RACHEL MARTIN, host: The Department of Veterans Affairs has taken a lot of heat in the past few years from vets who say the bureaucracy is a nightmare, that it's too hard to get benefits or treatment - which is how Alex Horton felt. He lit into the VA on his blog. The VA responded by giving him a job. Here's how it happened.
ALEX HORTON: Well, I was starting my second year at school, and I was going to school on the original GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill. And we transitioned over to Chapter 33, which is a more generous program for veterans to use. It has a housing stipend and all that, so it was very attractive to a lot of veterans.
HORTON: So when I started using it in the fall, there was a - there was kind of a big kerfluffle because a lot of applications were being processed and, you know, VA was very much behind. And, you know, I was one of thousands of students who got caught in the middle of that, and I had no idea when I was going to get paid, and I had things to think about. I had rent, I had a truck payment, I had a lot of things to worry about, and I couldn't get any answers from VA or the counselors at my school.
MARTIN: If you'll allow me, I'll just read an excerpt from your blog. You said: The VA counselors at my school buy salt in bulk to pour into the wounds of the students they are purported to serve. One, in particular, lambastes me whenever I call with a legitimate question regarding veteran benefits.
Pretty tough words. Did it feel like that? It felt like you just couldn't get any answers?
HORTON: Well, I imagine they were pretty overworked and under a lot of stress to try to interpret these new rules and get information they needed from VA. But all I saw was, I couldn't get a hold of anyone physically. And every time I showed up, it was like rolling their eyes, OK, what can we do now to help you?
HORTON: You know, it felt, you know, I was about to be kicked out of my apartment because I didn't have any money.
MARTIN: You're like, hey, this is a problem.
HORTON: This is a big problem, you know? It was more like OK, well, you're number 500 who came into my office today and said that.
MARTIN: How, I wonder, has your voice changed? How has your tone changed now that you're no longer the critic on the outside; you're on the inside?
HORTON: Right. In many ways, it's a good thing, you know? Being cynical and throwing bombs at a department can only work for so long before you ask yourself, what really can be of use to people? I didn't see many tangibles that came out of me criticizing except for...
MARTIN: You got a job.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORTON: Yeah. I guess that's one outcome. But it was more - before I was saying, here's a problem; isn't this terrible? Now I'm saying, here are some issues; what can we do to fix it?
MARTIN: Which of your posts has gotten the biggest response?
HORTON: Probably had the best response - was a, kind of like a field manual of sorts for civilians to talk to veterans because the vibe between civilians and veterans is wide and it's growing wider - a guide, so they'd know how to...
MARTIN: A how-to guide to even just have a basic conversation.
HORTON: Yeah. It's a how-to guide so you can - so you know what to ask and what not to ask and, you know, the best way to approach someone if you're unsure -because, you know, I have always had the problem, when I have a new class or new co-workers, where they didn't know - they knew maybe I was in the Army or I was in Iraq, but they didn't know what to ask me, and so they didn't ask me at all. And because of that, I didn't tell them anything.
MARTIN: Give me an example of something you should never ask a veteran.
HORTON: Did you ever kill anyone? Did you see your friends die? For someone to ask flippant questions like that is pretty hurtful.
MARTIN: Part of that understanding is coming to grips with a lot of the mental health issues that veterans come back with from Iraq and Afghanistan. And the VA has been pretty out there admitting that this is a problem, and we're trying to deal with it.
Last month, an appeals court ruled that quote, unchecked incompetence at the VA has affected mental health care for vets. The VA released a statement saying again, this is a top priority and that the agency has been improving care and expanding services for veterans with mental health problems.
Now, you are not directly a part of these efforts, but I understand that through your involvement in social networking, you've actually been able to help identify people in crisis.
HORTON: When people discuss suicidal thoughts on the blog, or on Facebook or on Twitter, we take it very seriously. It's great that now these platforms exist because now, these veterans have an outlet to reach out. If they say something in an attempt to get some help, it's there for them, you know - where, you know, two years ago, it didn't exist at all.
MARTIN: How has this job changed your perspective on the VA?
HORTON: Seeing it from another side maybe added complexity and made the issues - I don't want to say easier to understand, but I know now how it's a huge bureaucracy and, you know, there's some points that work well and some that need to be worked on. You have a bigger appreciation for what those issues are and you have - you're more compelled to help fix those now.
MARTIN: Alex Horton is a writer for the VA's official blog, Vantage Point. You can see his earlier blogging at armyofdude.com. Alex, thanks so much for coming in.
HORTON: Thanks for having me.
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