By Lisa Rein, www.washingtonpost.com
Back from a 15-month deployment to Iraq, Alex Horton penned a 1,000-word rant against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“How many obscene scandals, misappropriations and misdiagnoses does it take to see there’s a rotten core at the center?” the 23-year-old soldier wrote on his war blog from Austin in 2009. He was in his fourth semester at community college, and VA was holding up money he needed for rent and schoolbooks under the new GI Bill.
His unsympathetic VA counselor “provides the same level of care you would expect from a Tijuana back alley vasectomy,” Horton wrote, expressing a frustration felt by generations of veterans.
What happened next was a watershed for one of the government’s most maligned bureaucracies.
Veterans Affairs hired Horton to keep blogging — about itself.
The agency hopes to use the Internet — and a critic operating from the inside — to help turn around its reputation as obstructionist, antiquated and overwhelmed. The goal is not just to answer veterans’ questions faster and in real time but also to open the bureaucracy to scrutiny. Although they’ve gotten a slower start than the private sector, federal agencies are interacting with citizens on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, a big change for many used to more-controlled communication.
At first Horton said no when the department’s new-media director tried to recruit him last spring. “Then I thought, this might be an opportunity,” he said.
He quit school and a part-time job corralling grocery carts at Costco and drove his Ford Ranger to the District, where he rents an English basement on Capitol Hill.
Instead of blogging without pay in a dusty Internet cafe in Mosul, Horton makes $47,500 a year to write full time from a ninth-floor cubicle at VA headquarters on Vermont Avenue NW. Now 25, he arrived with instant credibility with veterans, who followed his must-read war blog, Army of Dude, during the U.S. troop surge for its unvarnished, eloquent dispatches.
But his job has an inherently awkward dynamic — work for “The Man” and risk selling out (“Now I suppose he will be busy spewing government propaganda,” one military blogger wrote after his hiring); become too critical and irk your bosses.
Brandon Friedman, who oversees the five-member new-media team created last fall, said: “I told everyone upfront, Alex is not here to flack for the agency but to help facilitate our communication with our clients.”
VAntage Point launched last Veterans Day. It has taken on some fundamental issues: The labyrinthine claims backlog, VA’s paperbound culture, the wave of mental health problems confronting returning troops, access to health care, how civilians should talk to veterans, suicide, homelessness.
The blog, anchored by Horton with contributions from other writers, gets about 3,000 hits a day, the agency said. The posts also appear on the VA Facebook page, which now has 112,000 fans, the largest of any Cabinet agency.
A fellow veteran, Friedman had admired Horton’s war blog. But he was nervous when he approached his boss about hiring him. “He can be kind of controversial,” Friedman told Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth.
Duckworth, who lost her legs and the partial use of one arm in Iraq, had her own frustrations with the system, having missed medical appointments because she couldn’t find parking. “It’s absolutely outside of the comfort zone of how the VA has done things,” she said of Horton’s independent voice. “And we need that.”
Alerted by complaints from Horton and others, the agency cleared up the GI Bill backlog and acknowledged that it was unprepared for a crush of applications.
Horton has continued to rankle the bureaucracy. An account of the claims backlog touched off angry calls to VA officials. “But it’s still up,” Horton said.
He hit a wall as he reported on the parking shortage, which has worsened as more veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan seek treatment. The managers he interviewed were not happy with his questions. “It must have seemed like I was the inspector general,” Horton said.
Witty and unassuming, Horton failed English twice during high school (with a class rank of 322 out of 405) but spent most of his free time devouring military history. In his assault pack in Iraq, he carried a dog-eared copy of “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s short-story collection about a platoon in Vietnam.
The guy who once wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college is waiting to hear from George Washington University and Georgetown to complete his degree. He has a quirky fascination with dictators. An early portrait of Saddam Hussein, found in an abandoned house in Baqubah, sits on his desk, along with a pistol holster with Republican Guard stamps he recovered in a weapons cache in Baghdad.
On his right wrist is a silver bracelet honoring Cpl. Brian “Chevy” Chevalier, the driver for Horton’s platoon, killed four years ago by an explosive in Iraq. The loss informs his often-soulful dispatches on the disorienting journey from battlefield to civilian life.
“With all the challenges associated with coming home from war . . . the bittersweet absence of combat can be the most troubling and confusing,” Horton blogged about post-traumatic stress. “Almost to a man, my Army platoon misses the sting of battle as much as the camaraderie.”
Other dispatches have been hard-hitting. The department “holds a long legacy, both perceived and grounded in past experiences, of an enormous government entity that could not possibly care about the veterans it serves,” he said in his maiden post, comparing VA’s reliance on the mail to communicate with veterans to “stone tablets.”
The post drew 270 comments, many critical.
Horton’s most controversial posts have dealt with practices at some for-profit colleges. One post warned veterans to avoid online marketing firms that steer students to schools that use “aggressive and questionable practices” to enroll them and exaggerate the earning potential of their degrees. Another reported that VA disqualified one school’s Texas campuses from receiving GI Bill benefits. Both pieces were held for weeks before publication and carefully vetted by Duckworth, who acknowledged that VA lawyers told her to tone down criticism of the schools.
“We wanted to make sure it didn’t become a divisive piece,” that “portrayed the students as victims,” she said.
(The Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan Higher Education division is among those qualified by VA to provide benefits under the GI bill.)
The parking story was the first to be tabled, though Horton said it may be revisited. Duckworth said she does not see 90 percent of the entries before they are posted.
Some observers have criticized the blog as not going far enough. Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate, skewered the VA’s social media efforts in a recent interview online. The agency “does a [poor] job of outreach,” he said, calling its communications an “old bricks-and-mortar system.”
Friedman hit back at Rieckhoff online, and the dispute lit up the blogosphere. Rieckhoff and his spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
“Certainly Alex’s tone may be a bit different than before,” said Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for AmVets, one of the largest service groups. But he cites a recent post, “Is the new GI bill really a win for Vets?” as evidence that Horton’s “dissenting opinion is still there.”
Horton said the blog has forced him to be less cynical about challenges facing veterans — but when something seems unjust he doesn’t hold back.
“It’s the same approach I took before,” he said. “I wait until something upsets me and write. Sometimes Brandon will bring me back to the middle of the spectrum.”