Episode 364 Cheri Mason Insider View of Veterans Appeals Process Transcript

This transcript is from episode 364 with guest Cheri Mason.

Scott DeLuzio: [00:00:00] Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast where we are focused on giving hope and strength to the entire military community. Whether you’re a veteran, active duty, guard, reserve, or a family member, this podcast will share inspirational stories and resources that are useful to you. I’m your host, Scott DeLuzio, and now let’s get on with the show.

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Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Drive On. I’m your host, Scott DeLuzio. And today my guest is Cheri Mason. Cheri is a distinguished attorney who dedicated years of service to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her career included becoming the first woman in military spouse to hold the position of [00:02:00] Chairman of the Board of Veterans Appeals.

And her journey has been marked by innovative leadership. technological advancements, and a passionate commitment to addressing the challenges faced by veterans. And she’s here today to discuss some of those challenges and how veterans can better navigate the appeals process. So before we get into all that, I want to welcome to the show.

Uh, welcome to the show, Cheri.

Cheri Mason: Well, thank you. I very much appreciate you having me, Scott. I look forward to our discussion today.

Scott DeLuzio: I do too. And I think this is a, um, a good area to, to talk about too. Um, you know, especially with the, um, the appeals we’ve, we’ve covered some of the, a lot of the benefits that, that are available to vet veterans and, um, you know, how they can apply for benefits and, and all things like that. Um, But we never really touched on the appeal side of things.

So I think this is going to be an interesting conversation and definitely, uh, something that’s useful to the listeners. [00:03:00] Um, so before we get into all that, could you tell us about your work at the VA, how you got involved working with them and, and how did that all, how did your journey start?

Cheri Mason: My, my journey was, uh, not a typical one because I was a military spouse. And so after graduating from law school in Nebraska and working in private practice for a while, when we received orders to DC, um, I had, I had learned about VA when I was a VA beneficiary because my father had died by suicide when I was very young.

But, I had also had the, um, wonderful privilege of being, uh, mentored and working at the JAG office by a gentleman, and I worked with a gentleman who was the JAG at the, at the, at Alford Air Force Base, and he just happened to be a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton. Uh, and um, so, you know, his experience, you know, in, in that world, but also for his, [00:04:00] his experience when he came home and, and, you know, his benefits from the VA were, you know, were very interesting and, and it really opened up a door to law I didn’t know about.

And so I, I applied to the board, uh, when we moved to DC and I was hired as a baby attorney. Um, And I worked there for about four years, and then, you know, the Air Force, like they do, says, Yeah, that’s nice, you’re going somewhere else. And, uh, so I went to Germany for a while with my husband, worked as an executive assistant over there, and then came back, and initially went to Federal Labor Relations Authority, but I really missed the board.

And, uh, so after about a year I returned to the board and that was 1998. I stayed and, you know, I became a judge and the chief judge and, um, as a senior executive and, uh, one day I was minding my own business and I got a phone call saying, um, You know, Ms. Mason, will you please hold for the [00:05:00] White House for the vice president?

And, um, vice president got on the phone and said, you know, Cheri, I’d really like you to be, to consider being chairman of the board. And, you know, there hadn’t been one for seven years and I had lived through it and it was hard. It was very difficult. You know, we had caretakers and we had four different caretakers in seven years and I said absolutely if I can get through Senate confirmation He said I think you’ll be just fine.

And so that’s where I ended but so that’s how I landed in the job but quite frankly, you know, I was a bit of a unicorn in that because I was a careerist who who became a political appointee, but I was also the first woman, a military spouse, chairman. And so there were a lot of things, you know, but I walked out the door as a senior executive and an hour later walked back in the door as the chairman. And it’s like, you know, when you’re in the military, you know, officer’s ranks, you know, you don’t like to go from company grade to field grade at the same [00:06:00] base. I know that from being married to my husband for as many years as I have been. And that’s really what happened. I mean, I went from I don’t know, major to general.

And, um, and, and people looked at me differently. They, they weren’t sure what to expect. And so I had to really show them, you know, that I was still me, and I was still going to lead the way I had always led. Um, but that we, you know, I knew what the challenges were. And in some ways, you know, that helped. And in other ways, you know, it, it, when it would take me down rabbit holes.

So I had to learn how to manage those two things.

Scott DeLuzio: And what were some of the challenges that you faced when you first stepped into that job? Because I, I, I got to imagine, uh, going. Day, you are, um, you know, who you’ve always been working in this organization. And then, uh, next thing you know, you’re elevated to [00:07:00] you’re on top of the heap now. Right. So, um, that had to be challenging. Uh, but I got to imagine there were some other challenges too. You mentioned there’s seven years without a chairman. Um, and so there probably was some cleanup work that had to be done, right.

For lack of better terms, maybe.

Cheri Mason: That would be an understatement. You know, what I, what I present when I speak and I’ve actually touched on this in the book that I’m writing is, you know, really what I faced was a ship that was in trouble. Um, we had low morale. We had no trust with our stakeholders. Um, you know, we had money, um, but it wasn’t being spent.

