Monday, September 26, 2011

Doing DEERS and ID cards in the new embassy building

Feeling my normal measure of trepidation, I took the entire brood, all six of my current dependents, to the embassy yesterday to enroll them in DEERS and for ID card issue. Why the anxiety? I don’t know. There’s something about going to my own embassy that always inspires apprehension, even dread. Just the sight of that compound causes my skin to crawl. I hate that place. I’ve met few other ex-pat Americans living here that don’t feel the same way, as if we are unwelcome intruders when we venture through its portals and gates.

On the other hand I certainly won’t complain that we military retirees have access to the services that we took advantage of there yesterday. Nine years ago, when I was discharged from the Air Force and came here to start a new life, if we needed to get our dependents entered into the DEERS database for subsequent enrollment in TRICARE, we had to do it entirely through the Retiree Activities Office via embassy warden Jim Boyd’s office in Angeles City. His people did well filling out and sending in the paperwork to American bases on Guam or Japan. But doing it that way could take much of a year, or longer, to actually have an ID card issued. I say good on Mr. Boyd and whoever else is responsible for making this present program happen.

So, for those of you who may also have need of going to the embassy in Manila for new ID cards, you might want to read the following account of how it went for us:

Over the last few years since retirement from the Air Force I’ve developed a case of the “put it offs.” I mean I should have accomplished the DEERS enrollment months ago as soon I got married last December. It’s not as bad as it sounds though, since I did begin to look into it back in April. That’s when I learned that the waiting list was already so long that the embassy operator informed me that they weren't even taking phone calls again until June, which was more than a month away. That’s when it dawned on me that I should have started working on it back in January.

In early June I stopped in to the RAO on MacArthur Blvd not too far from here to follow up on another task recently accomplished, that being the acquisition of a tax ID number for my wife. While there for that it occurred to me to ask about the possibility of doing DEERS enrollments through the RAO, like we used to do in the old days. Leony, I believe her name to be, informed me that such a thing would only be possible if I were an Army retiree, as it could then be theoretically done by way of Korea or some such thing. But, she encouragingly let me know that it would be much easier and faster if we did at the embassy, and would I like her to make the appointment for me? “Well, heck yeah!” I immediately responded.

I went home and filled out a list of all my dependents, to include full name and birthdates. My wife dropped it off at the RAO the next day. Two weeks later I hadn’t heard anything yea or nay, so I dropped in to follow up. The very next day six emails dropped into my Inbox, an appointment slot for each of my charges. That was in early June with an appointment date set for yesterday, September 21st. So, thanks to Leony. She was as good as her word.

As far as what one needs to bring by way of documents and IDs, ten days before the appointment I stopped into the RAO once again for any last advice on the subject from Leony. Jim Boyd was there and handed me a copy of the latest RAO newsletter containing dated info on what to bring and where to go. I decided to wait and speak to Leony anyway, just in case she had additional stuff that I should know. After waiting four months for the appointment I imagined with a sick feeling showing up without some needed document I hadn’t thought of. I sat in front of her while she leisurely assisted a fellow Filipina, I assume a US citizen. Forty five minutes later she had time to answer my little one minute question. I really shouldn’t have been so impatient; after all, I’m retired for Chrissakes. It’s not like I had anything better to do. (That’s what I kept telling myself).

I needn't have waited anyway, as little of her info was current. She told me to bring my retirement ID (I always do) along with my DD214 discharge as well as my step kids’ birth certificates, my divorce decree ending my previous marriage, and my latest marriage certificate. (All that is in the RAO newsletter). I was concerned about IDs for all the kids to prove they are who they are; for that, Leony said to bring school IDs. She also said to bring an original of all docs along with one copy of each.

I figured the process would make for a very long day in Manila since the appointments were staggered from 1:15 pm all the way up to 2:30, with 15 minutes allotted for each. That’s like an hour and a half to update 6 DEERS applicants and to issue ID cards to all my people ten years and older. I’ve had similar work done at bases before and couldn’t imagine why so much time would be required.

