Sailor Cooks up Right Recipe for Wounded Care
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
PALO ALTO, Calif., Nov. 17, 2008 Navy Senior Chief Jim Pitts was not exactly what the doctor ordered when the leaders of Safe Harbor called and interviewed him for a job to be an advocate for wounded warriors.
Navy Senior Chief Jim Pitts made the unlikely move from cook to wounded sailor advocate. Now his colleagues call him a "super star" in his field. U.S. Navy courtesy photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Pitts had none of the experience to make him a likely candidate. He had no medical background. No psychiatric background. Not even a social work background.
Pitts was, in fact, a cook.
“You really don’t meet any of the criteria,” Pitts said they told him during the interview.
But Pitts responded with a simple question. “Why would I need these backgrounds if I’m in a non-clinical position?” he recalled telling them.
“Evidently that sank in, or they didn’t have anybody else apply,” he said.
Although he started with nothing the Navy was looking for, Pitts is now hailed as one of the best Safe Harbor non-clinical case managers.
“He is a super star. He walked in with no real expertise and has done a great job,” said Navy Capt. Key Watkins, commander of the program.
“You wouldn’t think that a cook was well-suited for this kind of work, but it just shows that you don’t need a medical background,” Watkins said. “Anybody who’s motivated to do it, can. Anybody who loves their fellow sailors and is willing to work for them.”
Texting Off a Ledge
The Navy’s Safe Harbor program has five case managers with a mix of specialties who are reservists on two-year tours. There are plans to expand to 15 case managers deployed nationwide at all the local fleet concentration areas, major military treatment facilities and at the four Veterans Affairs polytrauma centers.
Pitts is the Navy’s non-clinical case manager at the Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center here where he has worked since June 2007 fulltime alongside his Marine and Army counterparts. An Air Force liaison checks in a couple of times a week.
The group works about 35 veteran and active-duty cases in the area. Pitts also works other Navy cases across the United States.
Once on board, it didn’t take the Navy long to see the value in hiring the cook.
A former sailor living in Chicago was having severe post traumatic stress disorder problems. The local VA representatives said they felt he was suicidal and they couldn’t reach him, Pitts said.
“I don’t know how it happened but this guy became mine. They said ‘Senior, we need to see what you can do with this guy,’” Pitts said.
More than 2,000 miles away, Pitts went to work on the phones. But the sailor was not easy to reach, most likely intentionally.
He didn’t answer the phone and Pitts had no e-mail address. Looking through the case file, Pitts noticed the next day was the sailor’s 22nd birthday. So, the next day, Pitts sent a text message to the sailor wishing him a happy birthday.
“Happy birthday … I just wanted to let you know I’m your new case manager,” Pitts wrote.
“From that text to him, he called me up and we connected. I talked him down from where he was and encouraged him to get into a treatment program,” Pitts said. And the sailor voluntarily entered a PTSD treatment program, he said.
But Pitts’ efforts didn’t stop there. The sailor’s home had been burglarized and ransacked. He no longer felt safe, Pitts said. So Pitts again worked the phones and found a couple of agencies willing to help. The apartment was cleaned and repaired and a new apartment was secured for the sailor. Pitts got the sailor enrolled in technical school and the local VA hired him part-time to work in the same field.
Remarkably, the former sailor’s life was turned around, and Pitts has never even seen him face-to-face.
“He was a messed up kid. I don’t know that he would have been suicidal, but he probably would have done harm to himself,” Pitts said. “Best case scenario he would be living with his mother. Worst case scenario, he would be a [newspaper] headline.”
Leading Folks Where Leadership is Needed
Pitts carries a cell phone that is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He manages 41 cases from across the United States. Most are veterans, seven are still on active-duty. He gets calls at all hours and works parts of every weekend. Pitts took the job on orders for six months. Now he is serving on orders that will likely keep him there until May 2010.
Pitts is a reservist who was working as a sanitation manager for a commercial bakery in southern Georgia. He had served on active duty and, after Sept. 11, 2001, Pitts tried on several occasions to join the fight overseas.
“I would love to go. I will dig latrines. I will cave dive. I will do whatever you want me to do. Just get me over there,” Pitts said he told a friend in charge of mobilization after the terrorist attacks. “There’s got to be something for a chief cook to do.”
