“There is Strength in Numbers” — Ted Blickwedel, VA Whistleblower
The National Whistleblower Center celebrates and amplifies the voices of whistleblowers and fights for stronger whistleblower protections worldwide. This community blog will highlight these stories, giving you firsthand experiences from the brave whistleblowers who will be part of our July 30th National Whistleblower Day Celebration. Check here every week in July for intriguing stories from real-life heros!
In the second installment of this series, we hear from Theodore “Ted” Blickwedel, combat veteran and VA whistleblower:
I am a retired Marine who is a combat and disabled veteran. From January 2009 until February 2018, I conducted individual and group therapy with combat veterans at the Warwick, RI Veteran’s Center for the Readjustment Counseling Service (RCS), a branch of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
I officially retired in April 2018, three years earlier than I had intended, due to the oppressive and unethical clinical productivity expectations instituted by RCS in 2016 that negatively affected the health and well-being of counselors and degraded our ability to provide quality care to veterans. RCS leadership failed to acknowledge these issues when it was brought to their attention numerous times through the normal chain of command, including an email on January 18 and 25, 2018 that I finally sent to management to address these concerns. Subsequently, I filed grievances with various federal agencies (e.g. VA OIG, OSC, and ORM/EEO) to report these excessive and unreasonable mandates, as well as the retaliation I experienced from RCS/VET Center Program management after raising my concerns.
During the course of my whistleblowing endeavor, I gained the support of my Rhode Island Congressional Delegates that resulted in a GAO investigation that substantiated my allegations with recommendations for corrective action in their September 2020 report (https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-652).
A summary of the GAO Report provides a condensed and thorough version of their findings. Concurrently, I was interviewed by numerous national, state, and local media organizations (e.g. NBC News; Military Times; NPR; WPRI TV Channel 12 in Providence, RI; and Rhode Island Cable PEG TV) about the excessive clinical production mandates of the VA/VET Center Program and how this has caused counselor burnout and threatens quality care, as well as the retaliation I experienced from VA/RCS management that created a hostile work environment. All of this led to Congressional Legislation entitled the “VET CENTER IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2021” that was introduced to the House (H.R. 3575) and Senate (S. 1944) Committees on Veterans Affairs at the end of May 2021.
There are several factors that I learned that were essential to the success of my advocacy efforts and are crucial to a favorable outcome for any whistleblower campaign. These indispensable guidelines are outlined below for those who are compelled to undertake similar crusades so they can enhance their chances for an effective effort and positive result.
1. Instances of misconduct and its consequences that are being reported, to include retaliation and its impact, need to be well-documented through written material, recordings, witnesses, and/or relevant research that validates the allegations. This kind of evidence is important to establish credibility.
2. Solicit support from as many colleagues and peers as possible to back your advocacy campaign since there is strength in numbers when you are on a united front, both for the cause and your emotional sustenance. However, realize that most coworkers and associates will be afraid to stand with you because they fear reprisals. This is typically due to reacting out of survival instincts to protect themselves, so don’t take it personally.
3. Enlist assistance from family, friends, reputable whistleblowing organizations to serve as confidants and sources of encouragement, especially during difficult times in the process, to help maintain a healthy and balanced mental state. I highly recommend the National Whistleblower Center and Whistleblowers of America since they are knowledgeable and experienced with whistleblowing and its ramifications. This is important prior to forging ahead with your initiative, in order to be prepared and help minimize the adverse impact that can evolve from whistleblower retaliation, as well as develop a better understanding of available resources and effective strategies.
4. Obtaining media coverage to raise awareness and gain the backing of politicians and/or other influential entities is crucial so the successful achievement of your objectives will be greatly enhanced and produce authentic change that is truly beneficial. This will also potentially foster significant momentum which can be motivating and inspiring to keep pushing forward.
5. Stay connected with your support network and keep them updated to maintain their interest and involvement. Sustaining these relationships with colleagues, family, friends, centers of influence, and organizations is imperative to retain their backing by participating in spreading the word and promoting appropriate action regarding your campaign through emails, social media, and contacting their Congressional Delegates to endorse your efforts.
6. Exhibit a professional, tactful, and composed demeanor throughout all your interactions with media contacts, politicians, other supporters, and adversaries. It is vital, too, to be organized, clear, and succinct with what you say and how you articulate your message. This will help facilitate greater receptiveness to what you are communicating.
7. Self-care cannot be stressed enough. This was my greatest downfall, particularly early on since I allowed myself to get too overwhelmed, which resulted in my physical and emotional demise that led to my pulmonary embolism which almost killed me. It is very important to have good nutrition, engage in relaxing and enjoyable activities, exercise regularly, and seek counseling or therapy if necessary. Specifically, I recommend Qi Gong, Yoga, Meditation, Therapeutic Massage, and/or other suitable practices to build and sustain physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resilience. This will help immensely to more easily navigate through and cope with the challenging stress generated by activism and the toxic retaliation tactics that usually go with it.
8. Be positive and have hope in what you are doing because of knowing it is possible to effect genuine and constructive change against what appears to be insurmountable odds when others before you have demonstrated it can be done.
Ted Blickwedel, LICSW
LtCol, USMC, Retired
Former VA/VET Center Counselor
Please join the National Whistleblower Center, the sponsor of Whistleblower Voices, in celebrating National Whistleblower Day 2021. National Whistleblower Day is an annual celebration commemorating the contributions of whistleblowers like Ted Blickwedel around the world who have bravely stepped forward to expose waste, fraud, and abuse.
This year’s celebration will be an all-day virtual event featuring a wide range of speeches from whistleblowers, policymakers, and advocates as well as a series of panels on pressing whistleblower issues. And, Ted Blickwedel is a featured speaker! RSVP here.