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Witness Testimony of Abbie Holland Schmit, Manager, Alumni, Wounded Warrior Project

Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud and members of the Subcommittee:

Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) applauds the Subcommittee for your important oversight into the Federal Recovery Coordination Program (FRCP).  The Subcommittee’s hearing in May raised important issues regarding the program’s management and governance, and we appreciate your follow-up questions to the Co-Chairs of the Senior Oversight Committee and your scheduling this second hearing today.

In testifying today for WWP, I hope to share an “on the ground” perspective on the FRCP based on my experience in working with wounded warriors.  As a WWP Alumni Manager in Chicago, I work with wounded warriors and their families on a daily basis.   Prior to joining WWP in June, I served for more than two years as an advocate with the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program – referred to as the AW2 program.  The AW2 program assists and advocates for severely wounded, ill, and injured soldiers, veterans, and their families during their recovery and transition.  Those who qualify are to be assigned to the program as soon as possible after arriving at a Warrior Transition Unit.  As one who served for six years in the Army National Guard and had a hard journey home due to PTSD and traumatic brain injury after deploying to Iraq from 2003 to 2004, the issues before you are not only important, but deeply personal for me.

The FRCP was designed to help those warriors, who -- given overwhelming injuries -- would not only be unable to return to active duty, but would likely encounter difficulty in navigating a transition process that might involve three or more federal departments of government and issues ranging from income support, to continuing health care and rehabilitation, specially adapted housing, vocational rehabilitation and education, caregiver support, and more.  In assigning knowledgeable, savvy “special navigators” in the form of Federal Recovery Coordinators (FRC), to assist those warriors and their families with this complex process, the program has proven highly successful – and unique – in providing holistic, integrated support.  FRCs are making a real difference in helping severely injured warriors and their families to thrive again. 

As your May hearing underscored, individual service departments are not routinely referring severely and catastrophically wounded servicemembers to the FRCP, or are doing so at much too late a point in the transition process.  The Service departments appear to view the FRCP as a VA program; and tend to only refer warriors and their families to the program when the warrior is about to separate or retire from service.  Rather than being marginalized as a VA-only program, the FRCP should be operated as initially intended, a joint, integrated effort aimed at coordinating Federal care and services.  But current practices – seemingly reinforced by a shortsighted insistence on service-specific care – risk delaying recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration rather than fostering a seamless transition.  What should be a seamless, coordinated undertaking is too often the opposite, as illustrated by the experience of warriors who – rather than having a single “comprehensive recovery plan” – find themselves with multiple recovery plans. 

These are not abstract or hypothetical concerns.  Consider the case of Army Specialist Steve Bohn who described his difficult transition at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in May.  Steve was badly injured in November 2008, when a suicide bomber in Afghanistan detonated 2000 pounds of explosives that buried him under collapsed debris and resulted in his suffering severe internal injuries and spinal injuries. He experienced multiple breakdowns in the coordination of his care and benefits.  Steve was initially flown from Germany to Fort Campbell, Kentucky – apparently in error – given that he needed surgery.  After finally undergoing spinal surgery at Walter Reed, Fort Campbell threatened to put him on AWOL if he didn’t return.  As a result, he was flown back to Fort Campbell, later returning to Walter Reed to undergo bladder surgery.  Ultimately he underwent a DoD Medical Evaluation Board that eventually assigned him a 40% Permanent disability rating, 30% for spinal injuries and 10% for neck injuries.  But that rating did not take account of his internal injuries.  He was finally medically retired from the Army in October 2010.

While his transition from DoD to VA seemed to begin appropriately with his paperwork being sent to VA 180 days before the estimated separation date to permit timely claims-adjudication, backlogs in scheduling VA compensation examinations bogged down the process.  At the time Steve testified – seven months after retiring from service – VA had not adjudicated his case and he was struggling financially. Unable to work because of his injuries, he was living on his military retired pay of less than $700/month.

