Americans have always had a love affair with the underdog. We love movies about rag tag groups of hard workers banding together to face down the powerful and unjust – so much so, that sometimes we try to inject that narrative into situations that simply don’t call for it. The Democratic Party has long used that understanding to paint themselves as the supporters of the “every man,” hoisting up unions, fighting for raises in minimum wage and rolling their eyes at the (admittedly flawed) concept of Republican favorite, trickle-down economics.
It’s the marketing tactic Hillary Clinton’s campaign used to present an absurdly rich white woman as the “right” choice for America’s poor and downtrodden, despite growing up the daughter of a successful businessman, participating in a number of (sometimes scandalous) investments with her husband, earning a reported $9 million for writing just one of her books and claiming that her net worth of $100 million didn’t make her “truly well off.”
Well it’s no wonder she earned the endorsement of the American Federation of Government Employees – a union that uses the same “underdog” tactics to retain the immense amount of power they’ve garnered on behalf of federal employees.
Donald Trump made it clear throughout his campaign that he intends to make it easier to terminate federal employees who aren’t living up to their side of the employment bargain, particularly in the VA – a process that can currently be quite the ordeal. The main stream media has published a number of columns vilifying the man for taking such an un-American stance. After all… firing employees for failing to do their jobs isn’t the kind of fascism America should stand for, right?
I have a bit of experience with the process required to terminate a federal employee. While stationed in Twentynine Palms, we had a GS employee assigned to my team to handle paperwork and logistics. In the interest of protecting his identity (as I have no doubt he is still employed by the Federal Government) I’ll call him Mr. Stevens. Mr. Stevens often came into work late, and left hours before any of the enlisted Marines in the shop were secured at the end of the day. His authority was far from recognized among my Marines, and I’ll admit, he was so bad at his job that I didn’t work very hard to encourage my guys to treat him with anything more than the respect required to keep them from getting torn apart by our Master Sergeant.
It was no secret that this man and I didn’t get along. He’d often remind us that his civilian position outranked any of ours, and as the platoon sergeant, I’d often remind him that we didn’t need a paperweight in our shop, so he should either start producing or resign his position. Eventually, his inability to do the work he’d been hired to do came to the attention of our senior leadership, who called a series of meetings wherein the three of us would discuss our options, first to try to get Mr. Stevens to do his job, and eventually, to discuss how on Earth we could get rid of the guy.
After twelve months of trying, we finally found the only feasible way we could be rid of him: we got him promoted.
In many federal positions, your rank and pay-grade (with the exception of levels within that grade) are tied to your position. In other words, the only way to get promoted is to take a new job. Because our hands were utterly tied in terms of firing the man for doing nothing, our only remaining option was to get him pushed to a higher paying gig someplace else, where a new team of Marines would have to put up with him and we could begin the hiring process once again.
So you’ll have to pardon my giggles when I read prominent columnists at the Washington Post suggest that making it easier (or in my experience, possible) to fire VA employees that aren’t doing their job a “danger to employee rights.” If the columnist in question, Joe Davidson, failed to submit any more columns to the post, I’d imagine they’d probably terminate his employment… but if a VA doctor I waited four months to see for the three slipped discs in my back simply says, “I don’t see anything wrong here,” even after I showed him the MRI that clearly indicated the slipped discs, he gets to remain on easy street until it comes time to collect his retirement checks.
Soon after, the VA sent me a letter telling me that they’d like to look at my knees again in an effort to ascertain whether or not my back injury was tied to my multiple knee surgeries. I thought that maybe they’d had a change of heart and were willing to help me… until I looked at the date of the appointment they assigned me. The appointment was scheduled for the same day I received the letter, but for three hours before the mail carrier delivers to my house.
It was also two hours away.
I called the VA promptly to address the mistake and they assured me it wouldn’t be an issue and we could reschedule. I waited another few weeks to receive a letter in the mail indicating when my appointment would be… only to finally receive a notice that because I had failed to appear at my previous appointment (the one requiring a time machine) it was the assessment of the VA that my knees must have miraculously healed themselves (despite missing ligaments and having no cartilage left) and would no longer require a service-connected disability rating.
Enraged, I started the appeals process and contacted a VA lawyer – who explained to me that I would have a better chance at simply filing a new claim for my knees, which may only take a few years to process, rather than waiting the average of three to five years the VA appeals process would take to make a determination on my fairly clear cut case.
Just to summarize – the Marine Corps retired me from active service because I have torn or missing ligaments in both knees and have had to have the meniscus in each knee removed. The VA, in an effort to help my back (which still has yet to materialize) made a clerical error in scheduling me an appointment that was impossible to attend, and now I have to wait as many as five years for them to decide whether or not my knees, which are still held together mostly by willpower and hate, magically became all better thanks to their inability to look at a calendar.
Thank God we have the AFGE to protect those employee’s jobs. What would happen to America if federal employees could be fired for such trivial things as forcing me to spend the next five years fighting to prove that my knees are still bad because of a scheduling mistake?
To be honest, I didn’t even submit my appeal for some time. I felt ashamed of having to fight with the government for disability pay. I’m grateful for everything the United States has given me, to include the opportunities I’ve gained thanks to my service, and it made me feel… gross to act as though I was entitled to recognition and pay in exchange for my knees that I would have gladly given up in service to my country anyway. Having to go through the appeals process makes me feel like a leech and eats away at the pride I have in my service.
I can only imagine how many other people feel the same way, and lose their VA benefits because they aren’t willing to slog through the mud to convince the branch of government that’s supposed to be looking out for them that they need help; which the VA has already decided they didn’t deserve because of a missed appointment, an unchecked box, or a misspelled word on one of the countless forms every veteran has to fill out just to be seen by a VA doctor.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I have trouble demonizing the President Elect for suggesting that the process needs some changing.