Blumenthal and Senate Veterans’ Committee Colleagues Call for Increased Collaboration Between VA, Defense Department to Strengthen Support for Servicemembers Transitioning from Military to Civilian Life

Committee hearing on Tuesday will review experiences of veterans transitioning out of the military, interagency cooperation

“It is our belief that the right time to start planning for this transition in an all-volunteer force is the day of enlistment, rather than the day of separation.”

(Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SVAC), along with SVAC Committee members Senator Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI), called on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure servicemembers are provided optimal support as they transition from military to civilian life. This letter is being sent in advance of the SVAC hearing on transition, which will be held tomorrow, December 15 at 2:30pm and will assess the transition services provided by government agencies, private sector companies, and their collaboration to support veterans transitioning from the military to civilian life. Committee Members will hear testimony from Dr. Susan S. Kelly, Director of the DoD Transition to Veteran Program Office (TVPO) tomorrow.

In their letter to DOD Secretary Ashton Carter, the senators noted DoD’s current changes to their military personnel policies and requested the Department review current reforms to the transition process. The senators reiterated the need to ensure seamless transition for servicemembers remains a top priority, specifically regarding veterans’ healthcare, writing “Despite recent efforts by the Department of Defense (DoD) to address pervasive issues of mental health and suicide, many servicemembers and veterans are still not receiving the appropriate transition resources and treatment…. We urge you to investigate and implement improvements to health care services and screenings provided to servicemembers returning from deployment and transitioning out of the military. We also urge you to work with VA to make enrollment in VA health care something you chose to opt out of, rather than opt into, to ensure servicemembers get the care they need. We must ensure that our servicemembers and veterans receive appropriate health care at all stages of their military service, including their transition into civilian life.”

The senators also requested that DoD “ensure that servicemembers continue to have access to resources that will address employment, education and professional credentialing to facilitate a successful transition to civilian life, particularly for members of the National Guard and Reserves and junior military enlisted personnel.”

“DoD has a critical responsibility to ensure that military personnel and their families are appropriately prepared throughout their military careers to transition to civilian life,” they wrote.

Full text of the letter is below.

Dear Secretary Carter:

As you undertake the Future Force Initiative and consider other revisions to military personnel policies that address the lessons learned from sustaining our warfighters after more than a decade of military operations, we urge you and each service secretary to make a central part of your efforts transforming the transition process from military to civilian life and enhanced collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It is our belief that the right time to start planning for this transition in an all-volunteer force is the day of enlistment, rather than the day of separation. We ask you to undertake a comprehensive review of reforms to achieve these objectives and include specific legislative proposals to address them in your Fiscal Year 2017 submission to Congress.

First, you must work with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to put in place an effective continuum of healthcare. The evidence that the current system is not working, particularly for behavioral healthcare, is clear and convincing. The New York Times published an alarming article on September 19, 2015, “In a Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another,” that examined how one Marine unit experienced a suicide rate nearly four times the rate for young male veterans and 14 times the rate of all American citizens. Despite recent efforts by the Department of Defense (DoD) to address pervasive issues of mental health and suicide, many servicemembers and veterans are still not receiving the appropriate transition resources and treatment. We urge you to investigate and implement improvements to health care services and screenings provided to servicemembers returning from deployment and transitioning out of the military. We also urge you to work with VA to make enrollment in VA health care something you chose to opt out of, rather than opt into, to ensure servicemembers get the care they need. We must ensure that our servicemembers and veterans receive appropriate health care at all stages of their military service, including their transition into civilian life.

Second, we ask you to ensure that servicemembers continue to have access to resources that will address employment, education and professional credentialing to facilitate a successful transition to civilian life, particularly for members of the National Guard and Reserves and junior military enlisted personnel. A March 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Transitioning Veterans revealed that improved oversight is necessary to enhance implementation of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to ensure participation, assess program performance and improve program delivery to National Guard and Reserve members. TAP is provided when a servicemember is separating and cannot be retaken once a servicemember has relocated to where they will live after separation. Many of the resources discussed during TAP may be more applicable in the months after discharge rather than at the time of separation, and may not provide relevant employment information due to nationwide variance in industry opportunities. Allowing in-person access to TAP classes after separation–in addition to existing online resources–would allow veterans to stay connected to DoD and gain additional information regarding VA resources available to them. In addition, the optional Accessing Higher Education Track of TAP should be made mandatory for servicemembers applying to college and administered one year prior to separation to prepare veterans for the application process. This will ensure that veterans are equipped for educational success and can meet deadlines for applying to traditional four-year colleges so that they are not left with for-profit institutions as the only options. We also encourage DoD to provide greater guidance to state licensing offices seeking to eliminate barriers for veterans to receive a civilian license and continue to cooperate with VA and the Department of Labor (DoL) to ensure effective certification and licensing procedures for veterans.

Third, VA will not be able to end the backlog of disability claims, which currently sits at 74,459 claims, without the timely provision of Service Treatment Records (STR) from DoD to VA. VA relies on STRs to process disability claims. As you are aware, the DoD Office of Inspector General (OIG), in a July 2014 report, concluded that DoD’s failure to consistently make timely and complete STRs available to VA likely contributed to delays in the processing of VA disability claims. While we are aware that DoD concurred with the OIG’s recommendations to improve oversight and update STR transfer procedures, and that DoD has taken steps to implement the IG’s recommendations, we are concerned that DoD is still not providing VA with timely and accurate STRs for all veterans, especially STRs for members of the Reserve Components. Given the extensive use of the Reserve Components since September 11, 2001, and the multiple deployments to combat zones by some Reserve Component members, we were deeply troubled when testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) identified that disability claims filed by members of the National Guard and Reserves are being denied by VA at four times the rate of those claims filed by veterans who served in the Active Duty components. According to NGAUS, this discrepancy stems in part from the lack of accurate and timely STRs for members of the Reserve Components. In addition, there have been unacceptable instances of DoD’s failure to procure records of Iraq War veterans exposed to chemical weapons to ensure that the potential health effects can be tracked and treated. DoD must provide this data to VA so that these veterans receive appropriate medical treatment for any adverse health effects due to toxic exposures. 

DoD has a critical responsibility to ensure that military personnel and their families are appropriately prepared throughout their military careers to transition to civilian life. We look forward to welcoming Dr. Susan S. Kelly, Director of the Transition to Veterans Program Office (TVPO) to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on these vital issues tomorrow and to work together to bridge the existing and unacceptable gaps in transition. As Members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, we are committed to continued cooperation to address these needs.

Sincerely,