Steve also seemed to have fallen through the cracks in terms of getting VA medical care.  While he had had multiple VA compensation examinations, it took more than six months before anyone at VA approached him to discuss any treatment.  And many months after becoming a veteran, he had yet to be assigned a VA primary care doctor.  Steve testified that no one ever discussed with him or his family the possibility of having an FRC assigned to his case.  It seems clear it would have made a big difference. 

Steve’s experience is hardly unique.  But it underscores how easily a severely wounded servicemember can fall through the cracks – despite very serious injuries, and despite how much emphasis has been placed on “seamless transition.” 

Following the direction of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (NDAA 08), VA and DoD entered into a memorandum of understanding establishing the joint VA-DoD FRCP to assist servicemembers with Category 3 injuries, defined as those with a severe or catastrophic injury or illness who are highly unlikely to return to active duty and will most likely be medically separated.  A separate DoD recovery coordinator program was designed to assist those with injuries falling below this defined category who’s return to duty may in some way be possible.  Inconsistency within the individual service departments in operationalizing the term “Category 3 injuries” has arguably created ambiguity as to who is to be referred for an FRC. 

This referral issue is a problem that can and must be remedied.  But the recent response from the Co-Chairs of the Senior Oversight Committee to the Subcommittee’s questions fails to provide that remedy.  In their cover letter, Deputy Secretaries Gould and Lynn state categorically that “in accordance with DoD Policy, all Category 3 (severe or catastrophic injury or illness and other recovering Service members who would most benefit from the services of a Federal Recovery Coordinator (FRC) will be referred.”  Yet in the enclosure to their letter, which the Co-Chairs describe as setting out “detailed implementation plans,” they state just the opposite:  “[T]he program cannot ensure that all potentially eligible individuals are referred to FRCP.”  According to the enclosure, the reason is that “FRCP, as currently structured, is a voluntary referral program and, as such, relies on the identification and referral of those who might benefit from FRCP services by others.”[1]  Yet DoD’s strongly worded policy requires that “All Category 3 recovering service members shall be enrolled in the FRCP and shall be assigned an FRC and Recovery Team.”  Given that policy, it would follow that – if something about the program’s “current structure” or voluntary referral process impedes a reliable, effective referral process, that could and should be changed.  Rather than advising the Committee that this problem has been resolved or reporting on a specific plan to remedy it, the Deputy Secretary of Defense has simply advised this Committee that the terms used to describe the population who should be referred to the FRCP are “left to interpretation,” and “currently mechanisms are not in place to measure compliance with this policy.”  It is difficult to understand why the senior leadership of the two departments have failed to resolve this problem.

VA and DoD share a deep obligation to severely wounded warriors and their families, but the reality is that they do not now share full responsibility for the FRCP.  As we advised the Subcommittee in our statement for the record for your hearing in May, the FRCP has become much less a joint program, and seen as more a VA program – to the detriment of the warriors it was designed to serve.  Warriors and families continue to need this kind of help early in the transition process.  With the program’s critical role in ensuring that severely wounded warriors experience a seamless transition, those warriors and their families would be better served if there were truly shared responsibility for the program, such as through establishment of an interdepartmental FRCP office.  Such a proposal should not be deemed to reflect a lack of confidence in VA, but rather recognition of the inherent limitations of program governance residing in any single department.  The concept of a DoD-VA program office is neither novel nor unprecedented.[2]  While different structural solutions could be pursued, WWP foresees continued difficulties for the program, and most importantly our warriors, unless fundamental changes are instituted to ensure truly shared responsibility.  To that end, we urge the Subcommittee to consider taking up legislation to ensure that objective. 

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.  I would be pleased to respond to any questions you may have. 

[1] DoD/VA Wounded, Ill, and Injured Senior Oversight Committee. Response to the Subcommittee on Health, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, House of Representatives regarding the Federal Recovery Care Coordination Program and GAO recommendations. (September 12, 2011).  

[2] Section 1635 of NDAA 2008 mandated establishment of a DoD/VA Interagency Program Office (IPO) to act as a single point of accountability for the department’s development of electronic record systems.