By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
As Geneva Robinson sees it, veterans have gone to war for her, and she’s willing to go to war for them. The 69-year-old Edgewater resident is a veterans advocate at the only place for which she’s ever worked — the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veteran Affairs, where she’s been employed for 46 years.
“I know, sometimes I say I need to retire and go home,” she said. “But I have two lives—VA and church, St. John Baptist Edgewater. It’s challenging but I love it. I’m just close to the veterans. That’s it.”
Robinson took a civil service exam when she came out of Westfield High School and was offered a VA job, but then she got married and had a child and decided against taking the position. It would be 1971 before she accepted her first job with VA, the kitchen of the VA Medical Center in Albany, NY.
After she returned to Birmingham in 1978 Robinson worked in the kitchen of the VA Medical Center; went to the file room in 1979 and became a clinic clerk in 1982.
“That’s when I really became known to the patients,” she recalled.
The job of patient representative was created in 1984, and some felt a white female would be best for that role. Robinson, however, was undeterred. She interviewed and got the job.
“At that time, we had World War I veterans,” Robinson said, remembering that some struggled to read. “We gave them some sense of direction, how to get to the lab: the yellow line on the floor led to the heart station, the blue line to the lab, and the green line to radiology.”
Advocates are liaisons between veterans and problems they face, and serve as spokespeople for the vets.
“A veteran came to me and said, ‘I’ve got a problem with my doctor,’” she recalled. “[In cases like this], I move immediately. I want to know what the problem is. For any kind of problem, any kind of issue [a vet] may not be able to resolve, the patient advocate gets involved.”
In one instance, Robinson received a call about an 84-year-old female veteran who had relocated from Washington, D.C., and couldn’t get into the clinic.
“They kept giving her reasons why she had to go home and get this and get that,” Robinson said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to have it that way.’”
A call to Cooper Green Mercy Hospital at the time and then a conference call to Washington, D.C., set things straight.
“Within five minutes, the veteran had an appointment to go over, and that was all settled,” Robinson said, adding that the veteran is always right—even when they’re not.
She will tell them how to handle a situation the next time while guiding them through the current situation. Having the proper documents is key, Robinson said.
“You have to have good information, proven information,” she said. “You just can’t come in and say this and that. You have to have paperwork that shows it. We have patients come in and say they’re prisoners of war. Well, there’s paperwork you have to have to show you were a POW.”
Barely a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask Robinson about her retirement. But that hasn’t been under consideration, especially since she can barely take full vacations.
“I can put in for two weeks of leave, and I end up coming back in a week’s time,” she said. “I’ve got veterans who call me at home and on my cell number, too.”
Not everyone gets that kind of access, but Robinson grants it when she knows veterans are really depending on her.
“Really, you fall in love with these veterans,” she said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job. I feel like this: If I can help a veteran, it is a good thing for me.”