I didn't trip any booby traps or claymores. Nothing. Zip, zero, nada. Yet, I collect a service connected disability benefit and I feel damn well jusified in doing so.
By the time I was 18, I had completed basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. That alone is more than any civilian will ever have to face. No athlete, no pro football player, no mountain climber will do anything as rigorous as what a young man or woman will go through in Army or Marine basic. I can't speak to Air Force or Navy...I won't knock it although from what I'm told, it isn't as physically demanding. I do know there is nothing in civilan life that will compare.
For the next 3 years, I worked. Hard. By age 19 I was doing work that I would not have been expected to do in any comparable civilian position. I'm not bragging, not complaining, just saying.
There were few days off. We were a team. We depended on each other. There was no slack. The motto was that we had to do more and more with less and less until we could do it all with nothing. Accomplish the mission.There was no choice. We were medics. We worked with surgeons in operating rooms and at that time, lives of comrades depended on us doing what we did. It wasn't heroics, it was what it was.
So, we got hurt, broke bones, pulled backs, slipped, fell, went without sleep...whatever.
We came home, ignored the aches and pains but eventually figured out we needed some help and knocked on the door of the VA. We knock again and again and again. Grudingly, it's eventually answered. A mound of paper is filled out. Benefits are applied for. And promptly denied. Not enough evidence. Appealed. Denied. Appealed.
A small amount is finally granted. This takes 4 years. You are now classified as 10% disabled, service connected, for an injury that is well documented to have occurred while you were on active duty.
You are not allowed to hire a lawyer. The VA is the last of the federal agencies that denies a plaintiff (or defendant?) the right to true legal representation when VA itself is loaded to its ears with lawyers.
You may not speak with a VA representative except to be told the staus of your appeal. The VA has no mandatory timeline to issue a decision. VA does not tell you what evidence you must submit but in the most general terms. Generally speaking, they are not required to show you evidence they will use aginst you when making a decision prior to making said decision.
VA relies on the highly technical legalspeak of CFR 38. These regulations are arcane, masterfully written to be so twisted, so incomprehensable that even an experienced lawyer would shake his head in wonder at it all. With a few years of practice one can make CFR 38 say anything one wishes it to say, it simply depends on the mood of the moment.
You are encouraged to use a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) to represent you to VA. These are mostly volunteers who help you complete your initial paperwork and set you free to drift alone in the VA sea. They aren't lawyers, they are often poorly trained and have no secrets to get anything done.
You may be advised to write your congressman. He will never read it of course. An assistant in his office will forward it to the VA Regional Office (VARO) where your file is kept asking for an inquiry. Your file is then pulled and sent to Washington for review by that special VA office that handles congressional inquiries. A sweetheart letter is eventually sent to your congressperson explaining that your application for benefits is being processed along with the others, it's in the pipeline, VA is doing its job in its usual efficient manner, all things are steady and good and fine and not to worry and God Bless America.
You'll eventually get a letter from your congressman telling you that the investigation is complete and you should be patient and the local Veteran's Center is waiting to serve you and God Bless America.
Your congressman has never actually been in the loop, he's been busy wrapping bundles of cash for his freezer you see. There are priorities in life after all.
Your VARO has set up the system so that anyone who dares to write a letter to congress is punished. Your file was pulled from the already slow circuit it was crawling along in and sent via bicycle courier to Washington. As it waited for a day when there wasn't a federal holiday and someone was in the office to process it as if it had been reviewed, it was out of the loop. When it was returned to your VARO, it went back to the beginning of the line.
You've added months to the process by asking for help to speed things along.
So suddenly there are millions of Veteran names, numbers, data stolen from a laptop computer and all these important Washingtonians are outraged, outraged you hear! Harumph, Harumph!
Details are still emerging but it seems that a VA employee took his laptop home to do some extra work. That alone is suspicious. Extra work, off the clock, by a VA employee just doesn't sound right but maybe I'm being mean spirited.
VA employees aren't supposed to take laptops home with them, sort of defeating the purpose of having a laptop but again I digress.
The laptop is stolen. Files are gone. This theft is apparently not reported to police authorities for maybe 2 weeks. It isn't reported to the director of the VA for the same period of time.
VA doesn't tell anybody until the story of the theft is about to be leaked to the press is seemingly how it is unfolding. And everyone is shocked and awed.
Except Veterans who have dealt with VA.
We know. Yes, we know. Veterans know.
The VA's attitude was simple. They didn't need to tell their director. He's a politician, a temp. He's here today, gone tomorrow, a pretty face with no real authority to do anything. I doubt anyone knew how to reach him. Within VA the phones never work very well in the first place so if they left him a message and he didn't get it, well, what's to be done about that?
Call the police? You're kidding? That's not covered anywhere in CFR38 is it? The police have no authority to deal with Veterans Affairs, that's the sacred trust of the VA and VA will not breach that trust and allow an outside agency to pry into the hallowed halls of that most treasured national resource, our Veterans.
Why, we at the VA consider ourselves to be the watchdogs and guardians and on this Memorial Day...
Can't you hear it now? The VA is your best friend, Veteran. And don't you forget it.