Friday, April 13, 2018

Meeting with Veterans Affairs

Today I met with the Veteran Affairs representative (specifically, the "Military Treatment Coordinator") to list all the stuff that's wrong with me, besides multiple sclerosis. This represents a vastly different way of thinking about disability payments than I was expecting.

In the past, VA disability payments were about compensating a service member for losing the capacity to work. For example, a lost leg meant that you weren't able to stand for long periods on a factory floor, so you'd get compensated for that. For lesser injuries, not so much.

However, the problem with that approach is that it doesn't really take into account any quality of life limitations due to military service. If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can difficult to even function normally. If you suffered serious burns, you can't really hang out in the sun for long. You may technically have all your limbs, but the effects of your patriotic service will negatively impact you for the rest of your life.

The current "impact to quality of life" approach means veterans' compensation has become more generous in recent decades, particularly as the Global War on Terrorism has resulted in tens of thousands of injured returning to civilian life. And fortunately for me, it means that I can provide a more complete list of sacrifices I've made in the service of my country.

Nevertheless, I will have to reschedule this appointment in another month. I have a few business trips to make in the meantime, which doesn't work well with their scheduling practices. From what I understand, they rely on a separate entity to do the exams, and I have to be on call for when they are ready.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Fire and forget" Army courses

The Army's a funny place. While "fire and forget" might be a good quality to have in a missile, it isn't a phrase that should describe your approach to online training courses.
Take Sergeant Jones here. He's wearing a beret with his "Battle Dress Uniform," or BDUs, which dates him to between 2001 and 2005.

How do I know that? Because the beret became mandatory wear in 2001, and the BDUs were phased out beginning in 2005. This bit of online training is about 15 years old.
So old, in fact, that it still references ASMIS, the Army's Safety Management Information System. This gem of a software is what the Army used before its online "TRiPS" program. According to this course, completing ASMIS is mandatory, but it's also impossible, having been obsolete for about 10 years now.
However, that doesn't mean the Army felt any need to correct errors through a new version. So driving slower than 5 mph is still considered "in line" with safety standards, while any speeds above that are "out of line." [I did the red circle on this.]
And according to this slide, driving a regular car means you don't have to worry about a plethora of otherwise dangerous things.... [this red circle was part of the slide]

I'd be curious to know if this mandatory training has actually had any measureable impact on soldiers' off-duty behavior. My guess is "probably not," apart from making them more cynical.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Starting the MEB process

This past Friday, I met with my Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer, or PEBLO, to discuss what will happen over the next couple months.

The first order of business was which Disability Evaluation Process I wanted: Integrated (IDES) or Legacy (LDES). At first, I had no clue so I did some reading.

As I understand it, some groups have no choice but to go with the legacy system -- cadets, students, and recruits. Others, such as those who have immediate job offers, may also want to go with the legacy system. The reason is that the LDES separates the Department of Veteran's Affairs' rating system from the Army's, which makes the initial phases of the process go quickly.

The disadvantage of the LDES is that the Army abused this system. Rather than give reasonable disability ratings, the Army would issue low percentages just to get people "off the books." With low disability percentages, soldiers were not getting properly compensated when they were separated, and the VA had to sort out the mess.

IDES forces the Army and the VA to agree on a disability percentage before the soldier is separated. The benefits are that the soldier stays on active duty a bit longer, and doesn't suffer a break in compensation. The disadvantage is that some people may prefer to leave quicker and work with the VA once they're already out.

It seems most people prefer IDES, which makes sense for me too. I'd prefer to make sure everything is cleared up before I leave. It'll be a lot less stressful to look for a job with at least some cash coming in.

Under the IDES, there's a "medical evaluation board" (MEB) which determines whether I can be rehabilitated for treated. If (and probably) not, then a separate "physical evaluation board" (PEB) determines what percentage of disability I'll retire at.

While all this is going on, there's a parallel track to help me transition back into the private sector. The "Soldier For Life - Transition Assistance Program" (SFL-TAP) helps with resume-building and the job search.

