Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Listeners

by 13 Stoploss

The Veterans Services office glimmers like a mirage. It is renovated and comfortable, but sometimes broken and confused. Here, local veterans, frustrated and sick, begin the arduous process to claim disability compensation and medical treatment for service-related injuries and illnesses.
Several veterans from different wars sit in brown leather chairs and benches. Spread about the room, beneath heroically themed paintings framed and donated by local art students, the veterans wait for the chance to share their stories to a staff of friendly caseworkers.
Some of the veterans in the office have appointments, but most are walk-ins looking for help or to secure a monthly stipend. If their stories are good enough, and if they have records and witnesses and patience, lots of patience, then they may get the help or the cash they need in as little as ninety-days.
Without the caseworkers, though, many veterans, unable to navigate the complex web of the VA’s claim process, would be left without care and treatment. To help them, a collection of organizations like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, AMVETS, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have teamed up with the VA to assist the veterans with their claims paperwork.
“This is not the VA,” says Marilynn, a volunteer who works with the caseworkers. “But our caseworkers help veterans with their paperwork to get what they need from the VA.”

Like many war-weary veterans, the VA is under construction—a constant work in progress requiring aesthetic renovation and efficient structural enhancement. Nowhere is this as evident as the Long Beach VA Medical Center, the primary care facility for the veterans of Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
The fa├žade is stuck in time, but nearby, the iron and glass skeleton of a modern, open concept looms on the horizon. There are signs of renovation, of rebirth in every open corner and hallway and in the skyline. There, an Army CH-47 “Chinook” hovers in the distance. Its twin rotors clash with the monotonous beeps and exhaust rumbles of construction traffic beneath the monolithic hospital tower. Up there, a large nest hangs above the “C” in Center, untouched beneath clouds that strafe as in a time-elapse video.
At the curb, in front of chain link fences, men from white service vans unload disabled veterans at the hospital’s main entrance. On cement benches, like fortified bunkers from the winter’s onshore breeze, bearded men dressed in flannel and olive drab fatigues smoke and laugh and cough. Through the entrance doors, past smiling photos of President Barack Obama and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, dozens of veterans and dependents sit in airport terminal-like benches.
            The waiting room is stale with faded eyes and gaping mouths. One man snores into the shoulder of his spouse while those who are awake stare blankly at flickering news images on a flat screen hanging on the wall.
            In an open window across the room, healthcare workers exchange manila folders and files and a man with a clear cup and yellow cap stands above a turquoise line that leads down the corridor. But through a series of whitewashed hallways and a climb to the second floor, a slower and quieter world emerges.

On Marilynn’s waiting room desk, there are names scribbled on a yellow, legal tab. Some of the names are crossed out, some are highlighted, and others are asterisked. To many of the walk-ins, there exists no discernible method to track who has arrived and in what priority. Their names get put on several “next available” lists: one for Mike, one for Joel, and one for Denise.
Denise, a retired Army Mental Health officer, volunteers for the VFW and works full-time at the Veterans Service office. It is her birthday and she and Marilynn will not return after lunch. Mike and Joel work through lunch, like they do most days, to clear a backlog of waiting veterans and those trickling in.
“Marilynn and I are full-time volunteers. I’m here everyday and am proud to give back,” says Denise. “When I left service, the Army put me through school—I got a Master’s from Princeton. I’m grateful for that, so I want to give back, especially for those who need it.”

The waiting room is quiet and many of the veterans avoid eye contact with each other, but whenever a caseworker enters, many of them jump. It’s a strange dog-beat-dog ritual involving canes, oxygen tanks, and elderly men and their more agile spouses hoping to find out whether they are next.
But when addressed, their confidence expires.
Many of them, like an elderly man named Simms, speak as if they are recording their last thoughts into a black box. Their voices are awkward and frail, paced with shallow, enunciated breaths and fearful timidity.
“Yes, hi. My name is Simms. S-i-m-m-s. I need to find out if— no, no, I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t have my paperwork with me today.”
Simms’ voice trails off, as if the caseworker turned into an answering machine.
Even the macho biker, who stumbles into the office wearing dark sunglasses and a black leather vest, speaks like he’s afraid of being heard. When a caseworker in a black Vietnam Veteran hat walks into the waiting room, the biker turns into a bumbling Private before his First Sergeant.
“Who are you here to see?” asks the caseworker.
“I came to see you,” says the biker, “about the Agent Orange. I saw you last time I was here and I wanted to find out about the paperwork.”
“Well, I’ve got to tell you,” says the caseworker, “I’ve got a case of C.R.S.”

