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Witness Testimony of Christina M. Roof, National Acting Legislative Director, American Veterans (AMVETS)

Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of AMVETS, I would like to extend our gratitude for being given the opportunity to share with you our views and recommendations regarding the Transition Assistance Program and VetSuccess on Campus.

AMVETS feels privileged in having been a leader, since 1944, in helping to preserve the freedoms secured by America's Armed Forces. Today our organization prides itself on the continuation of this tradition, as well as our undaunted dedication to ensuring that every past and present member of the Armed Forces receives all of their due entitlements. These individuals, who have devoted their entire lives to upholding our values and freedoms, deserve nothing less.

By way of background, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) was designed by the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide transition and job search assistance to separating servicemembers. TAP is a partnership among the Departments of Labor (DOL), Defense, Homeland Security (DHS) and Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide employment assistance and counseling services to members of the armed forces, and their eligible spouses, within 1 year of their separation or 2 years of their retirement from the military. TAP classes are usually held on a military installation or base and are composed of said location's servicemembers, who are close to the end of their service in the United States military.

According to DoD, the following areas should be addressed in TAP classes for full-time active-duty servicemembers. The program consists of the following four components:

  1. DoD Pre-separation Counseling: A thorough review of transition services, VA and DoD benefits and resources begins the transition process. DoD has published, but rarely educates servicemembers and their families, guidelines stating they should make an appointment with the bases transition office no later than 12 months before a members known separation date (for retiring servicemembers, you can make an appointment 24 months prior to your retirement date).
  2. Department of Labor (DOL) Employment Workshops: During this 2 1/2 day workshop, servicemembers are to learn how to write a resume and cover letter, obtain information on skills assessment and job search techniques and learn about other important areas of interest regarding career and job services available to veterans through DOL.
  1. A Benefits Briefing: A 2 1/2  to 4-hour session, administered by a VA representative explaining VA benefits a servicemember may be entitled to, including the GI Bills, health care services and qualifications, VA education and employment counseling, home loan programs and all of the other important programs and information critical to ensuring a smooth transition from DoD to VA.
  1. Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP): Any servicemember with a  service-connected disability is required to attend this 2-hour briefing if not hospitalized. DoD, VA and DOL representatives are supposed to jointly present vital information about eligibility for Chapter 31, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service benefits provided by VA and DOL, health care services and other information key to the smooth transition of the disabled servicemember and their family

Optional and shorter, less in-depth TAP classes for qualifying and demobilizing National Guard and Reserve are to be composed of:

  1. DoD Pre-separation Counseling: During demobilization, and prior to release from active duty, any servicemember returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) can receive 2 hours of pre-separation counseling by a DoD official.
  2. Department of Labor Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) Briefing: An USERRA Briefing is available prior to release from active-duty Guard or Reserve service. If the servicemember does not receive this briefing prior to release from active duty, they are given the choice to seek out the information on their own from a DOL Career One-Stop Center in their community if they wish to receive further employment assistance.
  3. VA Benefits Briefing: Prior to release from active duty, you are eligible to receive a VA Benefits Briefing, if they request the briefing.
  4. VA DTAP Briefing: This normally occurs as part of the VA Benefits Briefing and usually includes information about application procedures for vocational rehabilitation and employment assistance. This information is for servicemembers who have or think they have a service-connected disability. Once released from active duty, servicemembers are told they should always followup with VA once they return home by contacting the VA office closest to where they live.

While AMVETS is aware of the recent efforts to improve TAP, we still strongly believe the overall program to be falling short of its originally intended purposes. TAP classes are often the only opportunity a servicemember, or qualifying family member, will have to receive the critical information vital to sustaining their quality of life after the military. The transition from a military career to a civilian and corporate sector career is a culture shift, and sometimes very difficult. Veterans need employment and often need assistance in making the transition from a military culture to a civilian or corporate culture. This time of transition is one of the most stressful and challenging times for many veterans. After spending years becoming part of a respective military culture, servicemembers who leave the military face a new unknown culture when they step into a civilian role or corporate career. This transition is often complicated by injuries received, both visible and invisible, while serving their country. As battlefield medicine continues to save more lives, VA, DoD, DOL and DHS must be ready to adapt and change their current transition and education programs to meet the needs of today's transitioning veterans.

The information previously listed, which outlines all aspects of the Transition Assistance Program must be presented thoroughly, as it is crucial to ensuring a seamless transition from DoD to civilian life. However, anyone who has ever served or has lived on base as either military personnel or as a  qualifying family member knows that what is supposed to occur and what actually occurs, is more often than not, not one and the same. AMVETS believes this is due to the timing and length of TAP classes', lack of education and outreach to servicemembers and their families on the importance and eligibility of TAP, miscommunication and conflicting “desired end results” of the agencies tasked with providing TAP and outdated education models.

