Friday, January 18, 2013

Why the VA is broken

Why the VA is Broken

1.    Incredibly long wait times – I got back from Afghanistan on 16SEP2012. I spent two days alone with my wife. No friends, no family, no phone calls, no e-mails. On the 19th of September, I made my calls to square away my medical appointments and my education benefits. Upon calling the VA Ann Arbor Hospital on 19SEP2012, I was told the wait time for Vision was right around 4 months: my appointment to have an eye exam and pick up a pair of glasses (between 3 and 5 minutes of work) would be in January some time. I committed to the date not knowing my schedule 4 months away (does anyone?). I remember planning a vacation with my wife and thinking, “Oh shit, my VA appointment.” I called and asked to reschedule and was given another date 5 months from my original appointment. Cut our vacation short or wait another 5 months (10 months total) to actually see the ophthalmologist.   

2.    General lack of medical professionalism & bedside manner – I’ve been receiving (or attempting to receive) care from the VA for the past 4 years. Never have I ever been seen on time. This is really fundamental – it sets patients up who have a sequence of appointments (often travelling from far away to do so) from making each subsequent appointment on time. It also really pisses off people who clear their schedule from work or school or family or all of the above in order to make an appointment, only to not be seen or to be seen hours afterwards. In 2010, I attempted to attend a vision appointment at 1100. The receptionist told me the department was running “about 5 hours behind.” I remember laughing hysterically and just leaving. I drove to America’s Best and paid $100 for an eye exam and two pairs of glasses, probably in less time than it took one person to be seen in the VA vision clinic. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Letters from War

So I am done here in a few days and there is pretty much nothing to do but refresh Reddit and Facebook every few seconds, hoping for something interesting to happen. I will be returning to school soon after I get back and I have some big concerns about the new Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. I decided to draft a letter and send it off. Thanks to Loopy Libertarian from Chromed Curses for her proofreading. For your consideration:

23 August 2012

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

Hello, my name is Joe Snuffy and I am a Specialist in the United States Army National Guard. I am an almost 7 year veteran of the Army as well as both an Iraq (2007-2009) and Afghanistan (2011-2012) combat veteran. I am deployed in northern Afghanistan as I write this letter right now but I am hoping to be home by the time it gets to your mailbox. I am writing to you today to express my concerns over the Post 9/11 (Chapter 33) Montgomery G.I. Bill. I am a senior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in Exercise Science (B.S.), aspiring to continue my education by pursuing a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. My educational and career goal is to work within the Veteran's Affairs (VA) healthcare system as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, assisting my fellow veterans to improve their health and quality of life. However, I believe flaws with the way that the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill operates will keep me from this goal. I want to share my issues with you and I do hope to hear back from you.

First and foremost is the tiered eligibility percentage system that determines how much of my tuition will be paid for and how much I will receive as a housing allowance as well as determining the book stipend. This system is flawed – it is very cut and dry with the tiers and unless it is changed to prorate percentages in the future, it devalues my months of service. Assuming I return back home by the time my orders for this current deployment are up, I will have 28 months and 10 days of active duty military service, including basic training. I qualify for 80% of Chapter 33 benefits according to the eligibility charts because I have served at least 24 months of active duty time but I have not served enough time to reach the 30 month tier for 90%. The VA allows a veteran to count active duty time for basic training and AIT once they reach 24 months of eligibility, but if my eligibility is not prorated for an amount in between 80% and 90%, why even count active duty time for basic training and AIT? I still will only receive 80% eligibility. I understand some veterans have longer AIT periods that would perhaps push them into a new tier of eligibility but for those of us who had relatively short AIT periods, why not prorate the eligibility to an amount in between, 85% in my case? An even better system for determining an eligibility percentage would be to place values on each month of service in between the tiers cut-off amounts. I believe we should prorate eligibility in between the tiers, for example, a veteran with 25 months of service would receive 82% or with 26 months of service, would receive 84%, etc. This system would maximize eligibility for veterans without devaluing their active duty service time.