Joel is the new AMVETS guy.
He’s tall and looks and talks just like actor Jeffrey Tambor, but without the sarcasm. He’s been on the job for three weeks, but the veterans don’t know it. They appreciate him when he smiles or takes interest in their issue—the way that other caseworkers smile for lunchtime.
When the others leave for lunch, Joel walks to the clipboard and calls another name, Mr. Tucker, a thin sharp-dressed man in loafers. A few minutes later, Robert Ingram steps into the waiting room with his wife.
He’s fed up and his back hurts—“right here, right now.”
“I GOT SKIPPED,” the man yells.
Then he hobbles down the hall and into an open doorway where another caseworker talks to a veteran. From the opposite end of the hall, Joel walks over to Ingram and resolves the situation. A few minutes later, Mr. Ingram, slow to get up from the macaroni shaped couch in the center of the waiting room, but quick with his step once moving, follows Joel to his office to tell his story.
And Joel listens.
Everyday, the caseworkers hear the same stories of the same wars, but from different faces. They hear the same complaints, and everyday, they have to sort through the walk-ins—the impatient, the timid and those who can’t hear, who can barely speak without coughing, or those who can’t walk. Some of the caseworkers handle it better than others, and some veterans are more appreciative than others. The process isn’t easy to follow, but it’s better than it was three weeks ago, which was better than it was three years ago. 

Living Peace Series: Richard Branson at UC Irvine 25-Jan-11

by 13 Stoploss

Nikon D700, Nikkor 2.8 105mm AF-D, ISO 2500, 2.8 and 1/80

I took this assignment for the school newspaper because not only do I want to photograph all the big names on campus, I wasn't really sure that other photographers, with the exception of the two sports guys who do great work, could handle the responsibility of such a big event, or that they had the gear to accomplish the shot.

Of course, the joke was on me when I couldn't land the paper's 200 2.8 or 300 2.8 and had to make do with my dinky 105mm!

It was a penis joke gone sour as I walked between a dozen different "professional" photojournalists from the local papers and all of them had multiple bodies (D3's and whatever the comparable Canon's are) with 200mm and 500mm lenses and monopods and tripods. And it didn't help that we were all corralled into an area at the rear of the room.

Yeah, I was that dinky student/kid with the subpar cute, right?

Anyone have a 2.8 80-200 AF-S VRII for a couple hundred bucks?

Anyway, for most of the talk, I stood paralyzed at the back. I'm used to walking around like the gig is mine, that I can do whatever I want. Here, with ushers and snobby elites and photogs with phallic lenses, I doubted that I would get the shot.

To make up for my, uhm, *shortcoming,* I dropped down to 3/4 sensor, effectively *lengthening* my focal *length* to 152mm. This helped, but I still did not have the height advantage to get a shot without heads in the foreground.

Well, during the Q/A, it was announced by the dude on the right (above) that time was running out and that Branson had time for only two more questions. So, I grew a pair and did what no other photographer did.

I walked right up the fucking aisle, took a knee at the front, snapped three shots, stood up, and walked away.

As I walked away, some old snobby fucker in the aisle a few seats behind me was trying to get my attention, as if to tell me to move or get away. So, I didn't look at him, I stuck my nose up and walked away proudly.

This isn't the world's greatest shot. It's okay, but at least I did something that no one else did. And while the pro's had giant $5000 zoom lenses, I fucking made do with what I had.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

