I was a VA whistleblower in February 2016 when I refused direct orders to violate written policies and directives and reported these orders to the VA Central Office; orders that are in place to protect the safety, health, and well being of our veterans, of which I am one.
I was one veteran among approximately 20,000 veterans who received care by the Roseburg VA Healthcare System.
I am one person, among dozens, who has spoken up.
I am one person, among dozens, who has faced retaliation, bullying, and wrongful termination.
NEW YORK TIMES
It took more than two full years of literal blood, sweat, and tears; more than two full years of banding together with the others to form a united front; more than two full years of speaking out, doing interviews with local newspapers, and broadcast news, when finally, David Philipps with The New York Times heard our battle cries. I was one of several interviewed.
There were many stories to tell about the corruption at the Roseburg VA Healthcare system. David chose one, but that one was enough. It was the right one. The article was published on the front page, along with my picture and others, on New Year’s Day.
The article made the VA Central Office, the VA Office of Medical Inspector, and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection stand at attention and realize we were not going away – and that each of us did not represent an isolated incident, but a systemic problem within the Roseburg system, specifically with leadership.
My case is complicated because I was in fact reinstated prior to mediation or further hearings, because I have an amazing attorney KC Huffman and I was fighting even when it meant I was crawling on my hands and knees, crying out to God, because bullying is HARD to cope with at any age.
BULLYING IS HARD AT ANY AGE
Let me say that again: BULLYING is hard to cope with no matter your age. Everyone has a breaking point – everyone. There were many days and nights that I wished horrible things would happen to my bullies. As a Christian, it was and still is, hard to reconcile those feelings with my beliefs, so I don’t need reminding. But, please recognize that I am not perfect, although I am enough.
I returned to work, only to have the bullying continue. My job had been given to someone else, I was ostracized and isolated in every way imaginable and in some ways, you might not be able to imagine.
The physical and emotional toll was so intense that I was having breakthrough migraines, vomiting and dry heaving, muscle cramps, stress-induced asthma attacks, and panic attacks – all during the work day. I cried on the way to work and I cried on the way home. I couldn’t even escape with sleep – often having breakthrough nightmares and night terrors, which I spoke about briefly in an earlier post.
These conditions were not new to me. I had several instances of trauma and prolonged trauma while on active duty in the Navy. That is the origins of these conditions, but they were all well-controlled. I was in therapy and compliant with my medication. I wanted to attempt to work. Attempt is as far as I got.
So, here I was, being triggered every hour of every day. I was waking up, getting dressed, and putting myself into the environment that I knew wasn’t good for me.
HOW COULD I PROTECT MYSELF?
Just prior to the wrongful termination, a patient was phone stalking me, only to show up at the clinic, demanding to see me, the day after leading police on a car chase in which a gun was involved. He said I was nice to him when no one else understood, and I was keeping him from blowing his brains out. Staff had no idea if he had a gun on him when he showed up.
He triggered me. I had been phone stalked before, only to have it turn into a sexual assault. Mental health professionals and the police got involved while I was kept behind two cypher locks and one deadbolt for my own protection, until he was escorted off the property and the situation was under control.
But now my own leadership team was triggering me every day. Who was going to protect me from them? How could I protect myself? They would reach out through phone, email, instant message, and no cipher lock or deadbolt would keep me out of their reach.
I willingly dragged myself into the lion’s den every day, taking notes and taking turns calling my attorney and therapist when I became too overwhelmed. My attorney became an extension of my therapist, something I don’t think he bargained for. He was concerned; overly concerned.
At my worst, I was in therapy 3x a week and my therapist extraordinaire, Becky, touched base with me on the days I didn’t see her – all in an attempt to keep me out of the hospital…something we discussed on at least three different occasions. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was having suicidal ideations.
I begged her not to admit me. As a veteran, the thought of being admitted to the very facility, under the care and scrutiny of the very people triggering me was just too much to handle. Becky agreed. We put a safety plan into place. I assured her we had no ammunition in the house.
My own children were leaving voice messages for Becky because they were concerned about my safety. They know my past. They know what I’m capable of and it scared them. I contracted with them, too and I signed a release so the Becky could communicate with them. I was rarely left alone.