Furthermore, I do believe annual training for National Guardsmen needs to be included in the eligibility calculations. Let me tell you why: I enlisted in 2006 and returned from basic training and Infantry AIT in the fall of 2006. Almost immediately my unit was alerted for deployment to Iraq and began our train up phase which culminated in two, three-week annual training periods for 2007: three weeks in August (AT for fiscal year 2007) and another three weeks at the end of September (AT for fiscal year 2008). We then moved to our mobilization station and deployed to Iraq after. The same scenario occurred prior to our deployment to Afghanistan: we had two, three-week annual training periods back to back (AT for fiscal year 2011 and AT for fiscal year 2012) prior to being placed on Title 10 orders for mobilization training. I have been gone from my home and family since September 2nd of 2011 even though my Title 10 orders did not start until October 16th, 2011. Why is that service not honored when calculating G.I. Bill eligibility? I have spent over half of my 6 year career on active duty training for deployments or deployed. I have spent many more months on annual training crammed together prior to a deployment. I firmly believe that annual training periods, especially those strung together prior to a deployment, should be considered for Chapter 33 G.I. Bill eligibility calculations. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback on this topic.

The second issue I would like to discuss is the method by which Chapter 33 G.I. Bill benefits are paid, specifically the tuition payments. Currently, when tabulating payments to the university, the G.I. Bill is paid last. Scholarships, grants, and student loans are paid towards the bill balance first. The remaining balance (if any) is then paid by the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill. This means that if my tuition bill were to be $4000 and I have $3000 in scholarships, grants, and student loans available, they would pay first and then I would receive 80% towards the remaining balance. On a bill of $4000, the G.I. Bill would only pay $800 and still leave me with an out of pocket expense of $200. This is assuming that I would be able to secure so much additional financial aid. What I believe should happen is that the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill pays first: using the same situation, on a bill of $4000, the G.I. Bill should pay 80% or $3200 of my bill, leaving $800 for me to secure financial aid for or pay out of pocket. This is a much better situation for veterans and I hope that you will look into trying to change this aspect of the G.I. Bill.

The last issue I would like to discuss is the way that classes are covered by the G.I. Bill. This is not just a Chapter 33 issue; it affects all versions of the G.I. Bill. Prior to deploying to Afghanistan, I used the Chapter 1607 (REAP) G.I. Bill because it offered more money for school than the Chapter 33 bill did. The issue I ran into in school was that the G.I. Bill only covers classes required to graduate within the major/minor plan set forth by the university. You are not allowed to use G.I. Bill classes to take prerequisite classes for post-graduate schoolwork. This results in many problems: if the class I need is a prerequisite for post-graduate work and the G.I. Bill will not cover it, I risk both dropping below full-time enrollment for financial aid via the FAFSA system and I also risk dropping below full-time enrollment through the VA for the G.I. Bill. On a few occasions in the past, I have elected to not use my G.I. Bill at all for the semester because too many of my classes were not approved because I did not “need” them. I had to pay out of pocket for the semester and/or rely on private student loans. I could have used the G.I. Bill on a “halftime” or “quarter-time” basis but as far as I am concerned, that is a waste of a month of G.I. Bill eligibility, especially for me as I am seeking to pursue 3 more years of education after my undergraduate work is complete. This problem can also affect veterans in other ways: a veteran using his or her spouse's or parent's healthcare insurance plan may be required to be enrolled as a full-time student. When the G.I. Bill does not cover prerequisite classes, veterans may have to drop below full-time enrollment in order to still use the G.I. Bill to pay for school which may result in them being dropped from the insurance plan. This is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Mr. President, I know you are busy but I also know that you care about veterans. I hope you will take the time to read my letter, look into the issues that I have discussed, and work with the Department of Veteran's Affairs as well as Congress in order to fix these problems. I would very much like to hear back from you. I look forward to reading your response. Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That Guy: Issue #1

Everybody knows That Guy: he's the guy in your unit that you avoid at all costs for a variety of reasons. Maybe he's the smelly kid, a dirtbag Soldier, the guy with UCMJ action pending or something else from a long list of possibilities. This is That Guy: Dirtbag Admin NCO edition.

