Monday, April 6, 2015

T.J. Smith

Sergeant Major Thomas J. Smith, Jr. ("TJ") died February 17, 2015.

I didn't even notice he was gone until about a week after his death, when I realized that the name plate on his door at my Mom's memory care facility was missing.

Most people probably don't notice he was gone.

Nancy Reagan did.

TJ, after his highly decorated military service (more on that below) then went to college and then was accepted into the Secret Service serving President Ronald Reagan and the First Lady.

Mrs. Reagan made sure the family knew how important TJ was to she and the President, sending a letter that was obviously personalized, noting that TJ was "part of our team" for over 20 years, starting at "the Ranch, traveled here and abroad with us, and continued to work well past the time he really should have retired" driving from his home in Oceanside to the Reagan residence in Bel Air every day.

TJ was a fixture at my Mom's place - I would see him every time I visited, would salute him and tell him, "You're looking Super-D-Duper today Sergeant Major!"
A young TJ Smith with the same smile I came to know.

He would salute back, and give me the biggest smile one could imagine.

I knew he was Secret Service detail to Ronald Reagan - there were numerous pictures around his room and in his "memory box" of him with the President and First Lady, and I was fascinated by all the stories that he must have.

I would ask him often about his years with the Reagans, his years in the military, and what little I knew of his civilian life, but Alzheimer's had progressed to the stage where his communication skills did not permit much more than a salute and a grin. He just couldn't remember, and if he did remember anything it was very difficult to understand what he was trying to say because Alzheimer's had destroyed his faculty for speech.

Alzheimer's is cruel like that; you know there's so much to be shared, and no way to do it unless someone else does it on behalf of the patient.

I learned through others that TJ was an athlete as a youngster, excelling in nearly every sport from basketball to football and track through high school.

TJ joined the United States Marine Corps on March 15, 1958 and was assigned as a Marine Corps Infantrymen (Grunt). His first duty assignment was at the United States Embassy in Morocco Spain and then he served two tours in Vietnam and was awarded Two Purple Hearts, Combat Action, Presidential Citation and Navy Commendation for Meritorious Services, participating in thirteen Major Combat Operations and Numerous Search and Destroy Operations.

He retired after 26 years with the Marine Corp, after being honored as "Drill Instructor" at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, CA, and, "Non-Commissioned Officer" in Charge of NCO School, at Camp Pendleton, CA. TJ also served as Operational Chief of Marine Detachment at the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, CA and as a Sniper Instructor at Marine Corps Base in Quantico, VA. (I wonder if he taught Chris Kyle?).

After retiring from the military he went on to 20 years of service for the U.S. Secret Service, winning the love of the Reagans, and retiring from that duty in 2007.

I don't know why TJ touched me so much. I "knew" him only for the last 11 months of his life, and obviously I didn't REALLY know him. I feel very privileged to have his acquaintance though and I revel in his history.

There are many people I think that have such incredible stories, have given so much of their lives to society, and have accomplished so much - but we don't know them or their acts of generosity, bravery, and selflessness.

In workers' compensation we know only their claim numbers and the maladies for which they are seeking reparation and help.

I think back to my lawyering days, taking depositions of injured workers. Every once in a while I would get a story of incredible impact, like the day long deposition I took of a psyche injury claimant who's life of childhood abuse and neglect I could not have imagined if it weren't true (and I still want to write THAT book!), and how she overcame such huge obstacles to become a productive member of society until an unfortunate decompensating event intervened.

The famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence teaches at his Trial Lawyer's College in Wyoming about "experiential lawyering" where essentially the attorney embeds himself with his client for a week to really learn what it is like to live a life of disability.

Visiting Mom in her memory care facility this past year has been like experiential lawyering. Had I not done so I would not have been exposed to TJ and his amazing life.

Nor would I have met Churley who was an Air Force pilot and went on to a successful civilian life as a top executive for several Fortune 500 companies; or Jim who retired from the Navy as a Navy Seal Commander and also went on to a successful civilian executive career; or Richard who retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (and still carries around with him at least 2 radio communication devices!); or Bente who served as the wife of a Danish diplomat and shook hands with national leaders throughout the world, and so, so many more.

Without these people I would have not been enriched with such history and so much humanity. And Alzheimer's Disease would have remained a mystery to me, frightening, unapproachable.

The emotional impact of my "experiential lawyering" is unquantifiable. And it is what, I think, makes my life so much more rich now. Alzheimer's and dementia is no longer mysterious, frightening or inaccessible to me. It is a part of me now. The residents at Mom's memory care facility, and their families and the staff are part of my life now, part of my experience, part of my "family."

Perhaps we in the workers' compensation field would be well served if we all took an opportunity to engage in "experiential claims administration" and take time to embed ourselves with the injured workers we are tasked to serve.

Perhaps then we could empathize with the plights of those who we are charged in trust to provide the "benefits" of the system, if we go beyond the daily tasks of reading reports, approving expenditures, entering data.

We engage in lots of training in the work comp industry; heck, WorkCompCentral is a prime example with several live seminars per month and hundreds of hours of education on line.

But where's the experience? Where does the empathy flow from in order to truly understand the impact an injury has on a person, and the impact we can have as humanitarians performing the work of the law?

Imagine if every person who is in workers' compensation claims were required as part of their professional education to "embed" with a claimant once a year - how much better served do you think the injured worker community would be?

A popular quip when one gets a professional license is, now one has a license to truly learn.

We need to learn more.

(TJ's obituary is here.)

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