And, um, You know, and more importantly, we, you know, the numbers weren’t where they needed to be for veterans. So, it was, you know, pretty much all hands on deck and, you know, and so I had to figure out how to turn that ship around and, you know, figure that out. So, [00:08:00] it pretty much was like, you know, there were A series of waves that kept hitting us, but I knew they were coming.

And so it was a situation of, of being prepared for those and helping, helping the employees understand that I had their backs and that we were going to do this together. And that, yes, we had a mission, but first of all, we had to fix, you know, the broken pieces that were, that were the confidence and the morale and trust of the employees.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, and when you’re in that kind of position, it’s almost like, uh, like laying the tracks as the train is moving down the track, right? It’s, it’s like you, you have to like be one step ahead, but you also have to be mindful of the speed of the train and you got to worry about that and the other pieces.

And there’s a lot of moving pieces, I guess, is going on there. Um, what were some of the things that, um, You mentioned the stakeholders, right? The veterans who [00:09:00] were, you know, going through the appeals process. Um, what were some of the things that in your mind were, were broken for them that needed fixing, you know, kind of an immediate fix, uh, for when you, when you stepped in?

Cheri Mason: Yeah, there were, there were a, there were a couple of big ones. I mean, first of all, we didn’t have technology. I mean, the technical technology the board was operating on was 40 years old then, and that was in 2017. And so, you know, we didn’t have the right technology. We didn’t have really procedures in place, um, that kind of figured out things.

And on top of all that appeals modernization was happening, right? It had already been passed. We were writing the regulations for it. And, you know, trying to make sure, you know, it was again, like you said, laying that track and making sure we were thinking about ensuring that the veterans were First, we’re center in everything we did.

And, and so a lot of it was around communication. Our communication [00:10:00] practices at the board were not great. Our communication practices with our stakeholders were not great. And so it was a lot of building those relationships with, with the VSOs, Veteran Service Organizations, the private bar, the Hill, and then also, you know, through them with the veterans and showing what we were doing, but also changing our process around how we were responding and trying to tighten up those processes a little bit.

But the technology piece was was the big piece and that was probably You know, it was the first thing I asked for, and the virtual hearings was the first thing I asked for, uh, with, with IT. We were already working on some other things, and then I, I was You know, because of my leadership style, which is people centric, I believe in being visible and engaging with my people.

And so by doing that, [00:11:00] I found out through one of my, uh, strolls around the building as I was want to do, uh, regularly, that one of my attorneys happened to be an MIT engineer. And he had this brilliant idea that he could, that he had this, he could give us a template. And I said, let’s do it. And so, you know, we were going to go through the process of testing and, and, you know, rolling it out slowly.

And once everybody heard about it during the testing, everybody wanted it. And so we pushed the go button and that was the interactive decision template. And we did that the first year and it improved our output by 50%.

Scott DeLuzio: Oh, wow. Wow. And so that, that’s a pretty, uh, drastic improvement in that short time period. I mean, you know, years is a long time, especially if you’re sitting there waiting for a decision, but, um, you know, when you’re like, like I said, as you’re laying the tracks, as the train’s moving, you [00:12:00] know, time, Time kind of seems like it goes pretty quick, I’m sure.

But, um, but you’re able to improve that, um, anyways, in, in that time, kind of time period. So that’s, uh, you know, a great, uh, improvement there. Now I got, I gotta imagine there are, um, you know, some veterans out there who maybe went through, um. You know, claims or appeals and they went through process years ago and maybe before things were kind of, uh, fixed under, under your, uh, leadership there, um, they may just be discouraged by the whole process.

Um, you know, do you have any advice for folks like that who maybe. Haven’t even thought about their, their claims or appealing anything for years because they, they were dealing with that broken system that, that needed, uh, uh, an overhaul, um, any advice for them on, on what they can [00:13:00] maybe do today to, to kind of adjust some of that?

Cheri Mason: Well, I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes too up too high. I mean, fixed is a relatively term. I mean, we made improvements. Um, fixed. Um, I still wouldn’t call it fixed. I think it has a way to go before we get there. But I think, you know, one of the things I would recommend is take a look at where they are.

If they, if they have a claim. That, you know, they really didn’t pursue to an appeal that, you know, with Appeals Modernization, they can re, they can, you know, put that claim back in. And the big thing about Appeals Modernization, which was, which was really important, was that it really gave, put the veteran in the center and gave them choice, control, and clarity.

Now, you know, clarity again is a relative term. Um, and you know, how much clarity they got. But at least they kind of knew where they were and they had choices rather than being stuck. Because what a lot of [00:14:00] veterans, and we heard this from our, from our veteran community, from the stakeholders, is the cases just go and they don’t know where they are.

They don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know, you know, what if I don’t want to go that way? What if I, you know, and so that was part of what we did. And so there are options now if you put in a new claim and it gets denied, they’re going to explain, VBA will, or VHA will explain exactly what, what is missing in eight points and then you can go to the higher level review or the supplemental claim before you would come to the board.

If you come to the board, you know, and you can still come to the board after you can go through both of those processes, one or the other or none, and just go straight to the board. If you come to the board, you have three choices again. And the choices of the board are higher, are um, the 365 lane, which I don’t think the board is yet meeting the 365 day adjudication goal, but I know they were working [00:15:00] towards it when I was there.

