Everywhere you go you will find some people that are good and some that are not. With that, even some good people have ‘off’ days where they are not as nice (or good), and there are some days where those that are not so good, are better. So I am sure there are those that have positive experiences, I happen to be lucky enough to have many negative experiences.
Caveat: I want to add that I do suffer from chronic pain and a laundry-list of ailments that could turn someone into a beast: one who hates everyone and everything and is never happy. However, I make it a point to try to be nice to everyone and not appear in pain. I do this for a couple reasons: 1) By not looking like I am in pain, others are not going to ask “what’s wrong” and “are you okay” and so on; 2) I do this to mentally ‘beat’ the pain for the moment. I make it a point to be nice, not confrontational, and to try and get through the experience in a positive fashion. Lastly, by doing this I do not give some negative people the opportunity to use my pain as a reason why they are negative themselves.
My experience with Voc-Rehab happens to be with a negative person, one who apparently disliked his own life, job, circumstances, or all of the above. I went to my appointment (I am always at least 60 minutes early to every appointment) and sat down. I listened to the brief/presentation and wrote down some questions I was going to ask during my one-on-one with the counselor. When it was my turn, I picked up my 3-day pack and headed towards his office.
In his office, I sat down across the desk from this guy and he asked me one question: “What do you want to do?” to which I explained that I had done some research to try and find a skill that I would be able to move forward with, with all of my disabilities. I informed him about ECPI and how they are establishing a new degree program for a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Management. I also informed him that I was experienced in management and figure computers would be the best route to pursue.
At this point, this negative man looked at me and said “are you currently going to school?” to which I answered: “Yes, with Saint Leo University, but they do not have a computer degree as of yet”. His reply took me off my game when he said “Well, I am not paying for you to go to ECPI when you have been going to SLU”! He was very ‘matter of fact’ in his speech and acted as if that was going to be the end of that. Seeing as though I am not three years old any longer, I was not going to stop at his remarks. I added “Well, it has a degree program that would allow me to have a career despite my disabilities” and his return: “I said I am not paying for you to go to a different school, I will pay for you to finish your degree with SLU”.
At this point I was getting a bit angry. I looked at him and asked “Are you stroking the check? Are you physically writing a check for my education out of your personal bank account?” to which he replies “No but I may have well be”! So at this point I want to make this individual cry, and I weighed the pros and cons of making this man cry. I decided to be the bigger man and told him “I have a decision to make, I can either handle this in a manner that will put me in jail or walk away. I am going to walk away because I do not feel we have anything else we need to discuss”. I then grabbed my bag and walked out of his office and to my vehicle. I sat in my vehicle, fuming, for about 30 minutes before starting it up and making it back to my apartment.
Since I had already been using the assistance of Congresswoman Thelma Drake, in Virginia Beach, I decided to reach out to her and explain my most recent experience with the VA and Voc-Rehab. She took action and spoke with the Secretary of the VA and informed him that these situations are not warranted and that veterans deserve better. The Secretary contacts the regional director for that VA department and informed them about my experience. It seemed to have trickled down to the man whom I had spoken with about my education because I started to receive threats from through email. Since emails and anything online never dies, I forwarded his emails to his boss and to Thelma Drake. I also replied to his emails to inform him that he could save time and effort by telling me face to face how he feels, instead of behind his computer. Apparently he decided against meeting me again. His loss, I just wanted to be friends.
At this point, he was forced to send me to a testing facility out in Richmond, Virginia. The reason for the testing was to see how much I knew about computers. That’s correct, I needed to be tested…to see how much knowledge I had about computers…..to see if I was knowledgeable enough….to go to school to learn….about computers. It seemed that the gentleman that was sending me on this adventure was trying to ensure I faced as many hurdles as possible: I was informed that I was to test out.. and….if I was eligible (if I knew enough about computers) then I would have to go and get approval from a Dr. Not a medical doctor per se, but a Dr….you know….to say it is okay for me to go to school to learn about computers….
I went to the testing facility and faced many timed tests. The good thing about the tests is that they were independently timed, so when I finished one test I could immediately move into another. The tests were pretty involved with the hardware and different software. Those that were with me were burning up their paper and pencils….me? Nope. I had made some half-conscious effort at one calculation, but it was way over my head. So I figured it would not end well for my desire to go to school to learn about computers.
