By Matthew Wadler:
The American Civil War was a bloody and horrific time in our nation’s history. It was a war that tore apart the fabric of our nation and literally pitted brother against brother. By the time it was over more than half a million Americans had died. There was much anger on both sides and retribution was on everyone’s mind. Well, not everyone. There was one man who saw that although the war was over, peace was tenuous. For America to come together healing must occur, and it must be called for at the highest level of government. This is the platform from which President Lincoln issued his second inaugural speech. In the last paragraph of his speech the president stated, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
This paragraph calls on all Americans to begin the process of forgiveness and to reach out to all of those who fought. Should they have not survived the fight, then he states it is our obligation as a nation to now reach out to the widow and children and provide for them. This statement became the mission statement for the Department of Veterans Affairs. For a brief period after retiring from the military I worked for this agency. I can honestly say it opened my eyes to the true depth of governmental incompetence and lack of accountability.
After retiring from the Army I found myself working as an Army JROTC instructor. It was, beyond a doubt, the best job I have ever had in my entire life. However, due to an unfortunate illness in our family we were forced to move. A friend recommended that I apply for a job with the VA office where we were moving to. I did so and was hired in the administrative building. It was a job that I was well overqualified for. Essentially my position took incoming veteran mail, sorted it into subcategories, scanned it into the computer, then uploaded it into the veteran’s file. We had a few other criteria within the scope of our jobs such as running credit and background checks and rerouting mail that was erroneously sent to our office.
Off Subject Rant – I do not believe there is any job that a person is too good for. If your family is hungry or you are in danger of losing your home, you take any job you can. This is completely different from being overqualified. When you are over qualified for a position you get bored quickly and are unable to work the job with the amount of dedication it deserves. You often question the decisions of your managers as you may have done jobs with equal or greater responsibility. Working at a job that you are overqualified for is tedious and lacks fulfillment or challenge, two things I believe are required for people to be productive.
The reason I took this job, aside from needing to provide for my family, was the fact that I knew the VA promotes from within regularly and often so I could quickly move up the promotion ladder. I knew that I was going to have to endure working in a position that I did not enjoy for a significant time period, but it was what I needed to do. Additionally, I was working for literally 25% of my pay while I was serving in the military and admittedly, that stung a bit as well. The worst part however, was the commute. Every day I would drive an hour there and an hour and a half home. That, combined with the pay, made it difficult to stay motivated. Like I stated however, it was a job and I needed to provide for my family.
The first week was orientation into the VA system, things like having your ID card issued, getting the lay of the building, introduction to the management teams, etc. That week was very typical for what I assume any job orientation would be. It wasn’t until week two that I started to see the dysfunction of the VA.
The VA had recently started a training program for new personnel. Due to the fact that a class was already in progress and there were only two of us hired we needed to wait until the current training was completed in order to start our class. In order to keep us engaged we were told to sit in with the current class, but to not try to learn anything. Our job was to take online classes from the VA training repository. While in this class I observed what I considered to be an amazing display of lack of preparation, work pride, and professionalism. The instructor, we shall call her Jessica, was continuously late, constantly rewriting the training criteria while in class, and seemingly had no idea what or why they were training. One day I observed her ask the class why they didn’t seem to be engaged on the material. One of the students stated that the training did not seem to follow any flow. In the morning they would be training on step one, that afternoon they would start on step five, then the next day go back to step two. Additionally, no one had access to any of the systems they would be using so the entire training was essentially an overview. Jessica had a meltdown and attacked the students for their comments which she had inquired for.
When the class ended, the students all wrote scathing reviews based on the examples I listed above and many other issues systemic within the training program. The students were sent down to their section, except for myself and the other new hire. We were told to come to work every day and sit in the empty classroom for eight and a half hours a day while they made changes to the course based upon the reviews. This went on for approximately two weeks when the manager of our section discovered what we were doing. He came up and retrieved us so that we could conduct on the job training while we were waiting for our class to begin.