UNABLE TO HEAL IN A TOXIC ENVIRONMENT
Because of all of this, my inability to work, we went to mediation after all. I couldn’t be in that environment for another moment. I couldn’t heal where a culture of fear existed; in the toxic environment that caused me harm. And, Roseburg director, Mr. Paxton, was refusing to pay my $20,000 attorney fees that I had to pay to get my job back.
Mediation wasn’t easy. Paxton made it difficult. KC fought for me. I settled for $40,000 and in exchange I would be required to resign, but in a twist, Mr. Paxton, ironically, offered, as part of the settlement, to cooperate and support me in pursuit of a disability retirement claim related to the exacerbation of my Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and anxiety caused by all of “this.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into his offer, but that seriously sounds to me like he’s admitting that all the bullying and harassment caused the exacerbation which means that he’s admitting to the bullying and harassment. Anyone remember your conditional statements in discrete math?
I was literally all over that!
Now use substitution for ‘this.’
If Doug Paxton admits that Laura’s MDD and anxiety were exacerbated due to the wrongful termination and subsequent bullying, then Doug Paxton admits she was wrongfully terminated and bullied.
Seems logically correct to me.
Some may say that he had no choice but to cooperate in the application for the disability retirement claim, but I beg to differ, all things considered. His support and cooperation were written into my settlement agreement. That’s the only reason he had to.
THE LETTER CAME
This brings me to the afternoon of Monday, March 5th. Scott brought in the mail. He always brings in the mail. The mail gets delivered just before noon. Scott got home about 3:00. For three hours, unbeknownst to me, the letter from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sat in our mailbox with news I’ve been waiting to hear for 17 months…17 months that I’ve been unable to work, juggling our finances, avoiding phone calls from numbers I don’t know and from some I do know.
And it all came down to the envelope he handed me.
My response was, “uh oh.” It was thin, and I thought, like college acceptances, that it would be thick and bulky if it was good news – more documents to complete, people to notify, hoops to jump through.
Someone at OPM knows what he’s doing. The word, APPROVED, bold-faced and capitalized, buried in the second paragraph, jumped off the page and I started to cry. My retirement was APPROVED!
I cried because my financial situation was suddenly better. Maybe I can save my house.
I cried because I know that Paxton resigned from Roseburg (although he’s still a VA employee) and reports are starting to be released that prove we, the voices of the rally cries, were telling the truth.
I cried because within 7 days of this decision I knew I would officially resign from my position at the Roseburg VA and enter retirement. I loved my job, I loved the veterans I served, minus one who stalked me, and I love the people I worked with, people that I can no longer call co-workers, but will always call friends, if they allow.
MOVING ON AND LETTING GO
And finally, I cried because this chapter is over. I believe I can honestly turn the page and move on. I have a new awesome therapist, Emily, because Becky closed her practice. I’m in therapy 6x a month. I’ve made friends with a band of ladies I call sisters. They, along with my family – especially my parents, husband, children, grandchildren, sister, and best friends, sustained me.
God is good and He was ever present even when I was feeling lost and impatient. My faith wavered, and I let Him know that even though He already knew.
So. Many. More. Are. Still. Fighting.
They’re still rallying. They’re still crying. I’ll be supporting them because I know they speak the truth. I don’t want them to give up.
In the meantime, I’ll work on forgiving those involved in my case, starting with two people in particular. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t know that I’m ready. I don’t truly want to forgive them.
They’ve never apologized and while I know there isn’t any type of Christian-criteria for being worthy of forgiveness, because forgiveness should be by grace, it still makes it incredibly difficult. I’m human. But, I’m going to give it a whirl anyway.
Grace and mercy. Grace and mercy.
And, hopefully, I can become an integral part of my family again, being present in the moment, mindful of the times we spend together.
The anxiety, the MDD, the night terrors…they’ll still be present, but as long as I can acknowledge them and the fact they’ve taken up residence in my head, in my heart, and in my soul, without letting them run amok, like college freshmen at a frat party, I think I’ll be ok. Yet, if I’m going to be honest, there will be an occasional frat party regardless of any and all guttural protests. I just have to work through it and start again because….
I am worthy.
I am strong.
I am enough.
I am loved.
Now, I’ll repeat it, until every cell in my body knows it, instinctively.