Craig Colton looks like an NFL linebacker. But his friendly, gregarious nature quickly puts the people he meets at ease.
The Waco Tribune-Herald reports he is the kind of guy most people would want to have a beer with. That's what makes Colton good at his job and why he so easily earns the trust of those he is trying to help.
Colton, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, is one of 822 employees who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office, the 123,000-square-foot, box-like structure at 701 Clay Ave. in Waco.
When he is not trying to help a veteran apply for funding for additional education or find a meaningful vocation, Colton volunteers with veterans' groups, leading camping and team-building retreats for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders or other service-related ailments.
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He gets to know veterans while huddled around campfires and gazing at stars.
Like 66 percent of the employees at the VA Regional Office, where the motto is "vets helping vets," Colton is a veteran. The Bunker Hill, Indiana, native spent 23 years in the Air Force, retiring in 2010 as a master sergeant. The son of an Air Force B-58 navigator, Colton was a maintenance instructor for the B-2 bomber and spent 2007-2008 in Iraq training Iraqi forces in aircraft maintenance.
It's people like Colton, veterans and others with a sincere desire to help the nation's veterans, who have worked hard to transform what was considered one of the worst-performing of the nation's 56 VA regional offices eight years ago -- if not the worst -- to the top-rated office in the country in terms of efficiency, accuracy and benefit claims processed.
Some of the credit for improved efficiency at the much-maligned agency was the conversion to electronic files from what once were 12-inch-thick paper file folders.
It allowed the local office to clear out a football-field sized storage area on the second floor of the building and use it for office space as it was intended.
Other credit for the turnaround can be given to the leadership of Regional Office Director John Limpose, a 6-foot-7 former college basketball player from Ohio who subscribes to the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" and quotes former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
"In 2012, when I got here, there was a lot of bad press about Waco being one of the worst offices in the country, and it took a toll on the employees," Limpose said. "We were taking a beating in The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the San Diego Tribune that we were the worst from coast to coast.
"I didn't think it was justified, but we had the motto: `We have to scale Mount Everest,"' Limpose said. "We just decided to hunker down, roll up our sleeves and go after it, and we did. We reduced our inventory of cases from 52,000 to 16,000 and reduced our backlog from 41,000 to under 2,000. At that time, our average to process a claim was 474 days and we got it down to 130 days, and last fiscal year, we processed cases in 92 days. There is no magic silver bullet here. We just hunkered down and did a lot of good old-fashioned hard work."
Last year, the Waco regional office paid out $4.2 billion in disability compensation, compared to six years ago, when it paid $2.3 billion, Limpose said.
Limpose, who is not a veteran but comes from a long line who served, said he and VA employees take pride that Waco was the top-performing office in the country in fiscal year 2018. The office set a national record by processing 80,102 disability claims and did it with 94 percent accuracy, he said.
Limpose credits the turnaround to employees like Colton and Sheila Bounds and Kim Donna, both rating veterans service representatives; Margarita Bell, a claims assistant; Ernesto Garcia, a decision review officer; Dexter Douglas, an accounts receivable technician; and Al Miller, a coach in the veterans service center.
To the person, those employees say they strive to ensure that disabled veterans earn every benefit they are entitled to, even going out of their way if initial efforts don't produce ideal results to try to gain more information or other documentation that might qualify a veteran for more benefits.
They also say that because they all are veterans, some disabled veterans, it helps them better understand what the claimants are going through and to connect with them in a more meaningful way.
Colton, for example, said he was lost when he got out of the Air Force. He had spent two decades with someone telling him what to wear, where to go, what to do, what to eat, and it was a bit of a culture shock when he became a civilian, he said. He suffered from depression and anxiety and sought help.
"I was ready to give up," he said. "But now, it helps me know what these guys are going through. I've lost friends through suicide, and it is heartbreaking."
Bounds, a West Virginia native, joined the Army in 1990. Her father was a Navy veteran, and her grandfather, a World War II Japanese prisoner of war for four years, survived the infamous Bataan Death March of April 1942, a 65-mile forced march of 75,000 American and Filipino troops to prison camps.
Bounds started her career in military intelligence as a Czech linguist. She was a 1st sergeant and spent time in Germany and Yugoslavia. She was sent to Iraq in 2006, where she ran a detention facility and was in charge of interrogators.
"It was a very tough deployment because my brigade took a lot of losses," she said.
After a "less stressful" deployment to Baghdad in 2009, she retired in 2010. Her husband, Harold Hall, retired from the Army in 2008 after a 21-year career and three deployments to Iraq.
Bounds, who has a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in human resources development, used part of the G.I. Bill to earn her degrees between deployments. She has been working at the VA Regional Office in Waco since 2011.
Her and Donna's jobs as rating veterans service representatives is to handle what are deemed priority claims or more difficult claims with multiple disability contentions. Priority claims include terminally ill or homeless veterans or those with financial hardship claims.
"I almost feel like this is my calling," Bounds said. "I love this job so much. Each veteran deserves our time on each claim. A lot of them grab at your heartstrings when you look at their records and see what so many of them have done for our country. No veteran is going to get brushed aside. They all deserve their shot, and if there is any way that we can grant their claims, we will."
Donna, a Kempner native, enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin before realizing, as she put it, that she needed more structure in her life. She joined the Army, thinking she would get life experience and then continue her education on the G.I. Bill.
The next thing she knew, she was in Germany after training as a combat medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Five weeks later she was in Iraq, manning what was supposed to be a four-man stretcher with just one other soldier and evacuating wounded troops to helicopters so they could go for treatment.
Donna also comes from a long line of military family members. Her grandfather served in Korea, her father in Desert Storm. Both her younger sister and brother were in the Army in Iraq, and her husband served in Afghanistan.