That Guy has been in the battalion for a long time, working in the S6 (Communications) shop at the battalion level as an IT Administrator. On the Iraq deployment, he sat in a cushy office somewhere fixing computer problems until he got an IA violation so bad that he got demoted from CPL to PFC and sent home early. That Guy came to our company, literally, on the last day before the deployment. We were at the armory packing supplies and equipment when he walked in the door. He had signed his DESP at the last minute and his slot in the S6 had already been filled, so he was cross trained for two weeks prior as an 11B and then sent to us. That Guy was assigned to the CoIST because there was no room for him anywhere else. He was shy at first, not having been to the CoIST schoolhouse, and seemed content to hang back and watch us work for awhile.

At the double AT prior to our mobilization, he mostly sat in the back of whatever room we had occupied, smoking cigarettes and surfing the Internet on his tablet PC. At first I thought, well, he doesn't know what he's doing and there are 6 of us, so no big deal. Once we got to the mobilization station, That Guy really started to shitbag out: he never did PT with us and usually spent his free time playing World of Warcraft on his computer (hooked up to the Internet via tether from his cell phone). That Guy is also incredibly messy, leaving a trail of filth and garbage in his wake like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown. That Guy went to phase 1 of OCS but got dropped because he got kicked out of college. That Guy also believes that because he used to be a Corporal, he can talk to NCOs and Officers like he is an NCO, which results in a lot of conflict. That Guy is a radical Republican whose views are so extreme that he clashes with almost everyone in the company. Within the first few days of our mobilization, That Guy alienates himself from our FET (Female Engagement Team) by talking trash about women serving in the military. He constantly makes extremely racist jokes towards our black platoon leaders, despite being a minority himself. He insists that since he was adopted by white parents, he is white. At NTC, That Guy sleeps on the floor on the CP at night instead of working with me. That Guy attends the CoIST mobile schoolhouse at NTC and suddenly becomes an expert in everything related to military intelligence, slowly alienating himself from the rest of the team. He is chosen for ADVON to Afghanistan with the commander and leaves such a mess in the barracks at the mobilization site that it takes the rest of us two days to clean up all the garbage he has left behind.

Arriving in Afghanistan, we find That Guy working in the CP as the admin NCO. Our admin NCO went home during mobilization to command the rear detachment when the order came down to cut the brigade in half. He was hard working, passionate about fixing soldier issues and relentless in getting things done. That Guy is nothing like our actual admin NCO. He is appointed by the commander to handle the day to day admin issues while the First Sergeant is en route into country. He sits at his desk and chain smokes e-cigarettes (he's South Korean) all day, playing World of Warcraft on a satellite he has already bought and set up as a wireless network. He takes University of Phoenix classes online. When Soldiers come in with pay issues, personnel issues, promotion issues or whatever else, That Guy is supposed to help them. Instead, he puts their paperwork into a manila folder behind his desk and goes back to playing World of Warcraft. He completes small tasks given to him by the commander and First Sergeant, just enough to stay off their radar. Whenever he is severely cornered, he throws down the racist card, despite insisting that is he white and not Asian any other time. He sneaks out of work here and there to comb the FOB for any "spare" equipment or supplies people may have left out.

Despite being a staunch Republican, ranting about fiscal conservatism and government waste to anyone that accidentally starts talking about politics with him, That Guy believes that anything on the FOB that isn't bolted down is fair game to steal and mail home to sell on eBay. Over the course of the deployment, instead of helping Soldiers fix their pay, correct their promotion points or get help with another issues, That Guy mails home toughbox after toughbox of government property. Chemlights, lanterns, tube lights, flex cuffs, old uniforms, extra sleeping bags are just some of the items that go missing from around the FOB. I don't really care one way or the other but after awhile, I say something to the First Sergeant who says it's more work than it's worth to curb his sticky hands. The stuff That Guy is stealing isn't technically on the property books and getting any sort of action done against him would be a pain in the ass, possibly falling through anyways. That Guy reveals he is stealing all this stuff to mail home to his parents (he is 30 and lives at home) to sell at the Army surplus store for him because he owes the government $30,000 in back taxes for some "small" tax fraud he committed. He claimed all of his roommates on his taxes as his dependents for 3 years in college. Whoops.

