Saturday, October 5, 2013

Adventures in Transit and Shutdown

Yesterday I went to Seattle to review a veteran's file at the Veterans Affairs regional office.  The trip was my first on the newly-inaugurated express bus to Seattle from Olympia.  It's definitely nice to board at the first stop where seats are plentiful instead of making a Seattle connection at the 512 Park and Ride where I compete with fellow travelers from the entire South Sound for the few remaining seats.  The entire trip door-to-door began at 6:30 and took two and a half hours in typical rush hour traffic.  I might have been able to drive in less time but then I'd face Seattle's very high parking rates.  Bussing it costs much less and I get to zone out or read instead of fighting traffic.

Going to the VA was a leap of faith since the federal government is shut down.  I'd seen a VA contingency plan that gave what looked like mixed messages.  I called the 800 number and found it working.  The representative told me the office would be open.  She was correct; the door was open and staff in the office when I arrived after passing through the near-full TSA security screening (at least I did not have to remove my shoes) to enter the federal building.  The veteran's file I had requested--six inches in two volumes--was waiting for me.  Staff told me that I could not obtain copies "today". They did not say but I guess the reason is that the copy staff probably were furloughed.  I would have been out of luck if I needed to copy anything.

As it was I did not expect to need copies.  I obtained a complete copy by mail about two and a half years ago when I first picked up the veteran's case.  I wanted to see if anything useful might be missing in the copy provided and check on my most recent filing.  I also just wanted to see what an original file looks like.  A few weeks ago I visited the VA regional office to represent another veteran at a hearing and took the opportunity to make a few inquiries at the benefits intake office there.  The experience was a useful one for me as a veterans advocate.  I figured that seeing an original file would be useful as well.

The case is a long one.  The veteran first filed the claim in 1966.  I am the most recent of quite a few agents to represent the veteran during the many years.  He is my first "client", a word I hesitate to use because I'm doing this as a volunteer.  His file is a genuine education and a real challenge.  The claim has been adjudicated by the Board of Veterans Appeals three times and the veteran has been awarded compensation.  One issue remains unresolved.  The review took almost five hours.  Even so, that was quick.  I just had to compare the file documents to an index of the copy,  flipping pages and making notes as I went.  I did not see anything I had haven't already seen and am confident that I have every important document plus a lot of chaff from the original file.    

My workspace was decent enough but would have been crowded if a second person was also reviewing files. Lighting was marginal early on but once the morning fog lifted and the sun got higher in the sky I had plenty of light from a couple of south facing windows which also afforded a good street level view of First Avenue.  I could relieve my eyes by watching an ever-changing parade of people.  Behind me I could hear bits and pieces of employee conversations on this fourth day of shut down.  I heard some discussion but picked up no detail about pay procedures and recognized some black humor from sound of the voices.   Mostly, I just plowed through the stack of documents in front of me.

The ride home took about the same time even with changing buses at the 512 Park and Ride.  I boarded Lakewood express on Second Avenue around 2:00 pm just down from the federal building.  It was mostly full.  I found a open two seats in the back and the adjacent seat did not fill during the remaining few Seattle stops before we hit I-5.  The view of Mount Rainier was pretty spectacular on this bright, sunny day.  After a week of heavy rain the mountain is once again clad all in white and sparkling.  The exposed rock so prominent at the end of summer is no longer visible.  The southbound express makes a loop through Tacoma before making the final distance to the Park and Ride.  We arrive at the Park and Ride just in time for me to catch the bus to Olympia.

Traffic coming south from Seattle didn't seem too bad but we are no sooner back on I-5 than the traffic is bumper-to-bumper.  Not too surprising on a Friday afternoon.  We creep past the military base formerly known as Fort Lewis. Traffic is still heavy into Olympia but moves a lot faster.  I get off near the Capitol Campus around 4:15.  

Total round-trip: 10 hours.