Fall NOVA (National Organization of Veterans Advocates) conferences were fairly interesting and also slightly disconcerting. It is well known that VA is a lying, deceiving, anti-Veteran agency of the government. If you know that going in to this business, you learn how to smile and the acquired art of the meet-and-greet without turning it into a verbal donnybrook. What you never do is boo the competition while they’re delivering the Party Line. While I believe brainwashing is a viable excuse for atrocious behaviour on their part, I also believe there is some cognizance of what is at play. They seem overly intent on protecting the public fisc at the expense of deserving Veterans. When they recognize we have the same lineage as pit bulls, they may become more amenable to helping Vets.
Regardless of what you or I think about the VA, I have to interact with the opposition on a daily basis at all 56 regional offices. With the introduction of the National Work Queue (NWQ), we Veterans no longer have a traditional Regional Office setting. Seattle is now a DROC (pronounced D-rock) as in Decision Review Operations Center. St. Petersburg on the East Coast provides the same service on the other side of the Rockies. These are where they do the HLRs. I’m beginning to hear tell of the VSRs or the Senior RVSRs who are beginning to refuse to have an informal conference via phone with us when we ask for it. They say there was no need to waste time on it as s/he would never have changed their minds on the denials. Ruh-oh, Rorge… due process? Say all after Cushman v. Shinseki???? Welcome to the new AMA, ladies and gentlemen.
You need a VARO Who’s who to find your rater now with the NWQ. Fortunately, we have VA Outlook email in VBMS and you can find anyone in a New York minute with it. If I email a coach (GS-13) and s/he doesn’t answer me in a week, I send him/her a polite email reminder and cc: it to the head of the AMO- David Mclenachen. He has asked us to do this when we hit the wall with room temperature-IQ VA employees. We also have a new contact number at the BVA with someone live-not a recording. Pretty soon we’re gonna be in high cotton.
Decorum, in this business, is paramount. Regardless of what you think of the employees, you still have to accomplish the mission. When I hit a real impasse and steam is coming out both our collars, I like to throw in my favorite.
“Remember, Ma’m (sir), this isn’t about you and me. It’s about our job-the Veteran. I like to think of myself as the ‘A’ in ICARE. You know what ICARE stands for, right? Integrity. Commitment. Advocacy, Respect. Excellence? I’m simply a small part of that VA team. We all are. Well, at least I hope we all are. Your mission is to render a decision which grants every benefit that can be supported in law while protecting the interests of the Government. My job is to assist my Veteran in attaining those benefits. You just tell me what you want or need to render a favorable decision and we’ll provide it.”
It kind of takes the wind out of their sails. Not so much for the hard core brainwashed ones, though. They’re a special case of vicious. Fortunately, the brainwashed outnumber the rabid ones.
Dealing with higher up VA employees need not be daunting. They are humans albeit “altered thinkers”. Their mission is to follow orders and procedure. M 21 is their Koran. Agents and attorneys represent a different metric. VA isn’t quite sure how to deal with us. If we have VBMS access, we have VA PIV cards. That, in their eyes, makes us “quasi-VA” employees. Nobody want to make the mistake of insulting us. VSOs are like whaleshit in VA’s eyes. Think Homer Simpson’s monkey Mojo. They have low access clearance to VBMS and never interact with the VA hierarchy. They report to their Service officer-he who holds a POA code and is accredited. Nothing gets filed until it crosses his desk (which isn’t such a high hurtle). I saw a DAV/AL/AmVets BVA appeals team of three try to argue for a separate 10% award for tinnitus for each ear. The VLJ was suuuuper polite but had to ‘splain in VSOspeak that this was a Bozo no-no and he couldn’t see clear to granting it. Boy howdy if I pulled that shenanigan, the OGC would be breathing down my neck and sending me out for a Psych exam for AOX3( alert and oriented in all three planes).
Which brings us to Veterans Law Judge and Chairman of the Board of Veterans Appeals Cheryl Mason and Head of the Appeals Management Office David McLenachen. This is the second time we have had the pleasure of the VA allowing these folks to attend a NOVA conference- the other being this spring in Nashville. I always like to get in close to my enemies and see what makes them tick. I like to listen to their spiel to see if it holds water or just the latest propaganda du jour. Chairman Mason is probably far more candid off-stage without a microphone in front of her. Which is not to say she will ever let her guard down. So far, all I’ve seen is the Party line being espoused after being vetted by VA spokesman Curt Cashour. I wouldn’t expect her to fall on her sword and confess any sins.
Ditto Mr. McLenachen. He has gravitas and presents well. It’s just the content of what is being delivered that beggars the imagination. Merely delivering statistics on how well the VA is doing the job of hyper-adjudicating VA claims is rather hollow. If your Vet has been waiting 18 months for some chowderhead GS-11 in Houston to pick up his claims file and do the decision (which as been ready for decision since 3/18/2019), those statistics are useless knowledge. How about we address why you can no longer file anything without it being rejected (wrong form)? Where did that shit come from? Veteran friendly? Due process? WTF, over?
This is why it’s indelicate to boo your competition when we’re trying to reach out to them and form better alliances and bridges. I remember the Howdy Doody Show when I was kid on TV. The back benches of the NOVA conference sounded like the Peanut Gallery.
Our mission is to meld with the VA such that we work together for the Vet rather than against him. You don’t engender respect by insulting the guests you invite to present the VA’s hollow statistics. You grin and bear it. You network. You sidle over to Mr. McLenachen at the Friday evening après conference cocktail party and strike up a conversation with him on some subject you know well that VA needs to improve on … like §3.156(c). You never insult them. You treat them as a cog in a greater wheel who may help or hinder you. An old Russian Proverb comes to mind. “Don’t piss in the well. You might get thirsty.”
As usual, since the Court sent Judge (Saint) Mary Schoelen, I got Cupcake to snap a shot of us together. I promised I would never embarrass her if she let me. Of all the judges who have ever sat on the Bench, I respect her the most. Her father was a Navy Officer and a Veteran. She brought much to the Court in compassion and giving the pro-Veteran canon of construction a fuller interpretation. She will retire in December along with Judge Robert Davis. We’ll miss them both.
Be polite. It costs you nothing and helps build friendship. Say what you want to about President Trump. He’s the first President who got up off his ass and went halfway around the world to meet with Kim Jung Il. That sure beats the last four Presidents who ignored him and his father for the last 60 years. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. It’s really good advice.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that.