He served in a couple of administrative positions while activated before returning to civilian life. Pitts continued to give his name to anyone he knew heading overseas in hopes of finding a slot.
“I wanted to lead folks where leadership is needed,” Pitts said.
Pitts finally landed a job and was headed for Kuwait in 2007 when Safe Harbor called. In the end, the career sailor made the choice he felt was best for the Navy, he said.
“I know I’m making a bigger impact here. I’m making a bigger difference in the lives of sailors and their families than I would have serving in theater,” Pitts said.
Love and Tenacity Bring Results
At the center, Pitts meets regularly with the admissions coordinator and social work team. They form the staff that has everything to do with the non-clinical care to include housing, transportation, orders and pay.
While he admits a medical background would help him understand some of the terminology, Pitts said his background gives him a unique perspective, and the basic ingredient for what he does is simply a love for sailors.
That, and little tenacity, he said.
“I’m a terribly tenacious person,” Pitts said. “If I see a need that needs to be met, I’m going to get that need met or I’m just going to be the biggest pain in the butt that these people have ever seen.
“It’s caring, but it’s caring in action,” Pitts said.
Pitts’ main advocacy tool is the telephone, which he uses to bust down the bureaucracies of care in the best interests of the sailors under his care. Sometimes, that’s not easy, he said. Especially when he is calling from across the country and he can’t reach out and touch the person he is trying to reach. Many times, Pitts has to make the same call several times when people don’t return his calls.
“It’s not that I’m of some stature that I expect someone to return my phone calls within 15 minutes,” he said. “But when I call somebody 12 times and I don’t even get a courtesy call back, you’re going to see the senior chief that nobody likes to see. You have to be willing to butt heads.”
For as mean and nasty as he sometimes can be, Pitts spends his mornings walking the halls of the center, greeting staff with his soft southern drawl, holding doors open and calling the ladies “sweetie.”
It’s all about situational leadership, Pitts said. He tries to inspire cooperation through courtesy.
“I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I expect people want to do right,” Pitts said. “So I approach every situation believing that the person… is going to do the right thing. And when I find circumstances where people are not doing the right thing, I switch gears a little bit.
“I really give people the opportunity to join the team before I grab the bus and run over their head.”
No Normal Days
There is no normal day for the senior chief. He usually is at work by 7 a.m., checking his emails and reading up on wounded warrior care issues. He cruises the halls, making his presence known, checking on patients and staff.
“There’s something positive when these patients see the uniform,” Pitts said. “They don’t feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. They find some comfort that there are other servicemembers here who are not just other patients, but someone who is looking after their best interests.
“That helps a lot with the rehabilitation and recovery, to know that ‘Hey, there’s my senior chief. I can ask him about my pay. Maybe he can fix it.”
Pitts calls his sailors at least monthly, more if needed. He travels between three VA facilities in the area, checking on those he can in person. Those in Pitts’ care have a range of injuries, from amputations to brain injuries to paralysis and post traumatic stress disorder.
Pitts said he doesn’t do anything except help connect his sailors with the services they need.
He meets regularly with local civic groups. Much of his time is spent on the phone, expanding his extensive contact list. Sometimes he doesn’t know who to call for a particular need, Pitts said, so he starts working the phones.
“You just call around folks that you know or folks that you don’t know and say ‘Hey, I need help. Are you the guy? If not, do you know who is?” Pitts said. “You can overcome an obstacle if you are persistent enough to make 1,000 phone calls to get one number.”
Making Tremendous Strides
When Pitts first arrived at the center, the set up was sort of ad hoc, and there was no real budget for supplies, travel and other necessities. Now, Pitt said he is getting what he needs to care for those he watches over.
“From where we were to where we are, we are making tremendous strides,” Pitts said. “Things are much more responsive now than they were in the beginning because I think it was a much more unknown situation.”
And so, the senior chief who had wanted to spend his war time in a combat zone has found an unlikely spot on the home front caring for those he affectionately calls ”my kids.”
Still the pang for overseas service hits, Pitts said, but he realizes where he serves is for the good of the Navy, and especially for the good of his sailors.
“I’m a Navy guy. The Navy says this is what we really need you for, regardless of my personal desires. I’m a Navy-first guy,” he said.
(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles about seriously wounded servicemembers who are returning to active duty).