Once top enlistee, he now works to aid vets
The retired sergeant major will help improve veterans services.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published May 20, 2007
Jack L. Tilley retired as sergeant major of the Army and moved to Riverview in 2004. He is a member of a new committee that will advise Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson on improving services for veterans returning from combat and their families. Tilley spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about his background and the committee's mission.
Has the situation for soldiers changed since your tenure as sergeant major of the Army?
I think the pace of the Army has changed. Usually when you go into a fight like this, you'd hope that it'd be over very quickly. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with terrorists, this war could last anywhere from 10 to 20 years.
Probably the main thing that's changed is the fact that family separation, the stress that's placed on the family, the stress of going to war. Most people have no earthly idea what it's like to live every day where you think you could get killed. Think about getting in your car and driving from Riverview to Tampa, and within that series of time you either get shot at or somebody gets blown up and killed.
How did you get involved in this committee?
I have really a vast amount of experience when it comes to dealing with families and issues in deployments and family separation.
There are so many things when you're looking at the treatment of disabled vets, the National Guard and Reserves and the kind of issues they have, mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, even the research they have for health issues facing veterans from Iraq, your dependents and your survivors. And also educational assistance and transition benefits. Those are the kind of things that I want to really try to help with.
And I'm not one to mince words. I'll sort of just tell it like it is. I'm certainly sure that's exactly what the secretary wants.
If you were going to tell it like it is right now, what would you say?
I think they need to obviously worry about medical issues with the veterans. One of the things that I always worried about is once (someone leaves the) service, are we tracking them? Are we helping them, making sure the Veterans Administration is helping them through that transition?
And then you look at the other aspect of family members. You have a young man who loses a couple of limbs, and then the transition not only for him but the transition for his family.
You were at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a couple weeks ago. What was it like?
The Walter Reed staff does a tremendous job. Unfortunately, they got some bad publicity because of the (condition of) housing, but nobody's ever said that Walter Reed's doctors and nurses don't do a good job, because they absolutely do a wonderful job. Unfortunately, they have a problem with issues as far as the building.
They used to have, let's say, 100 people to take care of at Walter Reed. They probably went to about 700 to 900 people, and there's a big difference with the influx of personnel coming through there from the war. And when they went to that 800 or 900 people, they didn't change the structure of the staff. If there were eight people (once) taking care of 100, there were (the same number) taking care of 900.
What do you see as your role on this committee? Is there a particular perspective you bring or a particular constituency you're representing?
I represent the enlisted corps of the Army. For 35-plus years, I've been to about every war-torn area that you can think of, starting with Vietnam. So I understand what the issues are.
And I still do quite a bit with the military and talk to a lot of people, so it's not hard for me to find out exactly how they feel about a particular issue.
The committee's task is to improve services for returning combat veterans. How can services be improved?
Again, you don't know what kind of services need to be improved until you go and evaluate them and find out what the issues are.
A lot of times there's better technology out there to speed up systems. Maybe there's a better way to get someone through the veterans system in evaluations on physicals and things like that, which frustrate people.
You've talked about Walter Reed. And there's been a lot of media and public scrutiny about the care of injured veterans there and other places. What sort of reaction do you have when you read about that?
Any time you read anything like that, it bothers you, because the bottom line is that the Army will sort it out, whatever the issues are they'll get in there and make it better. They'll fix it.
But some people have concerns that conditions at Walter Reed got to that point.
Nine times out of 10, what it really is it's a breakdown in communication. Somebody knows it's an issue. They told somebody, they didn't go back and follow up on it.
In 36 years of service, I don't think I ever tried to walk by something that was wrong because you're obligated to fix a mistake.
And, really, everybody's got a piece of the pie. The last year that I testified to Congress, I complained about money. I asked them to put more money into our hospitals.
They'll make it better. And I think in the long run, everybody will benefit from this one issue.
Catherine Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.
Jack L. Tilley
Hometown: originally from Vancouver, Wash.; now lives in Riverview.
Family: wife Gloria; sons Brian and Kevin; granddaughters Destiny and Jordan.
Military background: - Enlisted in 1966. Fought in Vietnam and served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
- Sergeant major - the Army's highest ranking enlisted officer - June 2000 to January 2004; command sergeant major, U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, 1997-2000; U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Arlington, Va., 1997.
Current activities: co-owner of Oak Grove Technologies, an information technology company with military and intelligence clients; Defense Department consultant; co-chairman of American Freedom Foundation, which raises money for disabled veterans.