That Guy is put in charge of a MWR Satellite system with 6 laptops and 2 phones to be set up in our back room for the guys in the company to use. He immediately takes one laptop for himself back to his desk so that he can surf the Internet all day without paying for his own satellite. He half ass sets the computers up, not installing any of the programs the guys request to call/video chat back home. Two of the laptops need repaired and despite his primary MOS being in IT, he throws them in a box under his desk for most of the deployment.

Things go on like this for months until our commander gets promoted and we get a new commander. The new commander is from a COP where he spent most of the deployment cold and starving. He is a nice family type of guy but he also doesn't take any shit and expects a lot out of his men. That Guy is immediately shit canned. Stacks and stacks of school certificates, pay stubs and other paperwork are found in That Guy's desk drawer that never got actioned. The new commander tasks me with That Guy's workload and I get caught up after three weeks. I've never seen Soldiers so happy: one guy walked into the CP with a pay stub for $1500 in back pay and I would have thought he had won the lottery by how excited he was. In less than a month, I've made our poor unit from Detroit into thousandaires. Promotion points are finally updated for everyone that went to schools during mobilization or completed correspondence courses while we've been over here. Despite not knowing a single thing about IT work, I repair the two broken MWR laptops and re-image all 6 to have all the programs the guys want to use to communicate with their families. Instead of a bunch of people waiting to use 3 laptops, there is now usually no waiting for one of the six computers. In contrast to my work, That Guy spends the last two months of our deployment sitting in his tent all day chain smoking and playing World of Warcraft which seems like a reward instead of a punishment, but everyone agrees that is better than having him in charge of the company's paperwork.

A few days before That Guy redeploys early, we get a phone call that he mailed home a bunch of full magazines of ammunition through the Post Office which was caught while being x-rayed on the way out of country. We are all eagerly awaiting to see what sort of punishment awaits That Guy back home. My gut tells me nothing will happen, but I am hopeful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

On Combat

Well, we have been here for 7 months so far, deployed/mobilized for 11. This deployment has to be the most laughable waste of American military resources and tax dollars in history. I hope our situation is unique - if it's not then I am not even sure why any of us are here. We have made such little difference here that I am confident that the brigade (our battalion particular) could leave overnight and no one would notice that we were gone. We expend most of our manpower securing the base and driving our leaders to other bases for meetings. We rarely go on mission and when we do, there is no large scale impact. Sometimes we drive to a checkpoint and give AUP classes on how to be AUP. Sometimes we drive to a checkpoint and no one is there or they are too tired or busy and then we drive back. We rarely spend more than a few hours away from the FOB. Senior leaders berate junior enlisted soldiers for failing to perform duties way above their paygrade and then give each other Bronze Stars for pushing paperwork on the FOB all day. The base defense staff spends their time combing the FOB looking for people smoking too close to their tent, people having sex or catching someone without the proper uniform on instead of actually worrying about threats to the base. Our missions have evaporated as other NATO nations take over as we prepare to leave for good next year. The majority of the people in the company work 6 hours a day in some sort of base defense role on 2 week rotations, usually with 2 weeks off after. If someone is late to their shift, the Command Post staff get reamed - one of our responsibilities now is to wake everyone up 45 minutes before their shift so that they are not late. We are waking up 30 year old men because they cannot wake up on their own for anything. Bizarre does not even begin to describe this deployment.  Senior NCOs and Officers spend entire days in their tents sleeping or watching movies without any real responsibility.   Multiple times a day I have to ask myself "What the fuck are we doing here?" We are supposed to be helping the ANSF units in our area transition but most of them do not want our help or are already transitioned and we just visit them so that we can say we have a job to do. Guys attempt to write themselves up for CIBs for the smallest scratches on their truck or any number of random "noises". Missions are canceled so the battalion mortar team can fire off illumination rounds for a 4th of July party that no one attends because the meat was shipped from the United States and has spoiled long before it arrived here. Leadership chart themselves on the first flights home, leaving subordinates to run everything long after they are home with their families. Bizarre does not even begin to describe this deployment.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shit house poetry

