The House Armed Services Committee met today for a hearing on Back from the Battlefield: DOD and VA Collaboration to Assist Service Members Returning to Civilian Life. Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon made the following statement available as prepared for delivery:
Good morning. I welcome everyone today to this special joint hearing with the Committee on Veterans Affairs. Our focus is the collaboration between the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to assist service members transitioning to civilian life.
We have two of America's leaders on this issue with us, Secretary Panetta and Secretary Shinseki, to discuss how we as a nation can best serve those who have served us in uniform. I also welcome Chairman Jeff Miller and Ranking Member Bob Filner and thank them for their significant efforts to address a range of transition issues.
It's no secret that I oppose plans to reduce the size of our military, especially when contingency operations are still ongoing in Afghanistan. I find it strange that, at a time when we are still at war, the Department of Defense has announced it will actually reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Such cuts put strain on our service members and their families. Moreover, I have been very vocal regarding the threat sequestration poses to the strength and integrity of our military. Reductions in end strengths represent additional service members that will be asked to leave the military on top of the over 175,000 service members that separate every year. I will continue to voice my staunch opposition to further cuts to the defense budget -- which, if they take effect, will not only increase the damage to our national security, but also put significant strains on the transition system that is already working too slowly.
Today's hearing demonstrates our joint, long-standing commitment that there be no gap in services and support provided to our service members and their families as they transition from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The transition that service members experience from active service into civilian life must be improved. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know that the hardships don't end when they leave the war zone. We in Congress are painfully aware that at this very moment, 26,000 service members are in the midst of the disability evaluation process, and are forced to wait over 400 days on average before they can return home to their communities.
To further assist this transition, the Congress mandated over a decade ago that the DOD and VA create a joint integrated electronic health record to facilitate the transfer of service members' personal health information between DOD and VA health facilities. Unfortunately, after continuing delays, we are now told that it isn't expected to be completed until 2017.
And finally, we hear about the veteran unemployment numbers: 23.3 percent of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed. This highlights the difficulty our younger veterans are having to find employment.
The idea that our service members could go from the front lines to the unemployment lines is unacceptable. These men and women - whom I have called the "next greatest generation" and who, with their families, have sacrificed so much for this country -- deserve better than to have to face the uncertainty of leaving the military in these very hard economic times. We must never stop working on their behalf and there is much work still to be done.
During my meeting with Secretary Shinseki I came away impressed by his commitment to improving the transition. He met multiple times with Secretary Gates where a joint commitment to action was born. That commitment has continued with Secretary Panetta. I would like to hear from both of you today on the progress that you have made and also what you believe to be the critical next steps.
Specifically, I want both of your views on the transition assistance program, TAP, which facilitates the transition from active duty. With regard to objectives, do you both agree on TAP's objectives? For example, is TAP designed to prepare service members for entry into the job market, or is the purpose to actually get a service member a job? How do you measure whether the program is achieving its objectives? Service members transitioning deserve a government-wide approach that includes support from the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Labor, Education, Small Business Administration, among others. How is TAP providing such an approach?
The unfortunate consequence of over a decade of war is that service members return with serious, life-changing injuries. Even as the numbers of service members being deployed to combat zones goes down, projections are that the numbers of service members and veterans needing support will grow substantially for the foreseeable future. What are both Departments doing to help service members transition as quickly as possible while providing this generation of veterans the treatment they need to return to their families and live fulfilling, independent, and productive lives?
Given the significant evolution of medical science, service members now survive horrific injuries that would have been fatal even during the first Gulf War. Many of these wounded veterans will need long-term, comprehensive services and support that can only be provided by the military and by the VA. How are the departments resourced for this long-term effort? What are the plans to maintain an equitable joint venture in light of the fact that the Department of Defense is facing another half trillion dollar reduction due to sequestration, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is exempt?
I now recognize Chairman Jeff Miller for his opening remarks, to be followed by RankingMember Adam Smith and Ranking Member Bob Filner for their opening remarks.