UC Irvine: The "Zot" Offensive

by 13 Stoploss

UCI ROTC Cadets during PT, Spring 2010

With President Obama’s December repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a clause banning homosexuality in the nation’s armed forces, UCI ROTC Battalion Commander Christian Peralta, veteran David Curry, California State Director of Student Veterans of America, and ASUCI Veterans Liaison Alex Louie, met last Monday with Chancellor Drake and other administrative leaders to propose the university’s first ROTC program under the school of Social Ecology.
In April 2010, ASUCI Legislation voted 14-0-1 in support of advancing a proposal for an ROTC Military Science program. Cadet Peralta, among other supporters, rallied the School of Social Ecology for support. After several meetings, the school of Social Ecology, toeing the bureaucratic line with the Ivy’s like Harvard and Columbia, rejected the proposal based on DADT’s discrimination to “students that identify with being lesbian, gay, transgender, or queer.”
But with the repeal of DADT signed into law, ROTC advocates enthusiastically approached ASUCI to meet with the Chancellor.
That optimism ended prematurely, however, as Chancellor Drake, who arrived to the meeting late and left early, effectively nixed the plan, citing budget constraints from new Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed cuts to education.
“Based on our financial budget crisis assessment,” said Chancellor Drake, “we cannot further add new services to the existing services and programs we have today.”
Had the Chancellor listened to the proposal, he would have learned that the new program would cost nothing to the university.
According to Cadet Peralta, the military provides everything the university would need, including military science instructors, office furniture and equipment, including technology and computers, student textbooks, uniforms, transportation to training sites, scholarships, room and board, and stipends while complying with all applicable university and school policies.
The setback came as a surprise to the cadets, but it is just the latest in a string of administrative curiosities that date back to April 2009.
After receiving a letter of recommendation from then Vice Chancellor Gomez, ROTC advocates were redirected to the Academic Senate. There, Associate Executive Vice Chancellor Arias, Vice Chancellor Brase (May 2009), Executive Vice Chancellor Gottfredson (May 2009), Associate Executive Vice Chancellor Tomcheck (May 2009), Director Umali of Dean of Students (September 2009), and Associate Dean Tyagi (March 2010) ignored requests for contact.
In June 2009, ROTC received a letter of recommendation from Dean Salinger of Undergraduate Education, regarding course credit approval for Military Science classes. By October, though, ASUCI External Affairs denied the cadets’ request for university space during the Student Center renovation.
The cadets were devastated.
“If we just had a small room for instruction, or a place to store our gear,” said Peralta, “that would be a great first step.”
UCLA, Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Barbara all have ROTC programs, but the 25 UCI ROTC cadets have to enroll in Military Science courses at Cal State Long Beach. And while the cadets could choose to go to school elsewhere, each has specifically chosen UCI.
“When I left West Point for UCI, there were around 5 cadets,” said Peralta. “We’ve doubled our numbers every year that I’ve been here.”
Because UCI’s ROTC is not officially sanctioned, growth of the campus club is determined by limited funds from private donations. Cadet Peralta fears if he and others cannot win over the obstinate administration, including Chancellor Drake, that ROTC will decrease in size while demand, as a result of heightened fees, will only increase.
“We’ve had over 70 email inquiries for 2010-2011,” said Peralta, “and that doesn’t include the interest from students coming up to the booths during Welcome Week.”
Now, in a time when even the Ivy League schools are making progress after the repeal of DADT, UCI has the opportunity to correct a grievous wrong. ROTC cannot function as a club without support and recognition by the school, and until it gets that, it won’t be recognized by the military. Without an officially recognized program, the club will not get scholarship money from the military, and the club will continue to turn down qualified applicants.
“The question that has yet to be answered by our administration or Academic Senate is if the objection to a Department of Defense funded ROTC program has a moral basis in regards to the recently repealed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. If so, then why has the campus willingly accepted millions of dollars in DOD research funding annually the entire time the policy was in effect?
“You have to keep in mind that Orange County is a conservative county largely due to the high number of Veterans that settled when the county was first being developed (El Toro MCAS in Irvine and Tustin MCAS in Tustin). Many of those same people are likely donors to the institution. What does it say to them if UC Irvine comes off as elitist compared to Berkeley and UCLA who already have ROTC programs?”
“We just need a home,” said cadet Peralta, “but I think they’re just waiting for Dave (Curry) and I to graduate. We’ve been the most vocal students and what will happen when we leave?” 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Versus The World

by The Usual Suspect

I watched 2010 sink like a ship laden with the corpses of my failures and turned my back on it completely. The debt and the baggage comes with into this year of course, but not my patience. I waited for my turn like a good little tool until I realized that the meek don't inherit the earth. They are trampled into it.

The second attempt at college was a complete failure, resulting in more debt that I will be paying back. And then that's it. I don't think I'll try to use the GI Bill ever again. Too many open palms need that money, and I'd rather go it alone at this point. Six months of busting my ass will get me back to square one, June 2009 again. From where I sit, that sounds great.

Now, I enjoy bitching about the V.A. as much as the next vet, but I'd be excrementally fucked if it weren't for them. PTSD + TBI = one lost motherfucker. I'm seeing a therapist, a speech therapist (it's all brain related, homie), starting Voc Rehab next month, and I have some income thanks to disability. Just enough to hold it together, never enough to make it work.

And that's why I applied at Taco Bell. I didn't get a response of course, despite the sign in the window saying they were hiring. Starting to think I've got some dark cloud over my head that everyone else can see but I can't. My next resume will not list the Army, just as an experiment. This is a hippie liberal town. It would probably help.

