Friday, September 06, 2013

An open letter to the Honorable Eric K. Shinseki from Master Sergeant Robert Bowman

 This was on the DAV FB Feed I thought EVERYONE should read it . Unfortunatley MSG Bowman's story is all too common.
Dear Honorable Shinseki,
Good afternoon.  My name is Master Sergeant Robert Thomas Bowman, I am a Veteran of 24+ years of service in the Army, and I retire in less than a month (1 October 2013).  I have been involved in the VA claims process since 14 February 2013, and today (3 September 2013) I am writing you to describe to you how this process has gone for me and how I perceive the VA at this point.  I will preface all my commentary by saying that despite the problems I have had, I am still one of the lucky ones.  I am not physically disfigured from my service, am capable of working, and during my time in the Army I was fairly responsible with my finances and am not currently in any duress due to the VA disability compensation program and how slow things are moving.  I could not imagine what it must be like for a young Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine who has served multiple combat tours in service of their country, cannot work because of their disabilities, has a family, and is waiting on this process to be completed to be able to pay their bills.  It is criminal that our Veterans are having to deal with this nonsense, and I hold you personally responsible for everything they (and I) are being put through by YOUR organization.
I have been in a leadership position in the Army since 1993.  One of the first things you learn as a leader is that you are personally responsible for what your Soldiers do or fail to do.  If one of your Soldiers does not show up for duty the leader is called.  If a Soldier is being given non-judicial punishment, the leader is right there with them.  A leader accepts responsibility when their organization fails, fixes the problem, or is replaced.  Leaders in the military are relieved every day for the failures of their troops.  You have been in charge of the VA since 21 January 2009.  That is coming up on four years.  You have had four years to fix this mess and it has not happened.  All of my dealings with the VA have been nothing short of horrible.  Nothing has happened in a timely manner.  The operators that handle customer service are surly and rude.  The claims handlers are uninformed, overworked, and impossible to contact.  I have been told a different story on how my case would progress EVERY SINGLE TIME I have talked to anyone from your organization.  Every single time.  I could understand once or twice, but every time?   How is that possible?  What kind of organization are you running?  My packet has been turned in for over seven months and I cannot even get an answer on if my packet still exists!!  Unfathomable. 
The last straw for me was today.  I turned my packet in to the VA under the "quick start" program.  As far as I understood and was told, the intent of the program was to get my appointments with the VA doctors to adjudicate my claims prior to my actual retirement date in order to receive benefits as soon after I retire as possible.  Today I was told that program no longer exists, I could not do any of the newer programs (such as the fully developed claims program), and nothing would be done on my case until 30-60 (at a minimum) days AFTER my retirement.  I was not notified that I was no longer in the "quick start" program.  I was not given any option to enroll in a quicker process to receive my benefits.  I would have never even known this was happening if I hadn't of called the customer service representative to inquire about an inquiry I placed about my claim on the 6th of August. 
In summary, here are the issues that I have not been able to receive any sort of response from the VA:
1.       Does my packet still exist?  I have received nothing from the VA since 18 March 2013, almost six months.  I was told I would be done by this time, not waiting to start.
2.       Why can I not get a straight, honest, and correct answer about ANYTHING?  From day 1 the VA personnel that I have spoken to have been totally wrong on everything.
3.       What happened to the quick start program and why am I no longer in it?  I was when I put my packet in.  I received no notice that I would no longer be in the program, so what happened.
4.       If indeed the quick start program is gone like the customer service representative told me (despite the fact it is still listed on the VA website), why am I not eligible for another program?
5.       Lastly, who is responsible for this mess, and why have they not been held accountable?   
I realized when I started this process that it would test my patience, but I had no idea it would be this bad of an experience.  I did decide from the beginning of this process to keep meticulous notes to document my journey.  I am going to give you a synapsis of my experience to help you fully understand what an average service member has to go through to get to the ultimate goal in this process: a completed compensation case.  I'm sure you believe you know what this process entails, but I assure you that you do not.  Here is my journey, from its start to my current status.
First week of February 2013: Called the Ft. Jackson VA representative to set up appointment to start my claims process.  It took several days of trying to contact Mr. Ferguson on the phone (803)751-6071, as his email address was unobtainable.  The day I was finally able to contact Mr. Ferguson, it took me 6 tries to get an answer.  My appointment was set up for 14 February 2013.