We were still dealing with a lot of legacy cases, even though we had reduced the number from over 500, 000 by the time I left, we still had a lot of legacy cases.

Scott DeLuzio: Okay.

Cheri Mason: And so, you know, they were working those down, so I think, I’ve looked at the, I haven’t looked at the website, um, in the past couple months, but they were working those down.

So they’re working towards the 365. But you can also choose to file the 90, for the 90 day, where you submit an NOD and you can submit additional evidence for 90, in, within 90 days if you. Need to collect something you don’t have and then the third lane is the hearing and the hearings are still an option that lane will always take the longest because There’s about a hundred and twenty seven judges.

I increase the number of judges by 70 and I also increase their diversity and with veterans military spouses and minorities, you know People who, who look like everybody who serves, that’s [00:16:00] important, and have that experience. Um, but it still takes a while because it’s still a smaller, um, number. And so, so, but there are options and so I would encourage people to really look at that because you do have a better sense of what’s happening with your claim or appeal and you have choices in the system about how you want to pursue.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, it’s good that there’s, there’s options and obviously, you know, increasing the number of judges for those, those appeals, um, that, that people might be, uh, going through that, that’s a step in the right direction. Obviously, um, it doesn’t completely solve the problem because there, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot more veterans out there than, uh, than maybe there are judges to be able to, uh, to kind of work through some of those cases.

However, um. It’s still, uh, you know, better, you know, 70, uh, more, uh, [00:17:00] is it actually a huge increase from what it was? So that’s, that’s definitely good. So, you know, if, if someone was, um, you know, dealing with something like this in the past and they’re, they’re all. Call it disgruntled or whatever, you know, that it, it’s gotten better.

Right. And so, like you said, not to get your hopes up that it’s not, it’s not a perfect system and, you know, quite frankly, it probably never will be a perfect system, um, because there’s always something that can be improved upon, uh, throughout, throughout that process. However, it’s gotten better. Um, and I think that’s the point I want to make, um, you know, in this episode is that, um, You know, there, there are things that you can do to, um, you know, appeal a decision that you maybe disagree with.

Um, and, and the, the nice thing, like, as you mentioned, and I’m not sure if that this point got really highlighted, um, but I want to touch on it is, um, if you submit a claim and it gets, uh, [00:18:00] denied, there is a list of all the reasons why it’s been denied. Um, and it’s, I kind of look at it like a cheat sheet of, I don’t mean, I don’t, I don’t mean that in a negative way, but

Cheri Mason: what it’s there for is to help you understand why and you can look at it and say, okay, wait, I thought I had that, wait, I, you know, I didn’t, you know, and so, because this is, you know, one of the things I’ve found, you know, in, in all my time at the board as, as an employee, as a judge, as a chairman, um, and even now as a veteran spouse, um, you know.

People make assumptions that the VA knows things, that the person looking at the claim knows things, and you know, I can’t say that that assumption is, is, you know, misplaced, except people who work at the VA are human just like everyone else, and they are looking a [00:19:00] lot of cases, and sometimes it is really in your best interest to connect the dots for them.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, I was going to say that, um, not everybody is going to know the things that you did and places that you were and the things that you encountered and, you know, all these, uh, you know, if it’s a, an injury, you know, like spell it out, like this is what happened and, and give all the information of, of how it happened and any documentation that you have, um, you know, include all of that because it’s.

Yeah. You know, yes, the, the VA will do some legwork to look up in, in your service records to try to find that information, but maybe they missed it. If you have the information, give the information to them and that way they don’t, they won’t miss it. You know, it’s there, it’s right in front of them. Um, you know, so, uh, you’re, you’re absolutely right about that.

Um, you know, Don’t assume that they know [00:20:00] everything because likely they’re dealing with many other cases too and that’s just going to be really hard for them to kind of connect the dots on all of those things on their own. Um, you know, not to say it’s impossible. They certainly are capable of doing that, but, um, getting, getting that information in front of them right away, I think is the best bet to having a successful claim.

Um, however, like you said, if you Didn’t submit some information that you might’ve had, assuming that they had it or, uh, had access to it and could find it. And you look at that, uh, I’m, I’m calling it a cheat sheet. That’s my word for it. I don’t care. You look at that cheat sheet that they send you and they, they say, Hey, you didn’t provide this evidence, this evidence or that evidence.

Um, and you’re like, well, gee, I thought they should have had it. Well pull it out of your files or wherever you have it and send it to them.

Cheri Mason: I did it.

Scott DeLuzio: Um, And that’s, that’s [00:21:00] like too easy. You know, it, it, it really spells out exactly what you need to do, uh, in order to have a successful claim. Now, in some cases, it’s, that’s going to be a lot harder.

Um, especially if there is a, uh, you know, for example, a service connected. Uh, injury that, um, that maybe wasn’t documented during the service. Um, you know, which you always tell people always get things documented. Um, you know, any good NCO is going to tell their, their,

Cheri Mason: They should. Yeah. Absolutely.

Scott DeLuzio: do, you know?


Cheri Mason: I was running around the hospital at Landstuhl in 1990 something telling people that.