So whatever, in short, I've got a shit sandwich to chew through and no more time to waste. You're fucking nuts if you think I'm going to come back to my own country and live in squalor. PFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA HAAAA HAAAA!!!

No, I just want a middle class existence. Get out of this cabin in the woods outside of town and get my own apartment. Be a real person again. Basic cable. Discovery Channel and cooking shows. Buying my own groceries with my own money, cooking my own food, not having to leech off of others. Paycheck to paycheck. Independent. Whole again. Iraq sucked sometimes, but there, you had your buddies. Here in the world, all that is gone. You can tell yourself that you can maintain friendships with Facebook but come on, let's be honest. It's a fucking rolodex.

Hell, most of your old civilian friends will bail on you after you've "changed", but the V.A. is still there. And they've got employees that do care. Why give the halfass ones all the publicity? Just ask their names and complain about them. Maybe they'll get shitcanned and some new hires will come in and work harder. After all, this is America. Dog eat dog. Bring steak sauce.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Stop Loss Backpay and the Taxman

In October 2009, I was one of the first soldiers to apply for the Stop Loss Backpay Compensation. For several months afterward, official email updates and phone calls trickled in between rumors of potential paydays. Information was limited and the online claims process seemed to accelerate skepticism. In February 2010, I got the email--my money was on its way via direct deposit and I already knew exactly how I'd spend my 14 months' worth of backpay. 

What I didn't expect was that Uncle Sam would be taking some of it back. I don't remember the exact number, but I think it was close to $600-800, especially disconcerting considering that 13 of my 14 months stoplossed was in a tax-free combat zone. Figures, right?

Now comes word from the same automated DOD email system:

Reminder to Stop Loss Special Pay recipients.
Stop Loss payments are subject to federal and state taxes in most cases. DFAS will not have all W-2s or 1099s delivered until the end of January or early February.
Recipients of Stop Loss payments should consider waiting until they receive their W-2s or 1099s before filing their federal and state taxes in order to avoid the need to file an amended return.
Please do not reply to this unmonitored mailbox, to contact the Help Desk call toll free 1-877-736-5554 or send e-mail to
Reference Case: RSL00000230-1R Action: COMM_EMAIL_PAID_CASE 12/30/2010 01:18 PM

Since my near-poverty level of income is used to feed four hungry mouths, I'm really hoping I get that little extra back come Spring...

In other related news, DOD estimated that 145,000 soldiers were eligible for the backpay compensation, but something like 50% of the those eligible have not applied. The original deadline of October 2010 was extended to December 18, 2010 and that date has now been pushed back to March 4, 2011

So, if you're one of those--what are you waiting for? Get your money!


It's not midnight. It's not 2011. It is just about the end of my winter break. Then it's back to text books and journalism and school drama with the Radical Student Union, the school newspaper, and wondering whether UCI will accept ROTC now that DADT is repealed. 

Oh. Just one more minute. Yippee-kai-yay. 

From my Orange County balcony on the coldest night of the year, sounds of Baghdad soar through the quiet night's permeating chill. Crackles in the distance mix like "Pop Rocks" and Coca-Cola inside my head, memories of childhood like memories of the war, seven years ago. 

I remember the gun bunnies, jumping and laughing and frolicking in the halls, counting down another day, another month, and finally, an end of the year. Home was coming. 

It was cold there like it is here. Gators and beanies and fleeces at night in the tower with crackling radios and bursts of fire on the edge of town. Cold canteens and powdery Gatorade and bright stars, shining and exploding in the sky. And a few weeks later, there were city lights and rum-drunk nights of video games for pleasure, not an escape from work. 

That was an end to a year. A difference felt in temperature and op-tempo and attitude. Fuck-it, man, we're going home. And then we were.

Then soon again, we weren't. And it was cold again, too, and mud fell from the sky to mix with the rain on the ground and the dirt and the gravel and rocks. My open-air Humvee cruised at two-in-the-morning down the guarded road with a dozen blank eyes staring at the backs of skulls on the benches in the rear. Another year with different kids with guns, this time with iPods and earbuds, but there was no end when that year began. No new beginning either--just another day, like the one before it, just like the one tomorrow, now. 

So, hey, 2011. In a few tomorrows, I'll pass this station with an expensive piece of paper and then... and then... what exactly? 

I don't know much about tomorrow, but at least it isn't yesterday with the bunnies and the mil-po-po dancing in the halls. No more stars, but no more crackles either. I don't care about tomorrow. Tomorrow is just an extension of today and every one of those future today's beats one of yesterday's then's.