Ted Blickwedel retired in 2006 after 27 years in the Marine Corps and decided to make the next step of his career one that involved helping other veterans. In doing so, he received counseling training and went to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital before discovering the Vet Centers.
The centers are community-based counseling clinics that were established in the wake of the Vietnam War, connecting social workers and counselors with military or combat experience to with other combat veterans.
Ted came on board in 2009, but by 2016, the people-centric approach to helping combat vets had turned into a numbers game where counselors were tallying metrics and rushing through appointments to meet VA-mandated expectations.
Ted was burning out, watching his fellow counselors leave jobs they loved because they couldn’t provide the help they knew veterans needed.
In 2018, Blickwedel emailed 1,300 Vet Center counselors across the country to learn how the new expectations and bureaucratic demands were impacting them.
It turns out he wasn’t alone in his struggles. The retired Marine lieutenant colonel eventually filed official complaints as a whistleblower, triggering a Government Accountability Office report that, in 2020, revealed the new productivity standards were leading to burnout among many counselors across the Vet Centers’ 300 locations.
The resulting Vet Center Improvement Act was introduced in Congress in 2021, and remains alive but has yet to be approved by either the Senate or the House. The act would require the VA to reevaluate counselor standards and develop a new staffing model to provide adequate care for veterans.
Blickwedel spoke with Military Times about his new book, “Broken Promises,” which chronicles his experience and provides insights into how to report problems in government agencies.
Editor’s Note: This author Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What motivated you to write this book, and what do you hope readers gain from it?
A: I never intended on writing a book. I ran across somebody from my Basic School Days in the Marine Corps who’s a published author at a reunion last year. He encouraged me and we started to do the project. The reasons are twofold. Number one, I wanted to get the word out not only for the veterans and those who care for them, but also for the legislation. The more people who could be aware of these things, the more they could encourage congressional representatives to vote for the bill.
Second was to share the retaliation, tactics and what happens to people typically who speak truth to power and the abuse and misconduct that goes on when people speak out. The majority of the public is not aware of what happens. I wrote a chapter to highlight those issues and provide a resource for someone who decides to speak out.
Do you see this book as a sort of manual for potential whistleblowers?
It’s a cautionary tale of to be prepared it you do decide to raise concerns. If you take this on, this is what you can expect, because this is what happened to me. But it ends on a positive note, with a chapter of lessons learned. If you take something like this on or support someone who does, here are the things you’ve got to do to be able to stay healthy, stay the course and have the media and politicians working in tandem or you’re probably not going to have any success. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee — but it will maximize your chances of success.
What’s the state of veteran counselor burnout and morale now?
Key leaders at the VA are just giving these problems lip service. This is a national travesty. I sent out emails to nearly the entire Vet Center counselor network and the feedback I’ve gotten is that things have gotten worse. They keep throwing on administrative requirements that are redundant and unnecessary. Nothing’s changed with the metrics. People are really fed up, looking for jobs, retiring early, going into private practices. It’s horrible.
Once the Vet Center Improvement Act does pass, the real work will be to ensure that it’s going to be enforced. The bill stipulates congressional and Government Accountability Office oversight.
Are you concerned that there may be less public attention to veteran and veteran counselor concerns now that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended?
When you don’t have veterans coming home from war and have that covered in the news it does fade from attention over time. The chances are the public would be made less aware of veterans issues. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s good we don’t have a war to be involved in, but also there’s not something out front there to keep media attention and coverage on these ongoing issues.
What should people know about Vet Centers?
The Vet Center program is a valuable resource that has dedicated and very highly qualified counselors who do great work. And that can’t be emphasized enough. It’s the management that’s the problem that’s causing the issues with compromised care, the burnout of counselors and degradation of the counselor’s welfare. But veterans should still be encouraged to go there for services. The counselors are still going to try to provide the quality care that they can.
Knowing what you know now, would you do it all again?
I almost threw in the towel a few times along the way. The first two months I took this on, the retaliation was so incredible. I was in such a dire state. I had to really regroup to stay the course, through self-help and my own therapeutic intensive.
There were times I almost gave it up. As I look back, because of what has been accomplished and how the counselors and veterans are going to potentially benefit from this legislation, it was well worth it. All along it was all about them, and despite the heavy price I paid, the bottom line is I would do it again because our veterans and those who care for them deserve no less.
What’s next for Ted Blickwedel?
I’m going to stay active with Whistleblowers of America and support them where I can. I hope to get involved in the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology. I also hope to get involved with teams providing trauma relief support for first responders and communities negatively impacted by a mass shootings and natural disasters. People need help to emotionally and mentally cope with those experiences.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.