My Veteran Readiness And Employment Journey – Part 2

Take away for disabled veterans: when you push for what you want you will usually succeed, especially when you believe you are right (you probably are).

There is a sense in every person between right and wrong and when we are being wronged. Our soul seeks truth and justice, and we recognize injustice. Some of us see injustice and recoil while others fight against it.

When it comes to Veteran Readiness and Employment, otherwise called VR&E or Voc Rehab, you may need a lot of push to get you over the finish line, but do not give up or give in.

Never give up pushing for a viable vocational rehabilitation goal. Support your vocational goal. Gather as much relevant labor market information as possible. Provide the evidence requested about how your service-connected disabilities impact you and your ability to keep a good job.

Once you settle on a vocational goal with your vocational rehabilitation counselor, be laser focused on that goal – – like literally the exact wording of that goal and the exact wording of the type of training you need to become qualified for that goal.

Be sure the goal is written down in the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Plan (IWRP). Be sure the training needed to get there is also written into your rehabilitation plan. I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve helped veterans appeal a VR&E denial where the core issue was the vocational rehabilitation counselor duping the veteran into signing a plan without the goal the veteran thought he or she was agreeing to complete.

Frequently, a bait and switch is the cause. The veteran talked with the counselor for months about becoming a lawyer while completing their Bachelor’s Degree, but the plan only discussed getting work in the legal field, not Lawyer.

Here is what happened when I pushed my vocational rehabilitation counselor:

  • Undergrad degree: Economics
  • Time since Voc Rehab: 10 months
  • Previous employment was outside of IWRP
  • Unemployed: 6 months
  • Jobs applied to: 60
  • New IWRP goal VR&E pushed: MBA for Business Management
  • New IWRP goal I pushed for: Law School for Lawyer

My Second Go with VR&E

I came back to Veteran Readiness and Employment after losing my job within 10 months of being declared “rehabilitated” by my new counselor. My new vocational rehabilitation counselor was back in Chicago. I was in Portland.

I got fired from my first job. 

I started to read through my VR&E file. An email chain between counselors disclosed Voc Rehab was willing to pay for things like Law School, MBA, MSW, etc.

During my first meeting after termination the counseling psychologist told me I did not qualify for additional VA Voc Rehab (VR&E) benefits. I asked why and he  looked a little surprised. I asked how he knew I did not qualify. After rummaging around his office, he found a sheet of paper that listed regulations.

I had no idea what policies and regulations were at least as it related to VA. 

I learned his decision should be based on 38 CFR Part § 21.284. That regulation addresses when a veteran can receive additional training after being considered rehabilitated. I was considered rehabilitated prior to losing my last job.

To get back in, my disabilities needed to get worse to where I could not perform the duties of the occupation for which I was previously found rehabilitated. Or, the occupation I was previously found rehabilitated for must be found unsuitable. 

I was not a great fit for either of these even though my disability rating had increased.

Use VR&E Rules to Your Advantage

After handing me copies of the regulations, I realized what my next steps needed to be. 

I needed to appeal Voc Rehab’s declaration that I was correctly “rehabilitated” based on the criteria of 38 CFR § 21.283. 

First, I targeted the fact that I had never agreed that working within the Insurance Industry fit my interest. It was a job I had taken with a company that allowed me to move to Portland, but it was not what I wanted to do, and it was not the goal on my vocational plan.

Second, I needed to show that working within the Insurance Industry did not require using my education/training received from my Voc Rehab (VR&E) training. I did this by locating the minimum training requirements to work in commercial insurance as an agent. It did not require completion of a degree, only a high school diploma.

Third, I argued that my degree in Economics didn’t have a direct corollary with the business world without higher level training. The vocational counselor was well aware a person cannot be an economist without graduate training, so the stars aligned with the argument strategy.

In Portland, when compared to Chicago, employers were focused on technical skills from degrees like business, finance, and accounting where the candidate knew how to use Excel.

When in Doubt, Ask

Always, always, always ask what regulation or policy the vocational counselor is following when you are running into roadblocks.

