By: Diane Zumatto, AMVETS National Legislative Director
History was made on Capitol Hill yesterday, July 25, 2012, when both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki testified together at a Joint Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. The hearing, which had very good congressional attendance, was entitled, ‘Back from the Battlefield: DoD and VA Collaboration to Assist Service Members Returning to Civilian Life’ and was standing room only, in fact, yours truly was one of only seven members of the public who managed to get a seat in the actual hearing room.
Overall, the message put out by both secretaries was positive and there was a definite emphasis on their new working relationship, which they hope will lead to an integrated military and veteran support system.
“This hearing comes at a very important time for our nation and for collaboration between our two departments,” Panetta told legislators. In speaking about our newest veterans he said, “They have fought and died to protect this country, and we need to fight to protect them.”
While Secretary Panetta acknowledged the new and improved working relationship between the two largest bureaucracies within the federal government, he also admitted that much more needs to be done.
Secretary Panetta closed his testimony by acknowledging that what our veterans need is a seamless support system, “so they can put their lives back together, pursue their goals, give back to their communities, and strengthen our nation in new ways.”
Secretary Shinseki opened his remarks by listing VA’s five priority areas:
1. The new and improved version of the T.A.P. Program, the Transition GPS Program, which was announced the President on July 23, 2012;
2. The development of a single, integrated disability evaluation system to help speed up the disability claims processing system;
3. The development of electronic health records to assist in a seamless transition between DoD and VA health care systems. The Secretary’s target date for completion is currently 2017;
4. Mental and behavioral health issues continue to be high priority concerns for both the DoD and VA. Secretary Shinseki indicated that their departments are planning an across-the-services review of PTS and TBI injury identification and treatment. The review is expected to be completed in 18 months.
5. The departments are working jointly on the issue of military suicide prevention, including promoting a culture which is not prejudicial against anyone seeking any form of mental health assistance, improving access to both mental and behavioral health care, emphasizing mental fitness, as well as working with internal and external partners to better understand the issue of suicide.
(Photo: Panetta and Shinseki speaking at a Joint Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on July 25, 2012. DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)