Scott DeLuzio: exactly, you know, like it really should be done, but in some cases, people, I don’t know, for whatever reason, they just don’t get it documented. Um, You know, there are some other avenues to getting that connected to your service, right? There, you could have a, uh, what is a nexus letter I think is what could, uh,

Cheri Mason: have a [00:22:00] nexus letter, yeah, a buddy statement, even like if you wrote a letter home to family members or there’s something like that. I mean, you know, the, the, the type of evidence that can be considered, um, by VA for this type of thing is, is because of the court and the, and the law, it has really expanded.

And I really encourage people to really gather that, look for that, uh, talk to people, you know, use that, that pathway. It’s there for them.

Scott DeLuzio: Now, if you were to, I don’t know, look into the crystal ball, you know, look into the future, what do you see, uh, for the future of, of this system and, uh, where do you think? There still is some areas for improvement that, that can come along, uh, you know, coming along here in the future.

Cheri Mason: Well, I think one of the big issues in the system Sits really in the quality piece. [00:23:00] Um, you know, it’s it’s long been discussed You know the board’s quality is looked at by the court and the court in the board and then the board looks at the quality of Veteran primarily Veterans Benefits Administration.

That’s the biggest You know where the biggest cases where most cases come from. However, I think there’s some disparity there that the people Get lost in. So, in an appeals modernization, unlike legacy, so let’s say if a veteran was in the prior system, which was the legacy system prior to 2019, and there was a case that came up before the board and the veteran at that time could say, hey, I have another appointment coming up.

I need, you know, can we get those records? The board had a duty under the legacy system to go get that evidence, right, to remand for. We had to go back to VBA. But in appeals monetization, that’s not the case because what appeals monetization is, is it put the board back as an appellate [00:24:00] organization, which was what we were initially designed to be when we were first created 90 years ago.

And so basically the board looks at the case as it was before when it was last decided at the regional office or hospital. And so they look at that and now if there’s something missing, That’s when the remand comes in. If, if they didn’t do something right or there’s something that they should have received or got, you know, VBA should have had or VHA should have had under, under duty to assist, the board’s going to remand that back.

That is a mistake on the part of VBA. That goes to a quality issue, okay? Now When the board’s cases go to the court, the board is not perfect by any means, okay? But the judges at the board all have judicial discretion. The board is the secretary’s designee to decide appeals from across the department, which is why the judges are approved by the president, appointed by the secretary, and approved by the president, because they, they basically [00:25:00] take on the secretary’s Um, you know, power in deciding those cases.

So when the court, so when, if a veteran decides they don’t agree with the board and they appeal, which is about 7 percent of the cases, um, the court, you know, obviously can look at that and say, Nope, you’re wrong. Send it back. Overturn. Right. Or the court, a judge at the court can say, yeah, we think we missed something here.

Remand it back. Right. That’s always a possibility. Um. However, the biggest area, uh, that I have in concern that I think is, is open to opportunity for change for veterans because too many veterans are stuck in this area, is when the, when the veteran appeals to the court and they have a private attorney in most cases, that private attorney can reach out to the general counsel and say, Hey, we think this happened in this case.

We want the court to remand it. Well, [00:26:00] the judge at the court never sees those cases, never sees those. So that is the clerk of the court who signs off on something that a private attorney told a general counsel and they basically reached a settlement agreement. Okay. So, so the court remands, uh, more than 70 percent in this joint motion for remands back to the board. And most of those are what we call pass through remands, meaning they don’t stay at the board. They go directly back to Veterans Benefits Administration because whenever the court, whenever the private bar and general counsel has agreed to is something that VBA has to do, and the board can’t do.

Now, there are a few of those cases where they’re like, well, we don’t think the board explained it this appropriately, and we’ll, you know, we take a look, the board would take a look at that. But 70 percent of, you know, I’m trying to do some quick math here. Let’s say we, we, [00:27:00] uh, we deny, the board denies about 30 percent of the cases, give or take, so 7 percent of that gets appealed, and then You know, 70 percent of that number go go back.

That means a veteran is delayed. Okay, that’s not okay. Now, is that a board quality issue? It could be and there’s there’s things like when I was at the board I implemented a process where the board and general counsel talked about trends and things We were looking at the court to try to impact that but that’s a concern.

I don’t know whether the court Oh, I know the court feels that it needs more judges Maybe that would help, um, because the number of decisions the court decides a year, you know, the court was never created. was never designed to handle the caseload that they have in front of them. It’s, it’s too much, right?

So that’s, that’s one particular area. I think, I think also there will be some other changes around appeals modernization. There’s [00:28:00] some, there’s some areas in appeals modernization that the court, um, because they were a part of the process because they’re the judicial branch. This was handled primarily in the executive and legislative branch.

Um, I think that they have a perception that some of the, uh, decisions made Um, we’re not in the best interest of veterans and whether that’s right or wrong, you know, that’s, that’s something that will be addressed by, by both VA and, and the Hill as, as we go forward. But I, I do think that there’s probably going to be some changes there.