Unfortunately for us, Jessica found out that we were beginning to do something akin to actually earning our pay and went to her manager, Amanda. We were told that until class began, we were to come to work everyday and do nothing, learn nothing, watch nothing, and in essence ensure maximum defrauding of the taxpayer by getting paid for zero work production. This continued for approximately four to six weeks. What I discovered was that Amanda, who was the training manager, didn’t want us to do anything until she had officially trained us. She was afraid that we would pick up bad habits from the other employees in the section.
Given her concerns, and the fact that I had been receiving a pay check for almost three months to simply sit in a room playing on my phone, I had high expectations for this course. Added to this was the fact that I had taught JROTC for a year and my wife is a teacher, so I know what classroom instruction should look like. Before the class started however, Sammy (who was my manager) pulled me into his office. He gave me very clear instructions not to engage with Jessica as she was thin skinned and incapable of honest feedback. Unfortunately this was a directive I could not follow.
For example, when Jessica asked what my view of the VA was from the veteran’s perspective I told her the truth. My view as a veteran was that the VA was your typical governmental agency, more concerned with keeping the status quo than it was with taking care of the veteran. The system was convoluted with no oversight from managers and employees were allowed to essentially run roughshod over the veterans that needed their services. She immediately came unglued and accused me of attacking her. Once I got her to realize that I answered her question to me honestly and that I was not making a statement towards her, she calmed down a bit and asked me why I would want to work for the agency. I explained to her that I wanted to make a difference.
Unfortunately, this was not the only time that Jessica asked me for my honest feedback which I unabashedly gave her. Of course, each time I received the same anger and lack of self-reflection. She was also not the only person to ask me for my feedback. Scott, one of the assistants to the director of the VA regional office happened to ask me one day what I thought of the instruction. I asked him if he really wanted my feedback or if I should just smile and say it was great. He asked for my honest assessment so I gave it. I could not believe that in an organization as big as the VA they could have such a substandard training program. I also could not believe that no one seemed to care. In order to move this along I am paraphrasing what was an hour long conversation. We ended the conversation with him asking me to write up an honest review of the training at its completion.
Finally, after working (well, being paid at least) for the VA for approximately ten weeks I was finally able to start doing my job. My experiences did not get any better from here unfortunately. I finally saw in its entirety the chaos at the VA. After completing my training I worked for approximately four more weeks before finally tendering my resignation.
The section I had been hired into had grown in personnel beyond what the work could support. As such, we were constantly given additional duties and tasks. Additionally, I have a gift when it comes to building and using spreadsheets in addition to data analysis, which makes me useful in data centric organizations. One day I was asked to help fix some data for approximately 1,200 veterans. As I was reviewing the information, I could not help but notice the amount of data that was incorrect and outdated. This was validated when we sent out letters to these veterans and over 25% of them were returned to us. These were veterans who were supposed to be receiving benefits yet we had no idea where they were or if they were even still alive.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to touch the 10,000 veterans whose request for services had been digitally lost in the system. Again, due to the size of our section we were given additional training to go through and research which veteran’s records had not been properly updated to reflect their requests for assistance. It was at this point that I reached my breaking point. Here we were, one of the most junior level employees in the VA system and in the one month I was allowed to work I had been required to fix massive data errors from employees who were a much higher grade then myself.
Throughout my time at the VA I had many frank and open discussions with my manager. He was a very competent leader who truly cared about both his employees and the veterans we serviced. He quickly caught onto my frustration with how poorly managed the system was and more importantly my anger at the lackadaisical attitude that seemed to permeate throughout the system. He gave me some painfully honest and sad advice on my future at the VA. He told me, “Matt, this is the federal government. You are used to the Army where you could voice your concerns and have people take notice. You need to forget about that here. You can’t change the way the federal government works or the way the VA conducts business, no matter how much it bothers you or how right you are.”
He did not give me this advice to crush my ambition or turn me into some mindless automaton. He told me this in an attempt to help me understand that I could not change the system from within. He wanted me to lower my expectations of others so that I could survive the system. I could not and do not regret leaving. Although I could have easily been promoted quickly through the system and although I would have quickly been able to exceed my active duty pay, it would have been at the cost of something much more dear to me. I would have had to close off a part of my empathy to those who I was supposed to be serving, and this was something I could not do.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and Veteran communities.