Another time element to factor into the logistics of our embassy trip is the current monsoon season now holding sway here. A single storm cell moving slowly across the island can deliver enough water to bring all traffic to a sputtering stop for as long as it takes for drainage to clear Manila streets, which depends on the volume of rain delivered and how long it takes the storm to pass through. (A two hour trip can become 8 or 9 hours worst case). Until you’ve experienced rain in the tropics you haven’t truly experienced rain. The drops don’t come down individually; it dumps onto the earth in full heavy unending sheets, as if someone up there is continually pouring out the sea from a gigantic bucket. The racket it makes prevents normal speech. Two people conversing within a few feet must yell to be heard over it. The rain doesn't hit the ground so much as it assaults it.

Our driver picked us up in a large rental van and we were on the road by 0900. If all went well I knew that would put us in the vicinity of the embassy by 1100, more than two hours before our appointment. But, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Besides, that would give us time to grab an early lunch at McDonald’s and stroll some through Luneta Park located cattycornered across the street from the embassy.

We were lucky. Not a drop of rain fell on us that day; although we could see plenty of dark ominous banks of towering clouds in the distance. As planned, we found ourselves driving up Burgos Avenue past the Intramuros just before 1100. The driver found a place to park near the McDonald’s across the street from the Seafarer’s application building and we killed a half hour having a leisurely lunch. That still left us more than an hour until our appointment. Taking our time, we strolled through the western end of Luneta Park.

Passing by the Rizal shrine I made my usual disparaging remarks about the marines guarding it. One marine was at modified parade rest while the other, evidently bored, fidgeted with his rifle, practicing various drill movements with it on the back side of the monument. I shook my head at the apparent randomness of their actions. “If they’re not going to do it right, they shouldn’t do it at all.” My wife always wonders what I’m fussing about. “They look good to me,” she says. “Yeah, well, you can’t spend five years in the Corps without knowing otherwise,” I grumbled.

We spent time exploring the displays on both sides of the Rizal Monument. It’s been seven years since I last visited the Rizal Diorama, and since none of my step kids have seen it before, and my own two little ones don’t remember seeing it, I decided we should all explore it. It was only a couple bucks for the seven of us to get in and it’s definitely worth every penny as far as I’m concerned. The caretaker encouraged the children to explore close up the almost double actual sized bronze statues depicting Rizal’s life and execution. My kids took him up on it and made themselves part of the diorama, as did I for that matter. I was gratified that my kids wanted to know all about what the figures were all about and so I happily went into professor mode, answering all their questions.

From there, we followed the cross promenade back past the obelisk devoted to Rizal with time left to investigate the German monument, a water fountain once much used by Jose during his stay in that country during his days learning how to be an eye surgeon. The date on the simple fountain is from the 1820s. The Germans greatly admire Rizal and graciousy donated the old fountain in memory of him. I always get a thrill from such things, imagining the young Rizal bending over to splash the streaming water over his head and face before cupping it in his hands for a long and satisfying drink.

By that time it was past 1230, time to head over to the embassy. I wasn’t sure where we should park now that the new expensive looking building is open to serve us. There used to be a large triangle of lawn and a parking lot in the southern end of the compound, and I knew that that spot is where the new Social Security office is now located. I had the driver pull into the kids’ museum as we have always done over the years. I figured we’d just hoof it from there down to the other end where the new building is. It’s a long trek, but I knew we could handle it. Just the same, it’s probably a 700 meter stroll to the new gate from there.

First thing I noticed is the lack of people. The scores of locals who used to sit, walk, stand, and generally hang out along that first stretch of sidewalk are all gone. I didn't see a one. In the past, that section of walk would be so crowed that I’d find myself stepping out into the street to get past them. Now there is no one.

We finally made it all the way to the other end of the embassy fence. I asked the guards along the way for the way to Social Security for DEERS and ID cards and they each pointed the way inside to the first check point. I handed over my ID and the stack of appointment emails. The guard glanced at them and waved us through. Once again, I was surprised at the lack of people. In the old days we had to wait in a long line to get through that first check point.

The next stop, doors number one or two. I asked “Sir, which one for Social Security DEERS?” That guard pointed us to the door to the left. We entered and went inside where they x-rayed our bags and metal detected and half-assed frisked us. They asked us at least five times for our cell phones; I guess not quite believing that we did not have any. (I made everyone leave them in the car).

We made our way from there out another door to the gigantic new building we all have heard so much about and have watched go up for the past year and change. It’s big and spacious. Social Security is on the second floor (a sign informed us of that). We took the elevator. As I had done from the beginning, every time I passed a guard I asked for directions to Social Security DEERS and I did so yet again as we passed over the skywalk to the large waiting room. I’m glad I did because this very last guard in the long chain of them that I querried informed me to go all the way to the right to window 24. (Yes, there are THAT many windows!)

