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Wounded military seeking smoother transition to VA system, civilian life

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon, March 28, 2012 - WASHINGTON – As thousands of disabled or wounded Americans leave the military after service in Iraq or Afghanistan, pressure is building on government agencies and volunteer groups to improve their often difficult transition back to civilian life.

That movement from active service to the VA system and civilian work is often confusing, hard to navigate and time-consuming, some witnesses complained at a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

“Some recovering warriors experience lengthy delays in their attempt to navigate through the [transition] system, while others are rushed through without receiving the proper medical attention they need,” said panel chairman U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, R-NJ.

Among the witnesses was Eric Greitens, a St. Louis native and former Navy Seal who heads the Mission Continues nonprofit that engages veterans in public service. He urged support for programs like his that connect vets to their communities.

“For veterans to transition successfully, communities across America must begin to recognize the service they still have to give,” said Greitens. “We believe that when the story of this generation of veterans is written, it will not only be a story of the wars they have fought overseas; it will also be a story of the homes built, the parks restored, the young minds engaged by veterans whose mission continues here at home.”

He told lawmakers that the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis had found that nearly 80 percent of the Mission Continues participants “felt that serving in the community had a positive effect on their future employability, performance, and promotion.” Many were able to transfer some military skills to civilian employment.

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the subcommittee, had high praise for the Mission Continues. He said in an interview that “we need to get the transition right” for “the new generation of veterans coming home with a combination of training and skills, along with unique challenges.”

Even though there have been strong efforts to make the government more responsive in helping with the transition to civilian life, Carnahan said more should be done “to be sure that they are getting the right information at the right time.”

A new survey of more than 4,200 members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that employment, mental health, disability benefits, health care and education were their top concerns. Nearly 17 percent said they were unemployed when they took the survey in January.

Ken Fisher, who heads the Fisher House Foundation – which helps hospitalized vets and their families – told the panel that “there has been progress” in helping ease the transition, but complained that improvements have been “not nearly fast enough.” Fisher was a member of the Dole-Shalala Commission, which in 2007 called for fundamental changes in the care management and disability systems.

In response, the Pentagon and the VA established the disability evaluation system – now known as the integrated disability evaluation system, or IDES – which combined the military health exam required when a service member is discharged with the previously separate VA disabilities assessment exam. IDES is now used at 139 Defense Department and VA locations, but has not yet been fully implemented.

John Medve, who heads the VA office in charge of better coordination with the Defense Department, told the panel that IDES has led to “more consistent evaluations, faster decisions, and timely benefits delivery for those medically retired or separated.”  While IDES has “eliminated many of the sequential and duplicative processes” in the system, Medve conceded that “there is more to be done” to simplify the transition.

Other members of the Disability Assistance subcommittee said at the hearing that the system needs further improvements. “We must make every effort to focus our resources toward assisting transitioning service members with the comprehensive, coordinated care and benefits they deserve,” said the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif.

The focus on easing the transition for disabled or wounded vets is just one area that lawmakers are scrutinizing. Last year, Congress passed the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act,” which directed the VA and the Labor Department to create a veterans retraining assistance program, scheduled to begin on July 1. It aims to provide retraining for veterans hardest hit by current economic conditions.

Carnahan said the Mission Continues group “has established an important niche in transitioning service members.” Greitens, author of a book, “The Heart and the Fist,” about his transition from the Navy Seals to humanitarian work with veterans, said that Mission Continues supports fellows “whose commitment to our country did not end on the battlefield.”

“We have a tendency to rely on PTSD figures, unemployment statistics, and suicide rates to tell us how our veterans are transitioning from the military to civilian life,” said Greitens. “But these statistics do not tell the whole story. These statistics do not capture a veteran’s desire to continue to serve and the willingness to lead in communities upon their return.”

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