Witness Testimony of Hon. Peter Welch, a Representative in Congress from the State of Vermont
Thank you Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to testify on behalf of H.R. 2259, legislation that would permit members of the National Guard and Reservists to participate in the successful Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program, which is currently available only to Active Duty soldiers.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Iraq and Afghanistan. That trip gave me an even greater appreciation for the significant sacrifices our soldiers, including the members of our National Guard, must make and must cope with for the rest of their lives.
It isn’t just the soldier who makes the sacrifice, their families do as well: their parents, their spouses, their children, girlfriends and boyfriends, and their siblings. They give up so much in defense of our country.
It is our job, as Members of Congress, to make sure that our nation lives up to its commitment to our veterans. It is a simple pact we have made with our troops – and one we are obligated to fulfill: after they have sacrificed to serve our country on the battlefield, we must do all we can to serve them here at home. The cost of any war must include caring for the warrior.
Like all Americans, I was stunned by the recent exposure of substandard outpatient care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was unimaginable to me that our nation could treat our veterans with such neglect. My legislation takes an important step toward ensuring all of our brave veterans are treated better.
A regularly discharged veteran, who has some level of disability, will typically have to wait 6 months before receiving his or her disability check from the VA. This is wrong. During this time period, veterans, particularly those in a state of mental distress, are most at risk for serious problems, including suicide, substance abuse, divorce, unemployment or even homelessness.
To alleviate this problem, soldiers can access a program called “Benefits Delivery at Discharge” (BDD). This successful program allows soldiers to process their disability claims up to six months prior to discharge, so they can begin receiving benefits as soon as they leave the military. VA representatives begin to process the disability claims from military personnel prior to their separation/retirement from active duty, by developing claims and conducting physical rating examinations. By getting a head start on the claims process, VA representatives may be able to review proposed disability rating decisions with participants prior to their separation/retirement from service. By comparison, VA's national average processing time is about 6 months for claims requiring a disability rating conducted outside the BDD process.
While Reservists and Guardsmen comprise up to 40% of the combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, this efficient and successful program is not readily available to these men and women fighting on our front lines. My state of Vermont has sent about 3,995 soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan since September of 2001. Of that number, 1,976, nearly half, are from the Guard and Reserves.
As this country has asked first class service from our Guard and Reservists, we must be sure they are not thanked with second class benefits.
In addition, the veterans benefits claim denial rate is twice as high for Reserve and Guard veterans than it is for active duty soldiers. A recent document entitled “Compensation and Benefit Activity among veterans deployed to the GWOT” obtained by the George Washington University under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) details that the Active Duty benefits claims denial rate is 7.6 percent compared with National Guard and Reserve denial rate of 17.8 percent.
Harvard University Professor Linda Bilmes, who has been studying the Administration’s ability to handle the influx of returning veterans and has recently testified before a number of Congressional committees, proposes that one possible explanation for the fact that the Veterans benefits claim denial rate is twice as high for Reserve and Guard veterans is their lack of access to the BDD program.
My legislation lifts the impediment on Reserve and Guard veterans and allows them to access BDD. Specifically, the bill requires the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the VA to work together to develop a plan that facilitates the use of the BDD program by Reserve and Guard veterans. The plan must be submitted to Congress within 6 months of enactment and must include a description of efforts to ensure that services under BDD are provided to the maximum extent possible. All veterans, including veterans from all seven reserve components (Army National Guard of the United States, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air National Guard of the United States, Air Force Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve), would be able to begin receiving benefits as soon as they are eligible upon leaving the military.
In addition, expanding access to the BDD program further encourages the Department of Defense to work with the VA, which is crucial as this Congress continues to explore innovative ways to provide a seamless transition for our veterans as they move from the DoD to the VA medical systems.
The National Guard has played a vital role in the defense and security of the United States under the federal component of its mission. They have become integral forces in the Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). As I stated earlier, the Guard and Reserves comprise up to 40% of the total U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Also due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guard and Reserve have also shouldered an enormous burden in equipment shortages. A USA TODAY report from last Friday found that National Guard units in 31 states say four years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have left them with 60% or less of their vehicles, aircraft, radios, weapons and other equipment they are authorized to have for home-front uses. 49% of the Vermont National Guard’s equipment, mostly Humvees and M35 trucks, are being used overseas. This lack of equipment could affect the Vermont Guard's ability to respond to a natural disaster, such as flooding which is a big problem for my state. And this is a problem that affects more than just my home state. As we saw just last month, horrible tornados that ripped through Kansas prompted pleas from the Governor to replenish the missing equipment and well-trained personnel.
Madam Chairwoman, the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been high. More than a million and a half soldiers have been deployed since 2001, more than 3,000 soldiers have died and more than 50,000 have sustained non-fatal injuries. My state of Vermont has borne a disproportionate share of this burden, losing more soldiers per capita than any other state. As I have traveled around my state, I have talked extensively with our soldiers, our veterans and their families. No matter how you feel about this war, we must care for those called on to serve.
For every soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 16 are wounded, the highest wounded-to-fatality ratio for any war in our nation’s history.
We can thank the great advances in battlefield medicine for the thousands of lives saved, but we must now be prepared to care for recovering veterans. This legislation would do just that.
Again and again throughout our nation’s history, we have asked the members of the armed forces to step forward and serve their country, and again and again they have responded with valor. To each of them we, as a nation, owe an enormous debt of gratitude. We would not be here today, enjoying the freedoms that we now enjoy, if not for their courage and sacrifice. I thank them all, on behalf of our great nation, for answering the call to duty.
I thank the Subcommittee for your consideration of this important legislation.
The Honorable Stephanie Herseth Sandlin
Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity
Committee on Veterans Affairs
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin,
I am responding to a specific request for information from Representative Peter Welch regarding the need for equal accessibility to the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program for members of the National Guard and Reserves. This topic will be the subject of a legislative hearing on Thursday, June 21, 2007.
As the Adjutant General for the State of Vermont, I strongly support initiatives that help provide better services and benefits for all members of the Reserve Component (RC) as they transition from the Department of Defense (DoD) to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical systems. Considering that members of the RC are exposed to the same missions and associated risks while fighting for their country, it is only fair that these same veterans should be treated equally with access to benefits when compared to their active duty counterparts. While we in Vermont have been successful in working with the local VA to help returning members of the RC access VA benefits quickly, this efficient and successful BDD program is not universally available to all Guard and Reserve members around the country on a timely basis. The lack of accessibility can result in significant hardship while some members wait up to six months to receive a benefit that is readily available to the members of the active duty.
Any changes that can be made to remove impediments imposed on RC members and provide equal access to the BDD program would help mitigate some significant stress on our affected veterans. Our country continues to ask a great deal from our Reservists and making the BDD readily available will assist in facilitating a more seamless transition back to civilian life.
Many thanks to the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity for taking a strong interest in ensuring equal benefits and equal accessibility to benefits for all of our returning warriors and for helping to facilitate a seamless transition when they return home.
Michael D. Dubie
Major General, The Adjutant General