If every step took the maximum time period, the entire process would be nine months. However, the PEBLO said it probably be only around four. That'd be great. Although I like my Army paycheck, I'm eager to move on to my next step in life.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Remembering Brandt

On March 5th, a man named Brandt Like went missing, last seen near Kakaako State Park. He was found three days later, in Laie -- the other side of Oahu.
I went to the University of Hawaii with Brandt, and we were part of the campus ministry together. Regardless, I hadn't seen him in about 13 years. It wasn't that I was avoiding him. I just had other things going on in my life; I assumed he did, too.

Well, I went to his memorial today. From what I understand, he'd committed suicide.

What's crushing to me is what he left behind. As a middle school science teacher for 17 years, he'd taught over 2,000 students. Many of their posters were on display. Others wrote on the walls of his homeroom.
Brandt also left behind a church building full of people whose lives he was a part of. I don't have the total, but I was #298 on the guest registry.
Brandt had a lot of amazing experiences in his life. He could sing, dance hula, handle a boat, lead a classroom, and enjoy great emotional heights. Sadly, he also struggled a lot with depression -- a battle he apparently could not overcome.

I wish I had something more hopeful to say. I wish his students didn't have an adult in their lives who made a decision like this. And I wish I could show him the pictures I took of everyone who had such moving things to say about him.

But no. Instead, I keep thinking about this:
"And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not." -Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Applying for citizenship

My wife's green card expires this year, so we had to make a decision. Should we renew her permanent residency (~$500), or just go for citizenship ($725)? We went with the second, and filled out the naturalization form in late March.

The next step in the process is the biometrics appointment, which is later this month.

This might not seem like such a big deal, but South Korea doesn't allow dual-citizenship, so naturalizing means giving up her native citizenship. A hundred years ago this decision would have been a no-brainer, but South Korea's a modern state now. Giving up citizenship mean giving up her pension fund (like Social Security).

From our calculations, though, naturalization seems to make more financial sense overall. If we end up back in Korea, she can apply for positions on-post, same as me.

It may not be very patriotic, but it's a simple reality.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Review: Bleeding Talent

How is it, Tim Kane wonders, that the military can develop such talented leaders, yet have such trouble retaining them? Sadly, the military is bleeding talent, both externally (through attrition) and internally (through misallocation of human resources). What can be done about it?
  1. A Cautionary Tale. Criticizing the military is hard to do. If you leave it, insiders call "sour grapes." If you've never been in the military, no one takes you seriously. And if you've succeeded in the system, there's no reason to doubt it works just fine. Plus, there's the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, which means any change to the military's human resource practices would literally require an act of Congress. All this makes changing the military's personnel system very difficult.

    The Army has no statistics on what kinds of talent it loses nor why, but its West Point graduates have an alarmingly high rate of attrition after completing their five-year service obligation. Despite being the Army's "best and brightest," the system makes no allowance for individual skills, ("talent"), so the most talented people leave. To solve this problem, Kane recommends moving to a free market system.

  2. The Paradox of Military Leadership. The Army used to be the job you took when you couldn't get any other job, but it's come a long way since its "Stripes" days. The Army benefits from a patriotic set of well-educated enlistees, and Army leaders benefit from early responsibility, leadership training, and a focus on values.

    The "paradox" refers to how bureaucratically the Army treats its human resources, yet how innovative they can be (as seen in the Iraq War).
    "Lieutenants and captains have conducted missions for which they were never trained, executed operations that have outpaced Army doctrine ... and received very little detailed guidance or supervision in the process." [Leonard Wong, "Developing Adaptive Leaders," 2004]
    Because of Army leaders' ability to innovate, the civilian workforce benefits from veterans moving to the private sector. However, leaving the military is a one-way door, so the reverse is not true. There are no lateral hires into the Army (apart from its "Call to Active Duty" program), which contributes to the already wide military-civilian cultural gap.