There also appears to be a lack of faith in the thoroughness and success of TAP among the individual branches as well. This is demonstrated through the new programs and services within each branch of the military. For example, the U.S. Army Community Service Center, located at Walter Reed Medical Center, helps the total Army family by providing services to maintain stability and meet the challenges of military life and transition. Readiness services are available to active-duty and retired servicemembers, their family members, Army civilian employees and Reservists on active duty and during transitioning out. While TAP is a part of the services offered, there are five other services providing more focused and long term assistance with employment and transition issues. Another example lies within the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), who for some time has taken their own, more successful approach to TAP. The USMC mandates every transitioning Marine participate in TAP and they also have a higher rate of eligible family member TAP attendance. While AMVETS applauds the individual branches for stepping up to fill in the gaps of services and information that are supposed to be well covered during TAP, we have to ask if taking the successful practices and programs from each branch and combining them into a uniform updated TAP would not be a better way of ensuring successful transition across every branch of the armed services. We are all aware of the fact that duplication of efforts and funding of multiple programs with large overlap is not the best way to meet the needs of today's transitioning war fighters and their families.

Due to the disproportionately high unemployment rates among OEF/OIF and Operation New Dawn veterans, in June of 2010, The Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM) released their national survey findings entitled “Employing Military Personnel and Recruiting Veterans—Attitudes and Practices SHRM Poll.” The large national survey examined pay and benefits that organizations provide to employees who have been mobilized to serve onactive-duty service either as a Reservist or as a member of the National Guard, as well as the challenges organizations face when an employee has been mobilized to serve on active duty. The benefits and challenges of hiring military veterans were examined, as were the areas that would assist organizations in recruiting and hiring veterans. Unfortunately, the survey results confirmed what many of us have feared was occurring. Employers reported that while they wanted to actively seek out and hire veterans they did not know what the appropriate channels to achieve this were and did not receive much assistance when contacting local DOL and VA locations. The survey also showed that only 13 percent of private sector companies offered any type of transition assistance to newly separated servicemembers oractive-duty returning Guard and Reserve members. Moreover, most companies reported the below reason they often hire and employ veterans and members of the Guard and Reserve:

  Organizations that have hired veterans (n=93-151) Organizations that have made an effort to hire veterans (n=11-18 Organizations that have not made an effort to hire veterans (n=107-167)
Strong sense of responsibility 97% 94% 98%
Ability to work under pressure 96% 94% 96%
Ability to see a task through to completion 92% 92% 92%
Strong leadership skills 91% 93% 92%
High degree of professionalism 91% 82% 87%
Strong problem-solving skills 90% 83% 89%
Ability to multitask 89% 91% 84%
Ability to adapt to changing situations quickly 88% 85% 89%
Ability to give back to U.S. veterans by showing gratitude for their service 88% 87% 93%
Positive impact on the image and/or credibility of organization 86% 82% 82%
Sense of patriotism at organization 77% 82% 84%
Technology/information technology skills and training 77% 80% 83%
Strategic planning/foresight 74% 73% 80%
Fulfillment of Federal and/or State affirmative action requirements 73% 82% 76%
Global perspective 61% 63% 71%
Knowledge/expertise of defense issues 60% 73% 79%

However, employers and individual company's HR Departments listed the following as the top issues the private sector experiences when hiring a veteran:

  • 60 percent of employers found they were unable to translate a veteran's military experience into a job's requisites.
  • 48 percent said veterans had a difficult time transitioning out of the structure and hierarchy of military culture to that of a civilian workplace culture.
  • 46 percent reported veterans had difficulties directly relating to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues.
  • 36 percent reported problems with the amount of time it took veterans to adapt to their new workplace.
  • 22 percent said they had issues related to a veteran's combat related physical disabilities.
  • 18 percent of employers stated that they find veterans are not qualified for the positions in which they apply.

As you can see from the above survey results, there remains to be some stigma attached to being a veteran when it comes to finding work in the private sector. While a couple of the aforesaid issues cannot be corrected through TAP, most of them could be with a proper TAP class and guidance. Better preparing our servicemembers for their transition to civilian life, as well as ensuring they are receiving all of the care and services necessary is the only way we have a chance at lowering the unemployment rate and properly addressing adjustment issues today's veterans are facing. AMVETS also believes that by properly preparing a servicemember for their life outside of the military we could possibly see a decrease in the usage and/or necessity for several other programs veterans and families seek during tough transition times. While AMVETS is in no way suggesting cutting funding or resources related to these other services that have severe overlap with TAP, we do believe that the number of veterans needing these other resources stands to decrease with a smoother transition, proper enrollment within the VA system and immediate employment after military discharge.

