I had to go to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital this week for some routine care. Most people have heard that the VA is being hammered right now nationally due to alleged dereliction and mishandling of duties at some facilities.
So as I entered the facility, I had to wonder about the morale among the staff members who are there to help veterans.
As I made my way down the hallway, I took notice of the many veterans, young and old, who were there for myriad reasons. It was a bit overwhelming as I also watched compassionate VA employees going about the business of caring for veterans ranging in age from their 80’s to their 20’s.
One particular scene that impressed me was of an older veteran–I’d say Korean War era–who was there by himself. I could tell he was confused, nearly panicked, as he wondered which line he was supposed to be in, what paperwork he needed, what doctor he was supposed to see, etc.
I had started to get up to see if I could help him when a man in his mid-30’s, a hospital staff member, noticed the man too. The younger man had been propelling himself down the hall, carrying papers, his white lab coat flapping in his wake and obviously with many things to do.
But he was also scanning the crowd and he immediately zeroed in on the older man, spun on his heel and asked the man, “Sir, can I assist you?”
The veteran had trouble looking up due to obvious neck or back discomfort–and the younger man was taller than him; so the young man guided the veteran to a chair and sat down next to him, at eye level.
I watched for the next 10 minutes or so as this very patient VA staffer pushed aside all his other duties and focused his total attention on listening to the veteran, asking him questions, helping him fill out paperwork and then taking him to the correct office. Then he explained to the clerk there what the veteran needed.
He could have stopped there, but before he went back to his regular duties, he wrote his phone number on a card, handed it to the veteran and told him, “If you have any problems, just call me and I’ll come and help you.”
Then, not waiting for a thank you, he turned and started walking away. I got up, matched his stride and told him, “That was a pretty great thing you just did.”
He looked surprised and asked me, “What thing sir?”
“Helping that veteran like you did,” I told him.
“Well, that is my job, we’re here to help veterans,” he said matter-of-factly. “But thanks for noticing. We don’t get much of that these days,” he added, throwing me a glance and a smile that conveyed to me that the compliment had made his day.
As I slowed and he kept going I heard a passing orderly say to him, “Good morning doctor.”
It impressed me even more, that a doctor whose workload was probably already overwhelming had stopped to do something that really went beyond “his job.” He easily could have kept on walking past that veteran, ignored him or found someone else to help him; but he saw a need and he took personal action.
And he deserved some sort of recognition for it, which is why I chose to simply tell him thanks.
It struck me then that the act of recognizing others for accomplishments great and small has become something of a lost art in today’s instant-gratification culture where so much is taken for granted, where sometimes something as simple as a “thank you,” or “nice work” can make all the difference to someone.
So as I made my way through the hallways and interacted with caregivers and administrative staff, I made it a point to thank them for their work and on the many occasions when they went above and beyond to help me or other veterans, I made special effort to thank them in front of others.
It’s really kind of amazing when you informally recognize people, how the benefit isn’t only to the recipient, but to the giver of recognition as well. I found that I felt better for it. Instead of spending my energy trying to find people doing things wrong, I regenerated my energy by looking for people doing things right and I let them know that I appreciated it.
I saw those little acts of recognition I spread around the VA center that day re-charge some batteries, rekindle some motivation and re-energize some attitudes. Just knowing someone saw and recognized they were doing their best was reason to try harder.
I guess my point here is that whether we’re VA employees or parks and rec professionals, it’s an easy thing to recognize others for the little day-to-day things that might be considered “their job” but that still deserve recognition. It doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t take much energy and, in fact, it makes you feel a lot better about life.
I think no matter how jaded people may be, no matter how much they might profess that they are “only doing their job,” most people still crave recognition. Most people in fact thrive on it. Maybe they don’t need it every day, or even every week. But I don’t think you’ll ever hear too many people saying, “Man, I wish I would stop getting all this recognition. I just hate it.”
No, I think I’m going to focus on catching people “in the act of doing their job” and then simply say “thank you for doing that” or “great job” or whatever, some little means of letting them know that they are recognized.
And in regard to the VA issue in the news, recognize that the VA has more than 330,000 employees. Only a handful are implicated in any wrongdoing, which means that the vast majority are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and then some. In my experience, many of them do it very competently and compassionately. They serve literally millions of veterans each year. So while any dereliction of duty is unforgivable, don’t blame all 330,000 employees for the misdeeds of a few miscreants.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email email@example.com.