They have an unwritten yet clearly understood commandment in the military. It’s a rule that soldiers in combat live, and sometimes die, by. It is, like love of flag and country, inviolate: Never leave a buddy behind.
Understand this concept and you understand Jimmy Norris. The new CFO of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), Norris has spent the better part of his life looking after injured comrades. When asked why, at nearly 60 years of age, he’s signed on at a vast federal agency that is underfunded, overworked, and often bashed by the very veterans it serves, Norris says simply, “I feel a connection to these people.”
That connection was first formed 37 years ago in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Barely a year out of ROTC and flight school, Norris found himself stationed north of Saigon. The second lieutenant flew Medevac helicopters, retrieving wounded soldiers from the front lines. It was extremely hazardous duty. Nearly 10 percent of the helicopter crews in Vietnam never made it back home. “When we had hot missions,” recalls Norris, “we’d hover at tree level. We’d have to get cover from Cobra [gunships].” Sometimes the cover wasn’t enough. Twice, Norris had his helicopter shot down by enemy fire. In both cases, the young pilot somehow managed to crash-land his crippled aircraft. Both times, he walked away unscathed.
Such grace under fire will serve Norris well in his new post. As CFO of the VBA, Norris is charged with overseeing the finance function at one of the three agencies that make up the enormous Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). (The other units include the Veterans Hospital Administration [VHA], responsible for medical care, and the smaller National Cemetery Administration). The VBA, with around 13,000 employees, has an annual budget that now tops $40 billion. Some of the money covers survivor benefits for spouses and dependents, but most of the agency’s funds go to the 2.7 million veterans with service-related disabilities.
That number is likely to swell. Existing vets, particularly those from the Vietnam War, are beginning to file additional or expanded disability claims as they get older. Those sorts of reopened cases constitute nearly 60 percent of disability claims filed with the VBA. At the same time, soldiers coming back from what is now referred to in Washington, D.C., as the GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) have started to enter the VBA system.
Coping with the impact of these returning soldiers presents a sizable challenge for Norris. He does not know exactly how many will be coming home, or when. He doesn’t know how many will need payments to cope with life-altering traumas like amputations or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And he cannot be entirely sure that staffing levels set by Congress and approved by the President will provide the manpower needed to process claims quickly.
Few CFOs in the private sector hold such a momentous responsibility. When companies in the private sector fail to predict — or service — increased demand, customers switch to competitors. When the VA underestimates demand, lives may be at stake. Indeed, for the poorest disabled veterans, delays in receiving VBA checks can lead to real suffering. Some end up on the street (see “The War at Home,” at the end of this article). “Congressmen spout platitudes about soldiers twice a year,” says David Gorman, executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of Disabled American Veterans. “They talk about providing Kevlar for the troops. But then they forget what happens when the uniform comes off.”