AMVETS would like to make the following recommendations on ways to improve the Transition Assistance Program:

  1. AMVETS strongly recommends TAP be a mandatory program in which all transitioning servicemembers and their eligible family members attend before release from DoD. The USMC has utilized this rule for many years and tends to have lower unemployment rates when compared to the other branches.
  2. DoD, VA, DOL and DHS must design and implement a stronger DTAP program for wounded servicemembers, and their families, who are hospitalized or are receiving any type of medical rehabilitation during their military service discharge. While incredibly cutting edge with their medical care and military hospitals, such as Walter Reed, DoD often forgets that when a servicemember and their family go home there will be employment and transition issues that they need to be well prepared for. All military and VA medical centers must have a stronger, more in depth, need specific transition and employment programs for servicemembers and veterans having sustained a service-connected injury. We cannot reasonably expect a veteran or their family to sustain any sort of quality of life if we do not ready them for what lies ahead. We ready our troops for war, so we must also ready our veterans for their transitions.
  3. AMVETS recommends the lengthening of the current two and a half, full day TAP class. The current method is almost information overload, resulting in transitioning servicemembers losing focus on the presented materials. Since the content is very broad in context and is all critical to a successful transition, AMVETS believes a longer length (i.e.- number of days) and shorter class days will result in better information exchanges and full comprehension of all of the information presented.
  4. AMVETS strongly believes there needs to be more focus and education on the translation of military experience to a civilian skill set and resume, as well as what fields of employment to look for in the private sector. The training and real world application our servicemembers experience during their time in the military can be compared to that of higher education, technical schools and real life work experience. These men and women learn their area of expertise not simply to “perform a job”, but rather to “perform a job that may possibly mean ensuring the safety and lives of their comrades.” We must ensure transitioning servicemembers possess a strong civilian resume upon DoD discharge from duty.
  5. All TAP classes must include clearer and lengthier VA benefits and health care education sessions, as well as time for questions or concerns the participant may have. On average VA personnel are allotted 2 1/2 hours during a TAP class to educate the participants on the entire VA health and benefits system. As we know, the VA system can be very overwhelming to newly transitioning servicemembers. In fact many eligible veterans go without health care and employment resources due to their lack of understanding of the VA system and their eligibility to receive services. If you ask most veterans what they learned about VA's services and benefits during their TAP class you will usually get a very short response conveying an overall lack of understanding of information they received. AMVETS also usually finds those statements followed by a comment that since they were not catastrophically injured during their service they would not qualify anyway. Sadly, many of these same veterans have DoD disability ratings. AMVETS finds this unacceptable and urges a very strong review of VA's involvement in the TAP class. VA must have a reasonable amount of time to convey all of the critical information they have to share. Every transitioning servicemember and family must be armed with a clear understanding of the resources available to them.
  6. AMVETS strongly recommends the inclusion or involvement of a certified Veterans Service Organization's Service Officer in the TAP class or at minimum, as an outside resource DoD, VA and DOL can refer servicemembers to by name. The claims process is daunting and the lack of education or information servicemembers and their families will ever receive on VA care and benefits is during their TAP class. TAP's section on VA care and benefits must be longer than a 2 1/2-hour lecture. It is very hard to imagine how anyone could convey all of the important information needed to understand the VA system properly in 2 1/2 hours. One can only assume not every important part of VA's services and resources are being discussed. AMVETS understands that the desired end result of TAP slightly varies between the agencies involved and we understand why. However, this is no excuse to rush any program that stands to ensure a higher quality of life for the men and women who need TAP.
  7. DoD, VA, DOL and DHS must redesign and build upon the programs available toactive-duty National Guard and Reserve members. As the current conflicts have shown us, Guard and Reserve members are just as likely, if not more likely, to be deployed to a combat zone. This means these men and women are serving side by side theiractive-duty colleagues and are serving just as long. AMVETS finds it to be reprehensible that any Federal agency or any individual person would hold their service as less or not as life changing simply because they chose to serve their country as a member of the National Guard or Reserve. AMVETS believes TAP and DTAP must be thoroughly reviewed and redesigned to meet the growing needs of members of the Guard and Reserve. The face of today's modern military force continues to change. VA, DoD, DOL and DHS must continue to grow and adapt their services to accurately reflect these changes.
  8. TAP is not designed for nor set up to meet the needs of qualified spouses. Even though TAP and DTAP are incredibly important to a spouse, especially when a servicemember has sustained a service-connected life changing injury, little has changed in the way of outreach or class design to meet their specific needs. DoD, VA, DOL and DHS must do a better job educating the families of servicemembers on the availability of TAP classes to them, as well as other VA and DOL programs regarding employment, financial stability and health care resources that are available to the servicemember and to the family.

Finally, AMVETS believes VetSuccess on Campus, even though still in its very early stages, has so far shown to be a successful tool veteran students can utilize while seeking a higher education. The colleges participating, as well as their veteran students, who have thus far utilized this program have reported very successful outcomes. The program has shown that through the collaborating of a Veterans Health Administration outreach coordinator, a qualified vocational rehabilitation counselor and an on-campus cohort counselor, veterans utilizing VR&E and/or the Post 9/11 GI Bill have had better outcomes with their transitions and academic performance. As a partner author of the Independent Budget, AMVETS recommends VA be given the authority and resources necessary to expand the program to campuses around the country. AMVETS further concurs with the 2012 Independent Budget's support of approving VR&E's request for an additional ten fulltime employees to assist with the expansion of the VetSuccess program. AMVETS looks forward to seeing the results and outcomes resulting from expansion of the VetSuccess on Campus program.

Chairman Stutzman and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, AMVETS would again like to thank you for inviting us to share with you our opinions and recommendations on these very important pieces of legislation. This concludes my testimony and I stand ready to answer any questions you may have for me.