WASHINGTON, D.C. – In advance of tomorrow’s Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on transitioning servicemembers to civilian life, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today called on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to ensure our nation’s veterans receive the services they deserve. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Brown and his Senate colleagues requested that DoD bridge the existing gaps in transition that can leave veterans without critical resources.
“As servicemembers prepare to end their military careers, they often face resource gaps in healthcare and employment,” Brown said. “The Department of Defense must enhance its current program to ensure that our servicemembers have the tools they need to effectively transition to civilian life.”
The letter noted the need for increased behavioral healthcare services and screening to address pervasive issues of mental health and suicide, as well as the need for expansion of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Currently, TAP is only available when a servicemember is separating and cannot be retaken once a servicemember has relocated to where they will live after separation. Allowing servicemembers to access this resource after separation and requiring servicemembers applying to college to complete the Accessing Higher Education Track of TAP, will more effectively prepare servicemembers for civilian life and education success.
The senators also urged DoD to provide more timely and accurate Service Treatment Records (STR) to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help end the disability claims backlog. Without these records, veterans risk having their claims denied and not receiving appropriate medical treatment.
The full letter can be found below.
December 14, 2015
The Honorable Aston B. Carter
Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20301
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.