So writing inside port-a-johns and latrines has existed in the Army since the beginning of time, I'm pretty sure. Some stuff starts and carries across the planet (POST IS GAY, GILBERT PUMPS CATS, etc.), other stuff is localized. It happens. Dudes are bored and/or frustrated and writing on a plastic wall with a sharpie is a way for them to vent. It's harmless as far as I'm concerned - I've never seen anything extraordinarily offensive. Sometimes, you get told to take a can of spray paint and go coat the shitter walls - then people write over it, whatever. It's part of deployment life. Of course, if you have a slow OPTEMPO and a unit full of staff officers and NCOs with nothing better to do, then shit gets stupid. Really stupid. Posting guards 24/7 on every shitter on the FOB type stupid.

Until the person comes forward and admits to what they wrote - which no one knows because it was painted over immediately and also the shitter it happened in is not being disclosed, our unit has to guard every shitter on the FOB. A person will stand outside and log every person that goes in then go in after them, inspect the latrine fully for graffiti and log them out. I heard this and I laughed - haha April Fools, right? Nope. I can't help but think: what the fuck are we doing here? Why are we deployed if we just spend our time doing dumb shit like this? I thought group punishment ended after Basic Training but I guess not. You'd think that with over 50% of senior NCOs and officers being sent to separation boards soon in order to reduce the number of people in the Army, leaders would not do stuff like this, but then I guess you'd be thinking wrong.

This reminds me of that one time I was in Iraq where we stood in formation everyday for 30 minutes because someone wrote "Thanks for the breastmilk" on a care package full of suntan lotion that came from someone's well endowed mother. Ironically enough, nothing makes me want to write graffiti on the inside of a shitter more than being forced to spend my free time guarding said shitter against graffiti. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Panjwai Killings

Well, it seems that the dirty laundry is out on SSG Robert Bales. DUI, hit and run, assault and supposedly investment fraud before he even enlisted are on his rap sheet. It doesn't surprise me - the Army and the military as a whole made a lot of concessions to fill slots when both Iraq and Afghanistan were going strong. Criminal? Morbidly obese?? Old? Stupid? Tattoos up to your eyeballs? Permanent profile? Come on in. We took anyone and everyone and it seems now that we're paying the price. I mean, look at this guy. Look at his chin strap. I saw this picture and immediately thought "wow, I'm glad that guy isn't my squad leader."
I can sympathize with SSG Bales a little bit - yeah, it sucks here. The pay is shit. But, welcome to the military. No one wants to be here anymore than the next guy on the line. Everyone needs more money - that's not an Army problem or an American problem, it's a human problem. But that's no excuse to not seek help, no matter how shitty your life is. We are constantly being evaluated by multiple offices about our level of combat stress - the chaplain is here, there's a combat stress clinic here, the behavioral health officer comes to the FOB. There are a hundred outlets for your problems. There are thousands of grants and loans and relief programs for people in his financial situation. Not utilizing them is foolish. Almost as foolish as walking off the FOB and massacring a village. Fry him and fry his command for deploying a dude that is so obviously burned out.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Just when we started rebuilding relationships following the Koran burnings (now known forever in the annals of history as the KBI or Koran Burning Incident), this fuckstick pulls this crybaby shit. When you read shit like this back in the States, you think "wow, what a shitbag." Then, when you're over here, and you KNOW that the fallout from this will likely cause harm to yourself or your friends, you think, "wow, what a fucking shitbag!"

A US soldier in Afghanistan has killed at least 16 civilians and wounded five after entering their homes in Kandahar province, senior local officials say.

He left his military base in the early hours of the morning and opened fire in at least two homes; women and children were among the dead.

Nato said it was investigating the "deeply regrettable incident".

Anti-US sentiment is already high in Afghanistan after US soldiers burnt copies of the Koran last month.

US officials have apologised repeatedly for the incident at a Nato base in Kabul, but they failed to quell a series of protests and attacks that killed at least 30 people and six US troops.

Local people have reportedly gathered near the base in Panjwai district to protest about Sunday's killings, and the US embassy is advising against travel to the area.

Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw, deputy commander of Nato-led forces, said he was unable to "explain the motivation behind such callous acts", adding that "our thoughts and prayers are with those caught in this tragedy".