14 February 2013: My initial appointment with Mr. Ferguson.  I had to come in person despite the fact that my duty station was almost 2 hours from Ft. Jackson.  Once I arrived at Mr. Ferguson's office, the appointment took 10 minutes, and everything could have been done telephonically, which would have saved me almost 4 hours of driving.  After receiving the list of documentation the VA needed from me (which included everything from birth certificates to marriage licenses to social security cards to bank direct deposit info) I asked Mr. Ferguson why the VA could not just access my DEERS to get all the information he needed, and he stated that the VA computer system is incapable of talking to the DOD computer system to get that info.  So despite the fact that I already have had to document my family to receive ANY of the benefits I was currently receiving from the Army, I had to do it all over again for the VA.  Also, my direct deposit information that the DOD has had for over 20 years was not good enough.  I had to do it again.  And an addendum to that, of course when the data was entered into the VA system, and I checked my EBenefits account, it was wrong.  I had to go in and fix it myself.
28 February 2013:  When I arrived for my next appointment, Mr. Ferguson was not there.  Mr. Christopher Briggman was there in his stead.  I turned in ALL the documentation requested and all my medical documentation (copies of course), and received a handwritten receipt for what was basically everything that encompassed my whole life.  Handwritten.  Mr. Briggman took all my documentation and told me to expect to start receiving Dr. appointments to verify my claims by July.  He gave the following phone # (803)776-4000 to call to check if I hadn't started getting my appointments by July. Mr. Briggman also told me to expect to see my updated status on EBenefits in 2-3 weeks. 
14 Mach 2013: With my concern mounting over my lack of any contact from the VA, I called Mr. Ferguson to inquire as to what I should do next.  I called four times over the course of the day, leaving one message and never getting an answer or response.
15 March 2013: I called the phone # Mr. Briggman gave me to inquire about my pending appointments.  I got no answer from any of the patient representatives.  The representatives (all 6) didn't answer or return calls when a message was left.  The names and #'s are as follows: (803)776-4000, ext. 6879 for Michelle Hays; ext. 7570 for Margaret Lockett (actually she answered and promptly hung up, then did not answer when I tried again); ext. 6879 for Kathryn Dixon; ext. 7679 for Nat Gentry; ext. 7696 for Mia Gentry; and ext. 7696 for Evetta Gregg.  I encourage anyone who has a free day to try to call any of these #'s and get an answer or a response, because I did not. 
18 March 2013:  Today I received a letter (my only one to date) from the VA to tell me that they are still processing my application for compensation.  The name at the bottom of the letter is K. Pfanzelter, and the contact # on the sheet was (800)-827-1000.  Little did I know that phone # is not an actual contact #, but it is the catch all # for all problems VA related.
27 March 2013: 28 days after I turn my paperwork in, and 9 days after I get the letter from the VA, EBenefits shows I have a claim in.  Paper notice before electronic?  What?  I also called the # Mr. Briggman gave me to check on my appointments again (803)776-4000.  I do not get through on the first try.  Second try the operator, an extremely unpleasant woman, put me on hold for 6 minutes.  She told me I am not enrolled in the hospital there, and transfers me to someone else.  After 20 minutes, the line switches to a voice mail inbox, and the inbox is full and not taking any new messages.  Then it hangs up on me.  After 30+ minutes I have to start over again.  I call back and this time get a new operator who has no clue what to do with me, so she transfers me to the voice mail of Brian Terrell (ext. 7471).  I leave a message.
28 March 2013:  Mr. Terrell calls me back.  It turns out this is the wrong number to call.  Mr. Briggman gave me the # to the actual VA hospital in Columbia, who will have nothing to do with me until my claim is done and I actually need treatment.  Terrell also told me not to expect any appointments until late summer.  Terrell was a jerk on the phone as well.
5 April 2013: I call the catch all VA # (800)827-1000 to try to find any possible information about my pending appointments.  I go through the automated process, pushing option 1, then 0, then 4, which gets you to the compensation line.  It hangs up on me.  The automated operator says all lines are busy call back another time, then hangs up.  Then it does it again.  Then I get through to an automated system that tells me I have the wrong number, gives me the number I just called, then hangs up on me.  I try again.  After 20+ minutes on hold, I get a customer service rep.  She was pleasant, but told me no way I will see any appointments until July.
6 August 2013:  I wait all summer for anything from the VA about my appointments for evaluation.  Nothing comes and no calls or emails about appointments.  I call the 1-800 number several times and just get the automated hang up message.  Finally I get through and the options are hold 30 minutes or leave a call back message.  I leave a call back message and surprisingly after about 40 minutes Dwayne calls me back.  There is nothing new in the system in reference to my appointments for evaluation.  I ask why I haven't received any notification as of yet and Dwayne cannot see why that would be the case.  I ask if there is any way to even verify if my packet actually exists in the VA system.  After all the horror stories about lost packets I am very concerned about my documentation that I had so painstakingly had compiled, and was worried it had been lost.  As a capper to it all, my case is being handled by the infamous Winston-Salem office.  Yes, that's the one that had the structural integrity of the building compromised by the sheer mass of packets they had on hand.  Below is a picture of said office.  I think I see my packet in their somewhere!

