It is with great sadness I read of Brig. General Allison Hickey’s decision to pull the yellow and white ejection handle over her head and punch out yesterday. We cannot say we didn’t see it coming and I, for one, commiserate with her. Had I been faced with the same imbecilic employees stealing from the till, I expect I would be embarrassed beyond words and consider moving on.
As much as I have disparaged her over the years since her investiture in 2011, no one can say that she hasn’t whipped the VBA into shape. Considering VA was the last bastion of ignorance in computers (and gleefully proud of it), she performed yeoman service to drag them to this stage. I shudder to think where we’d be now without her. The curse is the stain her little people will indelibly leave on what might have been her most enduring gift to Veterans- a decision on their benefits in their lifetimes. I began when I was 38 years old. I finally won at 64. Without her reforms, many coming after me could never look forward to accomplishing it in far less time. That’s an impressive legacy to leave behind.
I spent 26 or more years struggling to attain service connection and stumbled over and over again in the paper jungles of the c-file. At the end of my travails, she introduced the modern ‘gitterdone’ techniques many in the private sector bring to the VA when we are lucky enough to get one. Fighting for acceptance in an entrenched hierarchy of indifference and ennui, she prevailed impressively. No one can look back and say she shirked her duties on her watch. I honestly believed she would have taken a knee when Eric the Clueless discovered his minions were ignoring his orders. That she stayed and stuck with her modernization program in spite of all the flak speaks volumes about her resolve. In retrospect, I can only apologize for my shortsightedness and sarcastic blogs in view of her accomplishments. Forgive me, Allison.
Repairing the VBA is going to be a prodigious enterprise. Hickey began reform where all should have done so before her-at the Regional Office level. Obviously, this was going to compound itself with interest when all the denials metamorphosed into appeals and arrived at the Board of Veterans Appeals. That would have been the next repair order. BVA Grand Poohbah Laura Eskinazi doesn’t have the expertise to fix it. Absent Hickey, the bottleneck is destined to continue for another decade until America’s Veterans die off or give up. Prior to the VJRA of 1988, that’s exactly how it worked. Absent any insightful change orders or streamlining, the intractible backlog will merely inhabit a new location-the BVA. That cannot be blamed on Allison’s shortsightedness.
Many are quick to denigrate the fallen and find all manner of deficiency in the way they ran the office. I’d liken her plight to being the Captain of the Exxon Valdez. It takes 3.5 miles to stop it and 3 hours to change course to a new heading. The Veterans Benefits arm of VA has been idly cruising on autopilot (and paper) for eons and showed no proclivity to change before Eric and Allison showed up. Even when prodded, the majority at 810 Varmint Ave NW ignored them and merrily continued to do nothing proactive or constructive. In the military, when faced with insubordination, you write a few OERs that state in no uncertain terms the offenders aren’t qualified to be in charge of an outhouse and things change. Not so government and sadly, never at VA.
The mere fact Allison was able to institute any changes at all in a timely manner was due to the force of her personality. Nobody can say Representative Jeff Miller was a driving force. Hell, all he did was hurl nasty epithets and tell her she was screwing up. Not once did you hear any encouragement or suggestions. Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t contribute much as he was too busy trying to do whatever folks from Vermont are fond of doing- woolgathering, I surmise. All the recent new legislation in the world promising to hang ’em high in Phoenix didn’t impress the laggards in DC. VBA has been a wasteland of ineptitude and squandered opportunities for decades. VHA, say what you will, at least had the wherewithal to dive into computers in 1996. No one can pin the state of emasculation at the VAOIG on Allison. That was not her bailiwick. Nevertheless, she set her goals at the VBA and never wavered in her resolve. How many can we say that about?
In the future, we’ll all look back longingly at Hickey’s tenure and realize the dramatic changes she made to modernize the VBA in the face of blatant, subvert resistance. I saw this localized phenomenon of arrogance as recently as last October following my plea to VA Secretary McDonald to resolve my two decade-old Odyssey. A Decision Review Officer in Seattle, one Cheryllanne Mackey-Rivas, audibly snorted in derision at the mere idea of helping me out. So much for Veteran-centric, nonadversarial, Veteran-friendly representatives emulating ( and instituting) Ms. Hickey’s imperatives. Something was lost in the transmission from DC to Seattle. Either that or VA employees have an entitlement mentality that has run amuck for so long they feel they are their own masters. Whether Gen. Hickey had a hand in fixing it or simply ordered the hired help to repair it RFN, within 45 days of filing my Extraordinary Writ everything I had asked for came to pass. The Seattle RO then magically arranged a Travel Board Hearing in less than two weeks and the Board advanced my appeals on the docket granting them in less than four months. This simply doesn’t happen in VAland. And now that wind of change is gone.
No one in authority can be expected to have their finger on the day-to-day pulse of the job. This is why we delegate authority to ensure a smoothly running machine. The financial shenanigans of Hickey’s underlings starkly reveals the old boy network that allowed this to happen is alive and well-albeit well camouflaged. It’s simply more of the Shinseki redux. What? No more bonuses? Hell, we’ll fix that.
Veterans are in for a major disappointment when the 56 Puzzle Palaces across the Fruited Plain suddenly discover there is no pressure on them to continue Allison’s reforms. The proverbial sails of change will go slack for lack of wind. The backlog will begin to creep up slowly with no apparent reason. Real reform at the Board of Veterans Appeals will sink on the list of priorities and the “norm” for an appeal will grow to unheard of lengths. As it is now, Veterans are now waiting in line conservatively for three years or more. Expect to see that soon grow exponentially absent any concerted pressure from a new Under Secretary of Benefits. The old c- file rooms at the Fort Fumbles across America will now become repositories for mass quantities of VA 8s certifying Veterans’ appeals -but with nowhere to go like a plugged up sewer.
Big Mac is soon going to feel the ire aimed at Allison from Miller et al. With no panacea for improvement, VA is headed for a new spate of sudden ‘retirements’ a hop, skip and a jump ahead of firings. Morale will sink to new lows and SES golf handicaps will tank. I predicted over a year ago Allison was not going to hang around and carry the water for all the flunkies who were stabbing her in the back with their indifference and resistance to change. I take no pleasure in being right but had I been in the same saddle, I’d have ridden off into the sunset a year ago. It’s one thing to be correct and underappreciated. It’s an entirely different proposition to have your employees doing their damnedest to undermine you and make you look like a boob. Mostly, it takes great intestinal fortitude and a love for the Veterans’ plight to stay and fight to make a lasting difference. No one can say Hickey didn’t make an immense improvement in the way VA has been running things since 1917. But, as with any endeavour, you will always find detractors unhappy with the short-term outcome. Far thinkers are in short supply at VA-if there ever were any.
I, for one, know the walk she’s walked. I was an Air Force brat and almost decided on the Air Force Academy. As a Lieutenant General and vice-commander of TAC, I’m equally sure my father could have pulled the strings to get me in. Being born on April Fool’s day is not a glowing endorsement, granted. Neither is graduating 59th in a class of 64 from a prestigious private school. With the unenviable prospect of Vietnam being over before I got there, I threw away my slot at Hartwick College and enlisted in 1969. Being a brat of any service is guaranteed to draw scrutiny too. Somehow, they always find out. Being a female in the first Air Force Academy class ever allowed in must have seemed even more daunting. Her decision to stay and fight for us after Shinseki’s humiliating downfall must have been a deep, soul-searching one. We all benefited from it-most especially America’s women Vets.
We will sorely miss her.