  3. Entrepreneurs in Uniform. The idea of "entrepreneurial" leaders in the military can sound like a joke, but Kane lists examples of Army leaders winning wars through three types of innovation. George Washington showed how a colonial army could beat a European foe. Robert Lee shaped his battlefields so often he was known as the "King of Spades." Joshua Chamberlain developed tactical responses to emerging opportunities at Gettysburg.

    Billy Mitchell's "pernicious" ideas got him court-martialed for insubordination, while John Boyd's emphasis on fighters and the "OODA" loop helped overturn the Air Force's bomber-centric paradigm. James Gavin developed the U.S. Army's first manual on airborne warfare, and at 37 years-old became the youngest two-star general since the Civil War. After meeting George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower pushed tank warfare so hard the chief of infantry threatened him with court-martial in 1920.

    Through these examples, Kane shows that military leaders possess far more "entrepreneurial" spirit than they are given credit for.

  4. Exodus. This entrepreneurial spirit is in high demand in the private sector, but counts for nothing while still in the military. From lieutenant to colonel, officers have a set glide-path of positions they must complete to stay viable for the next rank -- platoon leader, executive officer, battalion/brigade staff, company commander, more tactical unit staff, then battalion and brigade command. There's precious little time for any deviation. And since the Human Resources Command (HRC) is paid only to produce generalists with similar experiences, the only things that matter for assignment purposes are branch and rank.

    It simply doesn't matter if you are fluent in Chinese, have served with a Female Engagement Team with the Marines in Afghanistan , or came into the Army with an advanced degree -- officers exist as mere round pegs to be plugged into the military's numerous round holes. And if (like then-LTC Dick Hewitt) you dislike your job assignment, you choices are clear -- either take it or get out. There's no room for negotiation.

    To close the chapter, Kane discusses the survey he conducted of West Point graduates' perceptions of the Army's HR practices and provides some rebuttals to common criticisms.

  5. It's not Business, it's Personnel. The foundations of the Army's HR system reach back to Elihu Root in the early 1900s. At the time, the only way to get promoted was for someone else to die, and the National Guard didn't exist in its current form. Root reformed the Army to reflect the latest industrial practices of the day by integrating the regular army, militias, and volunteers under a single authority. He also established a general staff, and changed the promotion system. These were important innovations that put the military at the forefront of efficient, modern industrial practices.

    These days, the military HR system is defined by several characteristics that seem completely foreign to the civilian workforce: no lateral accessions, a one-way exit door, year-based cohorts, up-or-out promotions, competitive categories (branches), standardized evaluations, and centrally-planned assignments. This is all highly regulated and very organized, but like all centrally planned economies, it is doomed to be inefficient because of the knowledge problem. There simply isn't a way for the planners to take into account all the relevant variables.

    For example, some people like Hawaii as a duty assignment because it has lots of beaches and warm weather. Others dislike it because it's expensive, the mission tempo is crazy, and they don't like being far from their family on the Mainland. Without knowing all of these things, assignment officers simply can't be sure of a good match unless they completely discount people's preferences and just go with "needs of the service." Given time constraints, they don't worry about the best allocation; they look only for a minimally acceptable one.

    To better allocate its human resources, Kane argues that the military needs to change to a free market system, which he calls the "Total Volunteer Army." Unlike the system we have now, which we call the "All Volunteer Army," the TVF would allow people to make their own decisions where they will go, what they will do, and how long they stay in a position. And if this sounds completely foreign, consider that the federal government does exactly this with its GS workforce.

  6. Winning Battles, Losing Wars. Critics claim this system would put unqualified people in key positions, but Kane points out that military is already doing that anyway. From 1964 to 1968, General William Westmoreland failed to apply an appropriate counterinsurgency strategy for the Vietnam War. Beginning in 2003, LTG Ricardo Sanchez did the same. As LTC Paul Yingling explained,
    "To understand how the U.S. could face defeat at the hands of a weaker insurgency enemy for the second time in a generation, we must look at the structural influences that produce our general officer corps."
    Rather than a promotion board that selects officers for promotion, Kane envisions an authorization board, where officers are certified for positions of a higher rank, but not required to hold that position. In addition, officers could move freely between active and reserve duty, depending on their career interests.