Yeah, so there’s a lot of areas for improvement, I think, um, within Appeals, uh, and, and I mean, just in the claims in general, I think there’s a lot of improvements that can be made, but you know, obviously there’s, there’s a lot of work being done and that had been done, uh, that’s making this, this system a whole lot better.

Scott DeLuzio: Um, another thing that I want to talk about. [00:29:00] Uh, with you is, um, your work as far as, uh, suicide prevention and, um, the, the types of things that you’ve done, uh, to advocate in that area. Um, I know you mentioned, uh, earlier in the episode that your, your father, uh, you lost your father to suicide and that’s, um, obviously a, a terrible thing.

Um, What types of things have you seen that have been beneficial with regards to suicide prevention types of programs that are out there, things that are available for people that maybe are not all that well known. Um, some, maybe they are, but, um, what, what things do you think are, uh, really benefiting folks out there who are dealing with this?

Cheri Mason: Well, I think, you know, the importance here is, I’m a multiple suicide loss survivor. I lost my father at age four. He was a World War II veteran. I lost my brother at age 17, right before I left [00:30:00] for college, and my brother actually had been at boot camp when my father died. So he ended up in the National Guard, um, you know.

It’s hard. It’s hard. The impact to the families is hard. And, you know, at various other times in my life, I’ve been touched, unfortunately, by suicide much too often, as many of us are. Um, you know, even as chairman, I lost one of our employees to suicide. Um, so I, I think the, the first thing people need to be able to do is to talk about, um, you know, in my family, when my brother, up to the period, my brother died, we didn’t really talk and, you know, we were treated differently, uh, where, where I grew up, but, but we really didn’t talk about it.

And after we lost our brother, my brother, it was like, okay. Um, you know, something, something’s wrong. We got to figure this out. [00:31:00] And so we started talking about different challenges and the impacts and, um, it took me, it took me a lot of, a lot of years to come to terms with both, um, of those, um, losses in my life.

And really what, what drove it. drove it home to me that I really needed to talk about it was in the area I lived in Virginia, we lost several children in the high school, teenagers in the local high school in a period of six or seven years. And, you know, I really, you know, my, I had always talked with my kids about it.

And, you know, I, that was important because I wanted them to know and understand. And when I started talking about it, people were like, you know, it’s amazing that you guys talk about this. When my kids would tell people, yeah, we talk about this. And so, um. So, I realized that I needed to really find my voice.

So, that was the [00:32:00] first thing. So, I sought out different organizations and figured out who was doing what. Um, you know, for a while in VA we had Prevents and I was a Prevents ambassador. And, you know, part of the things we did were talk about it. Um, you know, both DOD and VA have, um, different offices that handle things.

DOD now has the Suicide Prevention Office and they’re doing a lot around getting the word out. But even the Veteran Service Organizations and, and many other organizations, you know, from the Suicide Prevention Organizations, of which there are several, you know, they all, you know, come out with stories and share stories.


Scott DeLuzio: Mm hmm.

Cheri Mason: I think that’s probably the biggest thing people can do because, you know, what, what a lot of people don’t understand is, you know, we know what our risk is, um, for cancer or for heart disease, because we’ve been We’ve been taught that over the years, right? And if you [00:33:00] have a mental health issue, especially if you have a suicide in your family, particularly, you’re high risk.

Okay? If you have two, you’re even more high risk. And so, because, because they existed, and because there are, you know, there are studies that show that there is some genetic component to something, to some of that, and I think, you know, people need to understand that. And, and really, When you share the stories about the impact, when I share the story like, look, my father died when I was four, my brother died when I was seventeen, my nephew at the age of seventeen walked me down the aisle for my wedding, because he was the only male left. Right, that’s an impact. I mean, my nephew and niece are now both in their 50s. They both have kids. We all talk about it in the families because it’s important that grandkids know their history because unfortunately, they’re high risk even [00:34:00] though they never knew their uncle or their grandfather. And so, you know, those, those are important things.

So, but then finding the different chapters of, you know, NAMI, National Association of Mental Health Institute. There’s, you know, there’s various suicide organizations out there that you can become active in. And again, knowing that, you know, family is described, is defined much differently, um, especially in the military.

And so understanding that when you lose part of one of a member of your family, you’re, you’re at risk and talking about it and getting help and seeking help is important.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. And honestly, uh, part of what you’re talking about, um, just talking about it and, uh, Making it, I don’t want to say, uh, normalize it, but you, you want to normalize the conversation around it. Uh, anyways, you, you, yeah. And [00:35:00] take away, it’s

Cheri Mason: know if I need help. Mm

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, it’s not a taboo subject. It’s something that should be discussed.

And, uh, quite frankly, it’s the reason why I’m doing this podcast. Um, several of the guys that I served with when I was in Afghanistan, um, you know, they survived deployment to Afghanistan and they came home and they took their lives and that just didn’t sit right with me. Um, obviously one of those would be too many.

And, um, those numbers, when they go up. It’s like, okay, there’s something wrong. And, um, you know, you don’t, you don’t want to just sit around and do nothing. And so I, I started this show to, um, you know, help people with any number of issues that they may be dealing with. Um, you know, it’s not, we don’t solely focus on suicide, but suicide is a complex thing because people have all sorts of issues in their lives.