Dwayne was very helpful though.  He understood my concern and suggested I try an inquiry to the Winston-Salem office to see where my paperwork was, and if indeed it did exist.  So I said "Sure, I would love to do that!  How do I go about getting one done?"  Now here is the kicker.  Dwayne says he can initiate one and I should get a call in 10 working days, and then gives me a tracking number (130806-001664).  So all of those other times I had called, not one operator suggested doing an inquiry into the whereabouts of my packet.  Not one.  They don't tell you about this in the briefings.
3 September 2013:  No call from the Winston-Salem office yet, so I subject myself to the 1-800 line and the merciless automated hang-up operator.  She (It, I guess) hangs up on me three times before I get the chance to hold 30 minutes or wait for a call back.  I leave a message for a call back.  Now you have to understand the problem with the call back system.  After all the pain you go through just to get in the cue for the call back, the stupidest thing you could do is go about your business normally and wait for the call.  That would be tempting fate.  If you miss the call you have to go through the whole process again.  So that means if you do get through and on the list for a call back, you don't move (you may accidentally encounter a cell dead zone and miss the call), you don't take any other calls, and you don't surf the internet in fear of candy crush possibly making you miss a call.  You sit quietly and wait.  Once again, the call came in at about the 30 minute mark of the wait.  I did not get the name of the operator, but he was not as nice as Dwayne, and his news wasn't as uplifting either.  Turns out my inquiry got cancelled.  That is why there was never any call from Winston-Salem.  It got cancelled because the "Quick Start" program got cancelled sometime while I was waiting for the call back.  The quick start program is (was) a program to get a service member done with all of their appointments prior to the date they are actually out.  Well at some point in the process over the summer, the customer service rep told me the program had been cancelled.  Now my case will not even be looked at until after I am actually retired (1 October 2013).  He said not to expect anything until a minimum of 30-60 days after I am officially retired.  There are other new programs in place that are intended to speed up the process, like the "Fully Developed Claim" program.  Well the customer service rep said I am not eligible for any other program because my claim was already turned in.  So I went from initially expecting a call 3 weeks or so after I turned my packet in, to sometime in July, to late summer, to who knows when.  Not only that, but the rep could not even tell me if the Winston- Salem office actually had my packet.  He said there is no system in place to get that information, and I have to wait 30-60 days after my official retirement date before the time to worry about the packet comes.
So here we are today (3 September 2013) and I am out of patience.  The VA cleverly hides any real way to contact anyone who can possibly help me with my claim.  The VA website also says that BDD, or quick start program (contrary to what I was told), is still a method of submitting a claim.
Why did the customer service rep say something totally different?  I do not understand and cannot seem to get a straight answer from anyone.  I also cannot get a response from anyone at the VA who can actually help me or tell me what is actually going on with my claim.
Honorable Shinseki you are the leader of the Veterans Administration.  You are responsible and beholden to ALL of the Veterans out there whose trust you have violated.  If the VA was a unit you would have been relieved years ago.  The Veterans did not decide to send us to war.  We just fought it. You were the Chief of Staff of the United States Army when these latest wars were started.  We put our trust in you as our Chief of Staff that you would know the best way to take care of us, both during the wars and after them, and that did not happen.  As Chief of Staff of the Army you should have insured there would be systems in place to take care of our Veterans when they returned from fighting our countries wars.  You did not do that.  The VA has been overwhelmed from the beginning.  There is a lot of attention given to what is being done now (belatedly) to fix this Gordian knot that is the backlogged VA claims, but virtually no questions have been asked as to why the system was not prepared for this when we went to war.  Who is responsible for the Soldiers not being adequately taken care of?  The Chiefs of Staff sent us to fight, but they did not make sure the government organizations that are supposed to support us after the wars were over were adequately prepared for what was coming.  That was your job as the Army Chief of Staff, and you did not do it.  Then you were placed in charge of the very organization you did not prepare for the tremendous task they would have of taking care of the millions of returning Veterans.  Nearly four years later and the problem is still mind bogglingly huge.  I keep reading how the backlog has shrunk over the last few months and the expectation is that belated progress somehow makes up for the mismanagement of the previous three plus years.  You are ultimately responsible for this mess, starting when you were still on active duty, and continuing now with the most grossly mismanaged government organization our country has.  The IRS handles many, many millions more people in a year than the VA does. Perhaps you should look into how they manage to handle over a hundred million returns a year in such a timely manner.  I usually get my return back in two weeks.  I wish I could say the same for my compensation claim. 
 While I am no hero, and certainly no Audie Murphy, I am a solid, dependable senior non-commissioned officer, the kind of guy who has helped keep the Army functional during all these years of conflict. All Soldiers deserve better than this.  Your organization has let down a generation of our country's  finest, and as the leader of that organization, you have done the same.  There are only two honorable options for you in my mind, and you have had nearly four years to fix this problem, and have not done so, so that option is out.  That leaves you resigning from your position as Secretary of Veteran Affairs, and then apologizing to all the great Americans out there that have been affected by your inability to fix this God awful mess we are now in. 
So to sum it all up, today I found out that not only am I no further along in my VA process than I was 200 days ago, I am actually BEHIND where I thought I was the day I turned my claim in.  So congratulations to you Mr. Eric K. Shinseki, because while you have had no luck in helping the hundreds of thousands of service men and women who are waiting for a resolution to their claim, you have apparently been successful in inventing some sort of evil time machine whose sole purpose seems to be to completely crush the souls of all the Veterans out there who were expecting an expedient resolution to their VA claim. Bravo!  My number is on file if you need to contact me.
P.S.  I hated the beret.
MSG Robert T. Bowman
USA, Infantry



 Sean Eagan

 Life Member VFW NY Post 53
 American Cold War Veterans, Inc.
Blog: Cold War Veterans Blog
Phone:  716 720-4000 
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