  7. Coercion. When Kane wrote his book, service members received a pension only after 20 years of service. Those who left before then, as about 80%+ do, got nothing. Kane recommended (and the Army has changed to) a 401k retirement system for new accessions beginning in 2018. This will save the Army money in the long run and allow everyone to at least have something when they leave.

  8. War Machines. By centrally managing people and treating them no differently from spare parts, the military has had a difficult time adapting to emerging fields. In the Army, it was cyber warfare. In the Air Force, it was drone piloting. The DOPMA model tries to manage careers by defining every step, but a better alternative -- ironically -- is the chaos of a job market. It's counter-intuitive, but it would provide greater stability through less bureaucracy.

  9. Measuring merit. The evaluation system often doesn't help in identifying talent. For example, in 2010, the Air Force had 12,771 master sergeant candidates with a perfect score of 135 out of 135 points, from which to select 1,269 people. To help select eliminate toxic leaders and identify the best talent, Kane recommends a mandatory 360 degree evaluation. At the time of publication, the Army had already adopted the DA Form 67-10, which has a forced distribution system.

To summarize, the military suffers from a legacy of outdated HR practices that are stipulated by law. Kane offers a vision of a better system with his “Total Volunteer Army,” but the military has been lionized to such an extent that there seems to be little perceived need to change the current system.

Plus, the Army is in a drawdown from its peak numbers in 2011. While it is still bleeding talent both externally and internally, we will have to wait for the next generation of talented captains to attrite before the political will can be mustered to change anything.

Overall, a one-of-a-kind book. And if you want a second opinion, here's another review.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

The exit door

On January 3rd, I got the results of an MRI I did in December. I have multiple sclerosis.

After spending the following two months at Fort Hunter Liggett, I finally met with the neurologist this past Monday. There are medications for the multiple, recurring variety and for those who have a more severe form of the primary progressive sort (the kind I have), but not much for people with lighter symptoms like me.

On Tuesday, I met with my Primary Care Manager (PCM) and asked if I had any options – whether to get a P2 or P3, but no. In accordance with Army Regulation 40-501 chapter 3, my PCM gave me a “Permanent 3” profile and referred my case to the physician who initiates Medical Evaluation Boards.

On Wednesday I printed out the profile and informed my boss, senior boss, S-1, and branch manager. I also set up the initial counseling with the "Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officer," or PEBLO, on April 6th. This will be my first step in exiting the Army.

This new reality has caused me to reflect on a number of things. I'm not so upset anymore about the low likelihood of being selected for promotion by the upcoming board. But I am bummed about some other things I haven't really thought of until now:
  • I like the way the Army forces to stay in shape.
  • I like being able to wear one uniform for five days straight. (Spilled sauce on the camo? No problem!)
  • I like that people walk up to me and say nice things just because I'm in uniform.
  • I like being part of a team.
  • I liked to think about one day being a Foreign Area Officer (FAO).
  • I liked to think about one day making major. Before he passed away last year, my grandfather used to constantly ask me about when I would be promoted. It would have made him proud.
It saddens me to leave, but these things make me think everything will be OK:
  • I'm already situated in Hawaii, so I can look for a job here locally if I want to stay. And I'm in a far better place than I was 15 years ago (when I left Hawaii to teach English).
  • I'll have a veteran's preference for any government job I apply for.
  • I can choose where I want to work, what I want to do, and stay for as long as I like. I'm at a stage in my life now where I'm not interested in moving around as often as I have been, and I'd like to spend more time in one job than I have been.
  • This way, I can apply to be a State Department Foreign Service Officer. I wouldn't likely have been selected to be a FAO, much less one for northeast Asia. Not even my Korean-American friend could get that.
  • Between retirement and disability, it looks like I'll get about $3,000 a month. That's not too shabby.
  • I could get a U.S. government job overseas if I want, and they'll pay for the living quarters.
  • I can choose my own fitness routine.
So despite the stress of the transition, I think things could work out very well.

I hope so.