And if they can get help with the issues that are really affecting them, then that may prevent. You know, even, even just one suicide, and that’s, that’s what [00:36:00] I’m hoping for, you know?

Cheri Mason: yeah, and actually that’s that’s part of the reason for the book that I’m writing. Um, it was not a book I wanted to write. It became a book I had to write. Because when I look around and I see the challenge leader, leaders face, um, and the struggles in, in the workforce, um, leaders need to understand how Deep and wide, their impact is on, on the people who work for them, but also on their families.

And when, when you aren’t connecting with your people and you’re not checking in and you don’t know what’s going on with them. Um, you know, it’s, it’s hard because you, people want to know that they have value, that they matter, that they have purpose. That’s everybody, all people, all people want to know that.

And so asking somebody, you know, how are you doing today? Really like, you know, and checking in on [00:37:00] people and. You know, I mean, I did my best at the board. We, we changed our procedures about how we looked at files because, you know, some advance on the docket cases, it was, it was a suicide situation and you had to understand what you were looking at for those cases.

Um, and so I did, I did some training with the team. Um, I also, you know, talked with the judges about, you know, during hearings, if you see, you know, they, uh, initially a lot of the judges, even when I was a judge, were, were hesitant, reluctant to ask questions like, you know, have you thought about harming yourself?

And I was like, absolutely ask the question because that tells them that you care, right? That you want it. And so. You know, because they thought, oh, if I say that, I’m going to put that in their head. No, it’s already in their head. So, you know, and so, but you know, I had situations as a judge where I would, you know, say, I’m sorry, we, I, um, you know, we get to the end of the hearing and I’d say, oh, you know, if I was in [00:38:00] person, can you please hold on a minute?

I need to step out and check the recording, right? And I would actually go get someone and say, look, I need you to talk to this veteran because they’re in trouble. And, you know, and so understanding that, but even understanding that with your people, when we went on COVID, the entire 1, 200 people of the board went out, right?

They were all remote. They were not in the office. We didn’t see them every day. I had done walk arounds and all of a sudden, You know, I was at home, and so I started checking in, and at first it freaked my people out. They’re like, what’s happening? Just like it did when I did the walkarounds in person, like, what’s happening?

Um, I explained that I’m not, I’m not checking on, I’m checking in. Right. And sometimes it was just having conversations about, Hey, how are you doing? Like, you know, I, I knew enough about my team, my staff, not all of them, but many of them. I know who lived alone, who had families, who, you know, and, or I would hear things.[00:39:00]

Cause people would tell me that they felt trapped in their houses. And so, you know, we would talk about that. And, and I think that’s something that everybody needs to be aware of. And that’s where I think the checking in piece the checking in piece is really important.

Scott DeLuzio: It, it is. Um, I think checking in with folks, um, is, is just a, uh, a way to show that you care, um, enough about them to ask that question. Um, and when you do it and mean it It means even more as opposed to just doing it like, Hey, how’s it going? And you keep walking and like, that’s, that’s not, you don’t

Cheri Mason: to be real, you have to be authentic.

Scott DeLuzio: Exactly. Exactly. Now you mentioned your book, uh, earlier, and I want to give you a chance to tell people what the book is about. You mentioned it’s a book that you didn’t necessarily want to write, but you found that you needed to write it. So, um, tell us about the book and what. It’s all about and in what [00:40:00] readers can hope to find in it.

Cheri Mason: So the book, the title of the book is Dare to Relate, Leading with a Fierce Heart, uh, hoping, fingers crossed, publication will be in March, um, but it really is about my journey, um, from a suicide loss survivor as a child in Appalachia. And then the military spouse, um, the challenges of, of living that lifestyle and, and then how those, how those two things really taught me, or three things, taught me about the importance of relationships, um, and impact on people.

And actually the, the importance of, of leading from a different point of view. And so it basically gave me the foundation to, to become a different leader, a different style of leader and unconventional leader, especially in the federal government. And so I, I, like I said, I, I led through. [00:41:00] Um, taking care of my people.

So most people, when they come into a position, we’ll say, Oh, we have to get these numbers up. We have to do this. We have to do that. It’s like, let’s take care of each other. Let’s figure out, let’s build ourselves back. Let’s recreate who the board needs to be. And as we did that. The numbers came alongside. So that’s, that’s really what the book is about, is telling that story and then giving some pointers about how you, one, figure out who you are, because you have to know who you are before you. Become a leader. And then how, you know, things you can do such as, um, getting a mentor, getting an executive coach to help you, um, learn about leadership and define the leader you want to be.

And then some, some pointers about what to think about, some examples, some stories, some interviews with different leaders and people, stories from my time. As chairman and other times that, you know, hopefully we’ll make people think because it’s not [00:42:00] just, it’s taking care of your people is, is your, they’re the, the people of the organization are your most valuable asset,

Scott DeLuzio: That’s

Cheri Mason: um, beats money, beats time, beats everything.

So, you know, you take care of them. And they’re going to take care of the customers and you’re not going to have anything to worry about. Um, but it takes a lot of work and figuring out how to do that and understanding the importance of that, especially like we talked about, um, in, in, in today’s world, because, you know, whether a lot of people say, Oh, the millennials and Gen Z’s are doing things differently.

