The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are building an integrated military and veteran support system that is fundamentally different and far more robust than in the past, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a congressional panel July 25.
Panetta addressed a relatively rare joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees to discuss assistance for service members as they return to civilian life. Joining him was VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
“This hearing comes at a very important time for our nation and for collaboration between our two departments,” Panetta told the panel.
A new generation of service members and veterans is coming home today, he said. “They have fought and died to protect this country, and we need to fight to protect them,” he added.
The two departments are working more closely together, Panetta said. “But frankly,” he added, “we have much more to do to try to reach a level of cooperation to better meet the needs of those who have served our nation in uniform, especially our wounded warriors.”
Returning service members and veterans deserve a seamless support system, the secretary said, “so they can put their lives back together, pursue their goals, give back to their communities, and strengthen our nation in new ways.”
Such an effort takes tremendous commitment on the part of all Americans, he said, describing collaboration between the two departments led by a joint committee co-chaired by Erin C. Conaton, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and W. Scott Gould, deputy VA secretary.
DOD and VA also are enhancing collaboration across five priority areas, Panetta told the panel.
One effort is called the Transition GPS Program, announced July 23 by President Barack Obama.
“At the Department of Defense, our goal is to provide a comprehensive transition assistance program that prepares those who are leaving the service for the next step, whether that is pursuing additional education, whether it’s trying to find a job in the public sector or the private sector, or whether it’s starting [a new] business,” Panetta said.
The transition program, he added, will ensure that every service member develops an individual transition plan, meets new career-readiness standards, “and is prepared to apply their valuable military experience however and wherever they choose.”
DOD and VA also are collaborating on a single integrated disability evaluation system that lets officials in both departments work together to reduce layers of bureaucracy for service members and veterans and to shorten the wait for disability compensation after separating from the military.
The departments also have undertaken a major initiative in the area of electronic health records for a seamless transition between DOD and VA health care systems, targeted for completion by 2017.
“This is not easy,” Panetta said, explaining that the plan is to complete this process in San Antonio and Hampton Roads, Va., and then to expand it to every other hospital.
“If we can achieve this, it would be a very significant achievement that I think could be a model not only for the hospitals that we run, but for hospitals in the private sector as well,” the secretary added.
DOD and VA also collaborate on mental and behavioral health, including improving the ability to identify and treat post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. This includes a review across the services of reports of problems with modifying diagnoses for post-traumatic stress in the military disability evaluation system. The secretary said he anticipates the review, led by Conaton, will take 18 months.
The departments also are working together in suicide prevention, including promoting cultures of help-seeking, improving access to mental and behavioral health care, emphasizing mental fitness, and working with other agencies to better understand the issue of suicide.
“One of the things that I’m trying to stress,” Panetta told the panel, “is that we have got to improve the ability of leadership within the military to see these issues, to see them coming and to do something to try to prevent it from happening.”
Panetta noted that he is a former congressman who has spent more than 40 years in government. “I am well aware that too often the very best intentions … for caring for our veterans can get trapped in bureaucratic infighting,” he said. “It gets trapped by conflicting rules and regulations, [and] it gets trapped by frustrating levels of responsibility.”
This, he said, cannot be an excuse for failing to deal with these issues.
“It should be a challenge for both the VA and DOD, for the Congress and for the administration to try to meet that challenge together,” he said. “Our warriors are trained not to fail on the battlefield. We must be committed not to fail them on the home front.”