March 12, 2008 – San Bernadino, CA — A disabled combat veteran-turned-veterans counselor in San Bernardino is accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of pressuring him to retire because he refused to drop Vietnam-era patients to make room for Iraq war returnees.
“I said I will not cut the (counseling) groups,” said Phil Garcia, a former Army paratrooper whose right shoulder was shot up in Vietnam.
A VA official acknowledged that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasing the workload for counselors. But she denied making any attempt to slash counseling for Vietnam vets.
“I never implied or stated that services need to be cut for Vietnam veterans. I have no idea what reference he’s making,” said Joan O. Smith, the VA’s associate regional manager for counseling. “We need those support groups.”
Many of Garcia’s patients have spent the past two weeks picketing outside the San Bernardino Vet Center on Hospitality Lane, saying that the fundamental problem is there is only one veterans center in San Bernardino County dedicated solely to counseling for post-traumatic stress and other readjustment issues.
Dozens of placard-carrying veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars say they steadfastly support Garcia.
“He’s the best counselor at this vets center,” said former Army paratrooper Steve Dedeaux, a Vietnam vet. “Most of the counseling groups are packed, and it’s because of Phil.
“It’s easier for a combat veteran to open up to someone with combat experience,” Dedeaux added. “Now they’re taking him away from us. That doesn’t make sense.”
Smith insisted that no attempt is being made to force Garcia to retire.
“There is a personnel action, but I can’t comment on it,” Smith said.
She acknowledged that the workload in San Bernardino County may warrant additional counselors and at least one more office.
“We’re looking to possibly open another there. We’re doing a needs assessment,” she said. “We recognize that it is a very large area.”
According to Garcia’s figures, the San Bernardino Vet Center had 7,844 counseling visits by about 700 veterans during the past fiscal year, up 24 percent from the 6,313 visits in fiscal year 2003.
Of those visits, he handles about half the counseling, he said.
Patient to Counselor
Garcia speaks softly. But his eyes harden as he talks about the four times he was wounded 40 years ago and how those injuries, physical and emotional, have shaped his life and career.
“I’m a poster boy for the Vets Center,” Garcia says. “I had a lot of problems: anger … sleep disorders. I still jump at sounds that resemble war.”
In his private life, he has been an affectionate father, he said. Yet, there are times when his reactions — even to children — might seem harsh and unreasonable to anyone who has never been in a war zone.
“I was a squad leader. You think what you’ve learned (in combat) works: Give orders, take control, ‘They will listen to me, and we will make it through alive,’ ” he said.
But that was then. Over the years, Garcia has slowly but steadily readjusted. As a counselor, his job is to help others readjust more quickly, confidently and effectively.
With a master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology from Cal State San Bernardino, he went to work for the VA in 1993. He spent six years working with homeless vets in Los Angeles.
In 1999, he transferred to the San Bernardino Veterans Center, cutting the commute time from his home in the San Bernardino County’s western end.
In his view, the Vet Center is a perfect fit for him.
“I’ve been there. I can get your life back in order,” Garcia said he is able to tell his patients. “I make you feel normal right off the bat.”
The key is explaining to patients that what other people view as war-zone quirks, or worse, are really normal reactions to the abnormal experiences of war: remaining constantly hypervigilant for the slightest sign of danger, for example.
Fundamentally, post-traumatic stress — it was called shell shock in World War I and combat fatigue in WWII — is nothing more than anxiety, Garcia said.
His opportunity to help veterans is a gift from God, he believes.
“I had to make sense of losing my shoulder. And whatever you view as the Creator put me there in Vietnam for a reason,” Garcia said. “It allowed me to get to where I am to help all the veterans we deal with.”
But the end may be in sight.
Garcia said his boss, Smith, visited from the Bay Area last July and wasn’t impressed.
The upshot, said Garcia, was that the caseload of Vietnam vets would have to be reduced to make room for Gulf War vets. Smith denies that.
Garcia said she also told him that he wasn’t keeping adequate records of his counseling sessions with patients.
Smith declined to discuss anything regarding patients’ records, citing privacy concerns. She declined to say whether any paperwork deficiencies are the basis for the personnel action she said is pending against Garcia.
Garcia readily acknowledges that for years, he has cobbled together his patient-counseling reports using general boilerplate entries that he keeps in his computer for exactly that purpose. It allows him to cut and paste, finishing the reports more quickly, he said.
As he tells it, it’s not laziness or incompetence.
Garcia’s useless right shoulder and problems in his left wrist leave him unable to type, he said.
Although the VA gave him a voice-activated computer, Garcia said he was never taught how to use it efficiently.
It’s unreasonable to expect him to file adequate reports, he said.
He has always passed his job evaluations and has received cash incentive awards, he said.
But now, he said, it’s his word against the system, and he figures he’ll lose.
“Will they force me into retirement? Probably,” he added.