Well, Yes and no. Um, you know, I have a millennial, I have a Gen Z, so, um, but, but the basic is people, like we talked about, want to matter. They want to make a difference. The difference is the environment. So, boomers like me, I’m at the tail end. Um, the Gen, Gen Xs, Next Gens, whatever, you know, it’s an, we had a different environment.

We [00:43:00] were taught a different way of handling things. Millennials and Gen Zs have life coming at them all the time and, you know, from, because of technology, because of other things, and they’re very good at processing all that, um, very quickly. Um, but at the same time. They’re worried about making mistakes because they see, oh, the over life looks perfect and that’s not realistic, right? That’s part of what led me and drove me to bring the book into reality is telling that story that one, you can overcome challenges. Your challenges, your difficulties, they’re stepping stones to what you want to do. Right. You, you know, certainly life can put you in the corner if you let it. The question is, are you going to let it?

And then what you do with that and how you define who you want to be, whether it’s a leader, whether it’s, you know, whatever, that’s your choice. And you have that choice, but leaders need [00:44:00] to understand, today’s leaders need to understand that the workforce that exists today, I don’t care what their generation is, they have redefined.

What work is and what success is. And to them, you know, it, it’s not, I leave my work at the door. You know, I’m still a person when I walk in the door and work is a part of life, but it is not my life and leaders got to get that. And until they get that, it’s going to be a, there’s going to be a, continue to be a challenge.

Scott DeLuzio: Right. Yeah. And, well, it’s, it’s good that you’re putting it out there in that way. I think, uh, you know, a lot of people can benefit from that. A lot of people in leadership positions can, uh, or aspiring to be in leadership positions, um, can definitely benefit from that. So, um, you know, hopefully you said hopefully, uh, published in March, uh, that should be shortly after this episode comes out.

So, um, you know, when, when the, when the book comes out, uh, be sure [00:45:00] to, um, Let me know and I’ll, I’ll be sure to send out links and update the show notes with that information so folks can grab a copy of the book when it is out. Um, know, it’s, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, um, learning about, um, kind of your background and your, uh, View of the appeals process.

It’s kind of nice to see the insider look like, you know, what’s going on, you know, like as, as an outsider who, who has, uh, you know, maybe some of the listeners who have dealt with the appeals process, um, they look in and they, they can only see what they see. And, um. You know, it’s nice to see it from the inside view as well, um, and, and see how, uh, you know, you, you kind of are, you know, we’re trying to manage the, the process and, uh, you know, write the ship as, as, as it may be.

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So, um, so thank you for taking the time to share all of that with us. Uh, I do appreciate that. Um, I do like to wrap up the show with, um. Just kind of change the mood a little bit, kind of lighten it up a little bit. And, um, I, I usually do some sort of humor, um, you know, either jokes or things like that, just to lighten the mood, especially dealing with heavier topics.

I like to, um, you know, almost like having a, having dessert at the end of a meal, uh, leaves a, leaves a good taste in your mouth as you, uh, as you leave. But, um, um. I decided to try some trivia questions, which could be just as funny as jokes sometimes. Um, and, uh, I don’t quite have a name for this segment yet.

I’m still working on that. If anyone, any of the [00:48:00] listeners have any suggestions, uh, feel free to let me know, cause I’m always, always looking for that, but this is the second time that I I’m doing the trivia segment. Um, first time was a bit of a fail. Um, so we’ll, we’ll see how that goes.

Cheri Mason: I’ll do my best to help you succeed.

Scott DeLuzio: Um, I, I, I’m hoping that you’re going to be able to get through this one.

Um, and if not, I may have to rethink this whole strategy on the trivia thing. But anyways, let’s, let’s give it a try. Okay. Um, okay. First question for you. Uh, and these all have to do something with America’s history, things like that. So I don’t, not too hard. I don’t think.

Cheri Mason: I hope not.

Scott DeLuzio: And again, we’ll see. Okay. So in America, uh, what, uh, state became the 49th state to enter the union?

It was in 1959, Alaska. You got it. All right. Um, who was the first? U. S. President to live in the [00:49:00] White House.

Cheri Mason: That’s going to take me a minute. Um, was it Adams? The

Scott DeLuzio: It was, it was John Adams. It was John Adams. Uh, who, um, okay. What’s, what sport is known as America’s pastime?

Cheri Mason: Football.

Scott DeLuzio: Ooh, baseball.

Cheri Mason: golf. I

Scott DeLuzio: Base, baseball.

Cheri Mason: See, in my house it’s football or golf. I’m sorry. My father in law, if he was alive, would hurt me because he was a huge baseball fanatic, but in my house it’s golf, so.

Scott DeLuzio: Okay. Okay. Well, that’s okay. You know what those golf maybe is more of a more Scotland. Um, but yeah, it’s,

Cheri Mason: live

Scott DeLuzio: but football, I can, I can definitely say football.

Cheri Mason: in Pinehurst, North Carolina, so in my world it’s golf.

Scott DeLuzio: Okay, gotcha, gotcha. Um, okay, what is the name of the theater where President Lincoln was [00:50:00] assassinated?

