DoD, VA encouraged to do more for returning soldiers

Thursday - 7/26/2012, 5:22am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Esther Carey
Special to Federal News Radio

Collaboration between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs is essential to helping soldiers have a "seamless transition" from military back to civilian life, members of Congress told the secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs Wednesday.

Veterans Affairs committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called the hearing "historic" since it was the first time he found that these two committees held a hearing together or heard from two cabinet secretaries in one session.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (DoD)

DoD Secretary Leon Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said that while their departments had made progress toward facilitating a "warm handoff" between active duty and veteran services, there still was much to be done regarding this issue.

One aspect of honoring veterans is ensuring that recipients of valor medals be properly recognized, Panetta said. He announced DoD launched a new website that will eventually list service members who have received the Medal of Honor, a Service Cross or the Silver Star since Sept. 11, 2001. The department also will examine the possibility of including awardees from previous conflicts.

The site is intended to raise public awareness of individual valor awards and deter people from falsely claiming one of the medals, he said. The move comes after the Supreme Court ruled the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional in June.

Several representatives asked Panetta and Shinseki about the development of the integrated electronic health record, particularly why it would take five more years to complete.

The issue is that there are two large departments that each have their own well-developed system and are not fans of change, said Shinseki.

"The problem is with the leadership, not the technology," he added.

Roadmap to develop common technology framework

The two departments signed a roadmap agreement that will let them develop a future integrated system under a common technology framework. Shinseki said a key difference between the current effort and other failures over the past 10 years was that the way ahead envisions an open-architecture system rather than one that hinges on closed, proprietary systems.

The hearing addressed information about the Transition GPS program, an adjusted version of the Transition Assistance Program proposed by President Barack Obama Monday.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (VA)

Committee members seemed to share a consensus that while expanding transition sessions from three days to five days demonstrated a step in the right direction, military members still deserved greater assistance.

Veterans Committee ranking member Bob Filner (D-Calif.) suggested instituting an eight to 10-week "reverse boot camp" to more fully prepare service men and women for life after the military. This should include a thorough medical evaluation for PTSD and other issues, he said.

"Homelessness, suicide and crime among veterans are only symptoms of a deeper problem," Filner said.

Dedicating more resources to the transition process could help deal with that problem, he added.

Panetta emphasized that under the proposed redesign military members would be paired with an individual counselor to help them prepare for all of the various issues associated with transitioning into the civilian environment. Such a plan also requires that these counselors be fully trained to provide knowledgeable assistance.

Accelerating VA's disability processing program

Lawmakers also highlighted the need to ensure VA accelerates its disability processing program.

The Integrated Disability Evaluation System is helping VA and DoD move away from having to evaluate veterans twice — once by each agency — before they finally receive disability payments. This process took an average of 540 days.

With the new procedure, the average wait time has decreased to 400 days. The goal is to continue the reduction to 295 days, Shinseki said.

Other issues discussed included:

  • The possibility that VA would face cuts in administrative costs if sequestration occurred.

  • The backlog of VA inventory claims, due in part to recent decisions regarding Agent Orange and Gulf War disease.

  • How to address the high suicide rate among veterans, which Panetta attributed in some measure to general societal problems.

In the end, what is important is not words or ideas but rather bottom line results, Panetta said.

"Our warriors are trained not to fail on the battlefield," he said. "We must be committed not to fail them on the home front."

Esther Carey is an intern at Federal News Radio.

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