Once finished, I was to finish my test and then I could leave. About two weeks later I received my appointment to speak with a counselor about my tests. I drove out to Richmond and sat down with the counselor. This man introduced himself and told me that he reviewed my test results, and I did not score high enough to go to ECPI. Upon hearing this, I asked him “wait a minute, so you are telling me that in order for me to go to ECPI I would need to score well enough on the subject of computers, in order to be eligible to go to school to learn about computer?”. He stated that that was a correct statement. I reiterated my question “I just want to be clear on this: I don’t know enough about computers, to go to school for computers, to get a degree that is computer-based along with management?”. He once again agreed.
At this point I am pretty agitated and asked him: “Does this make any sense to you? Are you telling me that you honestly back what you are saying?” and his only reply was “that is how the VA evaluates the veteran”. I sat there for a second, trying to understand this immense amount of ignorance and how broken the VA is. Finally, I looked at him and said “If you don’t mind, I will need you to write down everything that you said, to include why I am not eligible to go to a school to learn a trade/skill that will benefit me when I am not longer able to walk”. At that point he looks at me and finally says “I am supposed to deny you going to a school that you are not eligible for, but I don’t think that you should have to be judged by a test in order to go to school. I am going to approve you for this school, but you still have to get a Dr.’s signature as the final step”.
I am unsure if it was because I asked him to put his words on paper, or if he honestly thought that the system should not be this fouled, but I was not going to argue with him when he was willing to let me go to a school that I wanted. He filled out the paperwork and informed me that I will receive an appointment letter to go through an interview with a Dr. that the VA assigns. I thanked him, shook his hand and left, and faced the long drive back to Virginia Beach.
After about a week to ten days I received an appointment to a Dr., he was a teacher/professor somewhere (I cannot remember), and was a great guy. He welcomed me into his office, I sat down and was preparing to hear that I was not eligible because I did not know enough about a subject that I wanted to attend a school to learn. I was not going to want to hear that again. I will admit, I was very standoffish due to the past interactions with VA representatives, but this guy understood. I wish I could remember his name, I am sure I had written it down on my appointment letter.
Anyway, he introduced himself and sat down and read over my package that was sitting in front of him. He sat back in his chair, looked at me and said “Why are you here?”….I paused to answer, I thought that it was a trick question. I shifted in my seat a little and said “I’m sorry, why am I here? I was sent here to get your permission to go to school” and he sat up slightly, started playing with his pen, then stated “Why would you need to come see me, to get my permission to go to school?”, I replied “I was told,that, if I did not know enough about computers, that I would not be allowed or approved to go to a school to learn about computers. Then I was told that they will let me, but I had to get your approval in order to progress forward with this”.
At this point the Dr. looked puzzled. He sat up and leaned on his desk and asked “Why would you need to get my approval? I don’t know who you are, I think that anyone that wants to go to any school should be allowed to go”. Startled, I sat up as well and shouted “Exactly! That is exactly what I was saying! You do not know me, I don’t know you, why would I need to get an approval from someone that has nothing to do with what I was trying to achieve?”….then I laughed. He laughed. He looked at me and grabbed his pen “I am approving this. I am sorry that the VA had nothing better to do than to send you to me, for what? To deny you? I won’t deny anyone that wants to pursue an education. Here” he hands the signed paperwork to me, “I hope you do well in your pursuit, thank you for your service and keep moving forward in life. God Bless”. I shook his hand, thanked him, and left immediately before it turned into a “GOTCHA, only kidding, I am denying you too” situation.
Despite wanting to pursue that specific degree with ECPI, I decided to stay with Saint Leo University. One of the reasons for this change in decision after all of the garbage I had to go through, was they would call my phone about 3-5 times a day. Relentless they were, in their attempts to get me into their degree program. ECPI also organized their school years into 7 months. After doing some figuring, they would have capitalized on all of my GI Bill money and it would not have been a benefit to me, other than achieving the degree I was looking for.
All in all I was able to get through my BA in Business Administration, Management, and Entrepreneurship and Family Business. The moral of the story is: Do not let one person tell you that you are not authorized, or approved, or eligible for a program that you are qualified for, mainly because you served your country. Voc-Rehab is a great program, and there are some great people that go to work at the VA that truly love helping veterans and think of them first. It is my hopes that all of my stories can help out a veteran that does not think they can do something. My main concern was the ability to make enough money to live off of when my body finally gives out. I stressed about that, still do, but now my pursuit remains at full throttle to try and help fix this broken system we call the VA. More experiences to come. Be safe.