Cheri Mason: The, the Ford Theater.

Scott DeLuzio: You’re right, yes. And which two states do not participate in daylight savings?

Cheri Mason: Ooh, um, Indiana?

Scott DeLuzio: Oh,

Cheri Mason: one of those. I think it’s Indiana.

Scott DeLuzio: although I, that does sound familiar. I, I know there’s two others. I may be, I may be screwed up on this

Cheri Mason: it’s Indiana and Arizona, but I’m not 100%. I, yeah,

Scott DeLuzio: Arizona for sure. Um,

Cheri Mason: think Indiana is the other one, but, you know,

Scott DeLuzio: Hawaii, Hawaii is, is another one.

Cheri Mason: Hawaii doesn’t, Hawaii, well, Hawaii is so far over there, I never know what time zone it is. I’ve been there, I was like, what time zone?

Scott DeLuzio: We do their own thing. Yeah.

Cheri Mason: think Indiana, well, I think parts of Indiana, maybe that’s what it is,

Scott DeLuzio: maybe it is, it might be parts of Indiana. I, that does, as you said it, I was like, I might’ve screwed up on the question.

Cheri Mason: that’s okay.

Scott DeLuzio: Anyways, [00:51:00] and I know Arizona for sure. Cause I live here and

Cheri Mason: Arizona, definitely.

Scott DeLuzio: we definitely don’t do daylight savings, which I think the rest of the country needs to get on board with that

Cheri Mason: I would hope so, I think we need to just decide, enough of

Scott DeLuzio: it’s so, so great. Anyways. Okay. Those are the questions I have for today. You did pretty good. I think you got, let’s see, one, two,

Cheri Mason: all but the pastime and maybe the state.

Scott DeLuzio: You know what? I’m going to give you that one because I think I might’ve screwed up on that. Um, I’m going to, I’m going to look into that though and find out.

Cheri Mason: Well, my mother was a government teacher, so if I didn’t get the history ones right, she would haunt me, and seriously, she would.

Scott DeLuzio: and you, and you nailed those. So, so that’s pretty good. Um, so anyways, again, going back, uh, thank you again for taking the time to join us and sharing everything and your insights on the appeals process and things like that, uh, really do appreciate it.

Cheri Mason: I would just, you know, the only thing I would add, and I do want to add this, is [00:52:00] I would encourage veterans who haven’t filed claims to, to file them and stick with the process, but always make sure you get someone to help you out, um, because. That’s what those advocates are there for. But, um, I, I really think it’s important.

The process is not easy, but it’s, it’s, it’s important because veterans earned those benefits and are entitled to them.

Scott DeLuzio: That’s right. That’s right. Absolutely. And, uh, and the other thing I like to, uh, just highlight when talking about benefits to veterans is you’re not taking away from somebody else who has it worse. Uh, you know, quote unquote, worse than you. Um, if you apply for benefits, those,

Cheri Mason: there for everybody. They got a big enough budget, they can do it. And, and the other thing is I think people forget sometimes that benefits are the gateway to services. So, you know, if you get a certain rating, I mean, you get any, any rating, you can get some treatment via [00:53:00] Veterans Health Administration, but You know, once you get to, I think it’s 30 or 40 percent.

I’m a little rusty. Um, you get, you know, you can get service completely at, at Veterans Health Administration. And, and that is huge because the, the Veterans Health Administration is, you know, uh, stellar.

Scott DeLuzio: yeah, and as somebody who, uh, qualifies under what you’re just talking about there, um, you know, I, I just had my annual physical today, I, you know, that was, uh, taken care of at, at the local VA, which was, uh, three, maybe four miles from my house or so, uh, you know, not far at all, um, you know, in, um, All sorts of other care can be taken care of, too.

If you have, uh, back pain from, you know, whatever, it doesn’t matter, um, you know, that stuff can get taken care of, your legs, or, you know, whatever, um, all sorts of stuff can be taken care of through that, and that’s, that’s just a, a great Uh, resource that’s out there. So yeah, thank you for pointing that out as well.

Um, and I think that’s, that’s something that folks need to be aware [00:54:00] of and take advantage of. Um, not in a negative way. I’m not saying take advantage, like in a, you’re, you’re,

Cheri Mason: No,

Scott DeLuzio: stealing from somebody, you’re, you’re, you’re just using the benefits that you’ve earned. And

Cheri Mason: mean, I don’t know, there used to be something, uh, I don’t know if VA still has it, but you know, it used to be one of the, the, you know, banners, VA is there for you, VA is there for you. And so people, people need to use it. So, but it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me on your show.

This is great. And I do love the trivia questions, so keep them up.

Scott DeLuzio: Excellent. And I think, I think I’ll keep going. If I’m, I’m a one for two right now, I think with the trivia question. So I think we’ll, we’ll keep going, um, you know, with, with that and see how it goes and, uh, you know, maybe I’ll have some other fun segments to add at the end of the show, so we’ll see.

Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to support the show, please check out Scott’s book, Surviving Son on Amazon. All of the sales from that book go directly back into this podcast and work to help veterans in [00:55:00] need. You can also follow the Drive On Podcast on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

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