I cannot tell you how frequently we represent veterans who are wrongly denied benefits by vocational counselors who lack a basic understanding of their own rules.

Do not forget, the agency’s regulations were created by the agency. It is like a parent who tells their kid to not hit who later forgets that not hitting is a rule.

Always ask what regulation any Voc Rehab (VR&E) decision is being based on. Frequently, the vocational counselor will never be able to tell you and may be surprised when you push back. Perhaps, by just asking, they will reverse their position out of embarrassment.

In my case, I initially contested the matter that was quickly overturned starting with the “rehabilitated” status, because I provided new evidence within one year of the decision that showed it was wrong. Apparently the vocational rehabilitation counselor was impressed.

The counselor overturned his decision for both of the reasons I provided. He also told me I was the first person he had ever heard of appealing their “rehabilitated” status.

Leading To Another VR&E Denial

That good news did not last. The vocational rehabilitation counselor later denied my claim again pushing back on whether the program would approve my goal to become a Lawyer.

You see, once you are back in an able to receive more training, the next thing to do is find the goal you want to train toward. 

The vocational counselor told me he would never approve an IWRP goal of Lawyer. Imagine that? He would approve a goal that required an MBA but not Lawyer.

I eventually prevailed with a mountain of research showing the goal of Lawyer made good dollars and cents, and showing him that a person can work in a variety of careers once they complete the training.

So, we agreed on Lawyer, but he pushed back yet again.

He would not approve any of the law schools in Oregon because, according to him, those schools did not have a high enough success rate. How did he figure out the “success rate” of a law school? He did not explain how, only that the success rate needed to be above 70 percent.

Notice, there is no such thing as a success rate for Law Schools. It does not exist in any rating anywhere. This is an example of a little roadblock VR&E officials like to throw at disabled veterans to get us to back off the plate while they lob pitch after pitch to strike us out, kind of typical Voc Rehab curveball.

Now, does this seem like a dubious thing to perpetrate on a disabled veteran fighting through unemployment hurdles after a recent termination? 

Am I or most veterans like me expertly trained as a vocational counselor able to create a success rate criteria out of thin air?

No, but I eventually figured it out, and the benefit of the counselor not being more descriptive was that I could conjure up my own criteria. I cross-referenced bar passage rates with graduation rates resulting in a 70 percent success rate for all law schools in Oregon.

Why did the vocational rehabilitation counselor create that criteria?

It was an obvious block and tackle in retrospect. Since the counselor said he would never approve another plan for a veteran to become a lawyer, his tactic was aimed at forcing me to relocate for another school without approval.

Since he could not approve a plan like that in Oregon, and since counselors cannot approve out of jurisdiction training programs, that argument goes, he would not have to write the plan no matter how much evidence I collected.

Enter Katie Couric (And There’s That)

That is when Katie Couric’s news team got involved. I would like to say it was all me, but I know attracting interest to my story and stories like mine turned the needle, big time.

During this process, I created the first Facebook group helping veterans navigate the bureaucratic red tape of VR&E. Couric’s news team took notice, and I helped her team investigate VR&E’s dubious improper discriminatory practices nationwide.

It was around that time that my disagreements with VR&E and VA Disability were magically resolved. Poof. Magic. I was approved to start law school in Oregon, and I ended up with a little extra coin in my pocket after winning a local appeal for VA Disability.

All in, it took three months of pushing and a bump from ABC News to get the job done.

Key Takeaways

Sometimes it’s important to confront your enemy head on. Do not be ashamed of your circumstances. Instead, think like a lawyer to angle your argument using the criteria you can sometimes create out of whole cloth.

If that still falls short, it can help to go public with your story. VA will seemingly do very little at times to right a wrong, but when the news media gets involved, the wrongdoers tend to scatter like vampires at dawn.

Never let VA define your reality when the evidence falls into the gray zone. Create a structure or framework that is sensible, true, and argue it well without losing your cool.

And that is it. 

Check  out more on Benjamin Krause here.