Window 24 is a bit hidden from direct view as you approach it. You have to be almost on top of it before it becomes obvious. As we approached I had the gang take a seat in the front two rows of the completely deserted section of seats facing "our" window.

Through the tinted glass I observed the chest shoulders and head of a sharp young black fellow wearing a navy blue button down shirt with dark maroon tie. In the 20 plus minutes it took him to take care of my entire brood I learned that this professional fellow is an army troop assigned to the JUSMAG. As such, his primary duties are with the Joint US military Advisory Group and not there behind Window 24.

He informed me of his main job in explanation when I let him know how long it had taken to get an appointment to see him. The very respectful, youthful sergeant said he only had time to do DEERS and Mil IDs two days a month, the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

We had that bit of conversation towards the end of our engagement when it was clear that he was going to quite easily finish with my entire lot in just over 20 minutes. Mulling it over, I spoke, “First of all I want to thank you for being here and doing this for us. You being able to provide this service means more to folks like me than you know.” I went on, “BUT, you just easily finished six DEERS inputs, scanned in all those documents, and issued 4 new ID cards, and you did it all in a fraction of the time allotted. Considering how fast you got it all done, don’t you think you could fit in a whole lot more customers per day? Maybe work on reducing that backload? . . .I’m just say’n.” No answer. Maybe he didn't hear me. Chuckle.

The trooper had only one more photo to take of one of my girls for the last of the ID cards when another older veteran and an even older Filipina came up to the window. Both of them were scheduled for appointments back about noon time and had simply taken the information on the confirming emails at face value. The emails I had received stated the same thing, to take a seat in front of Window 3 in the Social Security section. That instruction is based on the OLD situation. So, the two of them had sat their butts in front of that closed window and just waited and waited. Ha! I’ve lived in this country long enough to know that hardly any bit of bureaucratic info can be taken for granted. I ask EVERYONE I can find, and then I find someone else and I ask them too. And I would never just sit in front of a closed window. I go up to someone and tell them I’m there for my appointment, so where do I sign in or get a number. If the person I ask doesn’t seem absolutely sure I ask someone else. After 15 minutes I make a nuisance of myself and go up again, just to remind them I’m there. It pays to do this. More than once I’ve seen veterans sit in the Manila VA outpatient clinic two hours after their appointment times, patiently waiting to be called. Each time it happened it was because their paperwork had been mishandled and shunted aside. Soooo, it doesn’t hurt to politely go up and remind “them” that you are there.

A few other “lessons learned:”

• Leony told me to bring originals and a copy of all documents. Actually, he didn’t care about originals and would have taken just about anything I had. He took each document, scanned it into the system and then returned each to me.

• Leony also told me I should bring my DD214 discharge form. The DEERS guy didn’t require it. I’m already in the system and my retirement ID card is all he needed to confirm that.

• There is a new skywalk very near the new embassy building. If you don’t want to make the long walk from the old parking area to north of the compound, it looks like there is plenty of free parking across Rojas Blvd. So, park there and take the skywalk for quicker access.

• None of the kids needed their school IDs, but it does't hurt to bring them just in case.

• My wife needed to provide two forms of ID showing her new married name (my name of course). We used her passport and drivers license, but a postal ID could be used too if need be. (Postal IDs are quick and easy to get here).

I didn’t mind the long stroll back to our van at all. After waiting all those months I felt greatly relieved to have my "mission" accomplished. On the way back I found a spot through the plywood construction fence where I could see into the area where the old building once stood. I was shocked to see that they have completely knocked it down. Holy cow! Are they going to build something else in there? Whatever it is they are doing, and from what they have already done, they’ve spent a LOT of OUR money on it.

Since we were done so early I asked the kids if they wanted to go in and check out the Kids’ Museum called Museo Pambata. The van was already parked in the museum parking lot anyway so why not check it out? It was a good move. They loved it. It’s contains displays covering a mixture of Philippine History, culture, and science. I always get a kick out of the history and culture exhibits. If you have an hour to kill I definitely recommend a visit if you have children under the age of 11. For all seven of us I think we paid about 400 pesos—well worth it.