As horrifying as it was to recount my experiences serving rotting/unsafe food to our nation’s heroes during my time working for the grill of a VA/VCS in a major metropolis of Colorado, there were other events I witnessed that were in some ways much worse. I say worse because sometimes the horrors we can’t see—and their unintended side-effects—are much more terrifying than blackening lettuce could ever be.
For anyone who has ever witnessed a loved one who survived military combat of any kind during the throes of a PTSD episode, it can be one of the most terrifying things to experience. And PTSD never really leaves—it lingers until the very end. It’s because of this reason that there was either a poster with a suicide hotline number on it, or some kind of mental health awareness flyer every 20 feet in the main corridor of the VA I worked in.
The same flyers that both Chief Whit and our Regional Director had seen an innumerable number of times.
As I stated in the first part of this series, one of the primary tactics that our Chief liked to utilize when it came to saving money was running a bare-bones crew. This not only led to many unsafe food practices, it also put an incredible amount of mental stress on everyone.
Add in the fact that many of those who worked in the kitchen served in active combat situations, it was only a matter of time before someone snapped. Eventually, it would be Tim; Whit’s assistant and head of the entire kitchen operation in the main cafeteria.
Between his military and civilian cooking careers, Tim was years ahead of everyone else. He knew proper food handling and safety back and front. He understood the need to filter the oil in the fryer daily and he knew the importance of temperature control and labelling. In fact, from both educational and hands-on perspectives, Tim was the most qualified kitchen leader I’ve ever worked with while in the food industry.
He was also the most underutilized.
Because callouts were consistent, he was often used as the little boy running around the dam, plugging all the holes. If my grill-mate called out, then Tim would be my side-kick—until he was needed downstairs because of an issue of some kind in the prep area. This would be followed by him having to cover someone during their break in the scoop-and-serve line next to the grill, with the final hours of his day being spent behind a cash register. With this intense regimen occurring daily, Tim pushed himself too hard and wound up with a hernia and cast on his leg.
This was only the beginning …
He continued to work as best he could with his physical limitations. Eventually, all the physical, mental, and emotional stresses came to a head, and one morning during prep work, Tim cracked.
Four witnesses later told me that they watched him walk into a room full of people with a sharp object and attempt suicide. This was later confirmed by Whit later on when he confided in me the same information.
Thankfully, Tim’s life was saved and he was put on leave to get the medical attention both his mind and his body needed. He was told he would have his job back once he gained doctor clearance, and to take all the time he needed to fully recover. Tim was told there was nothing to worry about as Chief Whit had recently hired a new Operations Manager named Constance, and she was going to take care of the day-to-day operations while Tim was in recovery.
Though I was initially happy that Tim was getting the help and rest he needed, after about a week under the Constance regime, I really didn’t want to see him return. She was ruthless and loved to tell people information that only management should know. Also, her attitude quickly led me to believe that she would undo any emotional rehabilitation that Tim had accomplished during his respite.
Especially when she made it clear early on that he had made “The List.”
Within the first few weeks of her management tenure, everyone became keenly aware of The List. It was difficult to avoid, considering that if you were on it, Constance would come directly up to you, look you in the face, and say, “You’re on The List.” Being on The List meant that Constance didn’t like you and was going to do everything she could to see that you were fired. At first, we thought it was just a scare tactic; however, after the fourth person on The List got terminated within a month or two of her promotion, a fear crept through the entire VCS. A fear that permeated the hearts of every employee, including the veterans who were already fighting their own battles privately.
Shortly after Tim returned from leave, Chief Whit had to take some weeks off due to family business. Though Constance was left in charge most of the time, there was a period of a few days when she needed help; this is when the Regional Director was called in.
I cannot stress enough the level of influence the RD has. Because he is directly in charge of all VCS facilities in Colorado Springs, Aurora, and Grand Junction, his choices and managerial style have the ability to directly impact the lives of dozens of veterans currently working under him.
It’s also knowing this fact that makes the next part of the story that much more ghoulish.
One day when the RD was in the building to help, I heard a “code yellow” being called in the cafeteria. This meant that the police needed to respond to that area ASAP for a possible disturbance. Later that day, I approached Constance and asked her what happened, since she’d seen the entire incident. In front of both myself and a co-worker, she unfolded a tale that chilled me to the bone—a conspiracy between her, the RD, and Chief Whit that had one goal: “to test the limits” of Tim.
She explained how they wanted to make sure he could perform the physical tasks that were allowed on the doctor’s release form. Instead of increasing their number incrementally, they decided to add task, after task, after task … causing him to go into a fit of rage. His fury got so bad that he threw a heavy steel cart against the wall, resulting in the police being called.
I was able to corroborate these events with two other employees who were present; Tim had been running around all over the place that day. One of the witnesses also claimed that Constance forgot about the huge arguing match that both she and Tim were having before he threw the cart.
Again, the guy that heads the Colorado Springs, Aurora, and Grand Junction VCSs knew about Tim’s history and proceeded to do the exact same things that sent him over the edge the first time.
With the overall rate of veteran suicides still on the rise, it makes sense as to why the posters advocating for assistance are everywhere. It’s just sad that in this case, none of them were given much attention.
I’m hoping that things can change, I truly do.
Having recently read that top executives at a Colorado VA were removed from their positions due to a toxic workplace, there is hope.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine a better example of toxicity than egging on a suicidal veteran, can you?