She has been diagnosed with PTSD and has nightmares and flashbacks. She can watch old movies about historic wars but cannot watch movies from the Gulf War era.
Like others at the office, Donna retired from service at Fort Hood, which provides a steady pipeline of job applicants to the VA Regional Office in Waco.
Donna and Bounds said they gain satisfaction from helping veterans get the benefits they seek.
"I think it is an affront to the veteran if we don't provide our service as efficiently as we can and do all we can for them," Donna said.
Both said they enjoy helping World War II veterans get approved for hearing aids, especially the many who have never filed a disability claim in their lives but whose hearing is decreasing as they age.
"That makes me very happy and I get a lot of satisfaction in making that call to tell a veteran to tell him we can pay for his hearing aid," Bounds said.
When veterans decide to file a claim, among the first to see it is a claims assistant, like Bell, a Chicago native who joined the Navy in 1986. She retired seven years later to raise her family while her husband, John, had a 24-year Navy career before retiring in 2004. She has a 28-year-old daughter in the Navy who is stationed in South Carolina.
She has infrequent contact with veterans but inputs their claim information into the system. She normally is assigned 100 claim packets a day and is required to finish at least 34 of those. She said the largest claim she has handled involved 64 contentions, or conditions such as back, knee or shoulder ailments and others.
"I wanted to stay in the Navy, but I left to raise my kids while we followed my husband from place to place," Bell said. "Since I couldn't stay active duty, I feel like I am giving back here to help the veterans. It is just fulfilling to know I can do something, even if it is a small part."
Once a decision is made about a veteran's benefits and his or her level of disability, an unhappy veteran can appeal to someone like Garcia, a decision review officer. About 12 percent of all decisions are appealed, Limpose said.
Garcia, who was born in Mexico, moved to Dublin, Texas, with his family when he was 10. When an appeal hits his desk, he reviews the file to determine if the law was properly applied. He sometimes requires more information or more documentation before making his decision.
"Basically, my job is to make a decision. If I can grant it, I will grant it," said Garcia, who also works as a freelance photographer for the Tribune-Herald.
Garcia joined the Marine Corps when he was 17 and was given a medical discharge after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2003.
He said the agency's goal is to complete the appeals process within 125 days.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said his office was flooded with complaints from veterans about the Waco VA Regional Office and the nearby Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center. In the years since, he said he has noticed vast improvements in the regional office and an associated decrease in complaints.
"When I was elected in 2010 and came into office, the Waco regional office was one of the worst in the country in terms of backlog and timely and accurately processing claims," Flores said. "Now they are among the best. They are not perfect. They are like any other bureaucracy. They are going to have their problems. But Director Limpose and all the employees have done a good job of putting veterans first and addressing the issues veterans have. I am really impressed with what they have been able to do."
Flores invited McLennan County Veterans Service Officer Steve Hernandez to speak before a congressional committee to address the problems at the VA Regional Office in 2012. Hernandez, too, said he has noticed a vast improvement over the past six years but still hears complaints about the length of time an appeal in a benefits claim case can take.
He said he blames the system, not the workers in Waco.
"There was a major problem back then that caused a severe backlog," Hernandez said. "It all has materialized to the point that it is back to being effective. Honestly, back then when we were all upset, the people who work there are tremendous. They are local people. They work in the community. They have the intent to do everything they are supposed to do. It was the system. It can be very tedious and bureaucratic and that creates this logjam. But the people have always been very courteous and cordial. I don't have anything but respect for them."
One of the problems is that the Waco regional office covers 164 of the 254 counties in Texas, more than 158,000 square miles. There are a lot of veterans in that area, the largest in the country with the exception of Alaska, which has only one veterans regional office for the entire state.
"It is a big job, but we enjoy doing it," Limpose said.
Because of the size of the area, 122 of the 822 employees work in offices in El Paso, Austin, Dallas, Tyler, Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock and Fort Hood.
"Mr. Limpose is really good at analyzing the data and getting the teams to work really closely together and getting them to achieve the most they can achieve," said Tom Morley, assistant veterans service center manager. "That is one reason we had the big reduction in backlogs."
In describing improvements to the office, Limpose likes to quote Wooden, the old UCLA coach who won 10 national titles, including "being average means you are just as close to the bottom as you are to the top."
"Let's be at the top half. We have come a long way here," Limpose said. "To me, it all really falls back to hard work, dedication. If you don't have time to do it right the first time, when are you going to find time to do it again? I read his book, `Wooden on Leadership.' No matter if you are playing sports or integrating it into business, little things done well is probably the greatest secret to success. Obviously, we would like to be 100 percent accurate on every decision, but we try to do the best with what we've got. That's a Vince Lombardi quote, by the way."
Others who have helped the Waco office improve are Al Miller, a supervisor in the Veterans Service Center, and Dexter Douglas, an accounts receivable technician.
Miller joined the Army in 1983 after high school in Dermott, Arkansas. He is a Desert Storm veteran who started his military career manning a fence line between East and West Germany.
Douglas grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and won the Bronze Star in Desert Storm as a fire direction chief in a field artillery division. He served 20 years in the Army and has worked for the VA regional office eight years.
Both say their time in the military has proved invaluable to their work at the VA and that it is rewarding to help those who served.
"I think when you take a look, I think it is less than 2 percent of all Americans who served, and we have all these freedoms and rights," Limpose said. "It is only because of people who put their lives on the line, some who gave it all, and most of these folks in this building are veterans themselves. So we take a lot of pride in all those entitlements veterans are entitled to.
"It's all about helping and all about doing the right thing, and that is what we do. It's about making a difference in people's lives. Every day we make a difference."