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Witness Testimony of Stephen W. Short, American Legion, Department of Indiana, Department Adjutant

 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

With the ending of the Cold War, the Department of Defense (DOD) dramatically downsized its personnel strength.  In 1990 Congress, in an attempt to assist separating service members in making a successful transition back into the civilian workforce enacted P.L. 101-510 which authorized the creation of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP).  This law was intended to assist service members who possessed certain critical military specialties that could not be easily transferred to a civilian work environment and to assist others with educational and career choices.

DoD’s TAP and Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP) are designed, in conjunction with Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to help prepare not only separating service members but also their families for a seamless transition to civilian life.  Last year in FY 2007, more than 386,200 service members were discharged from active duty status and over 500,534 service members demobilized from active duty service. Public Law (P.L.) 101-510 (Chapter 58, Section 1142) mandates pre-separation counseling for transitioning service members.  These programs consist of specific components:  pre-separation counseling; employment assistance; relocation assistance; education, training, health and life insurance counseling; finance counseling; reserve affiliation; and disabled transition assistance seminars.  DTAP is designed to educate and facilitate disabled veterans to overcome potential barriers to meaningful employment.  Currently, VA, DOL, and DOD operate 215 transition offices around the world.

While the TAP program assists transitioning service members leaving the military under their own accord, the DTAP program focuses on the specialized needs of the service members who are separating for medical reasons.  The DTAP workshop is a half-day seminar sponsored jointly by DoL, DoD and VA.  The workshop provides specialized information on VA’s many disability benefits:

  • Medical Care
  • CHAMPVA
  • Disability Compensation
  • Vocational Rehabilitation
  • Disabled Veterans Insurance

In this current era of a significantly smaller all-volunteer military, the reliance on the National Guard and Reserve to fight the present Global War on Terror is unprecedented.  The Reserve forces have become an essential part of all current DOD operations. Reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect a significant portion of the total deployed force in any given month, and DOD reports that continued reliance on the 1.8 million Reserve and National Guard troops will continue well into the foreseeable future.  Attracting and retaining well qualified individuals to execute the fundamental functions of a strong and viable national defense is paramount.  Without providing proper incentives for service members to enlist and reenlist, the military will continue to be hard pressed to effectively accomplish their Global War on Terror mission. 

Reservists Return to Find No Jobs

National Guard and Reserve troops are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only to encounter difficulties with their federal and civilian employers at home.  Many of these returning service members have lost jobs, or lost promotions or benefits, and in a few cases they have encountered job demotions.

According to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, employers must by law protect the old jobs of deployed service members, or provide them with equivalent positions.  Benefits, raises, and promotions must be protected, as if the service member had never left.  In many cases this law has not been able to protect many returning service members across the country from the negative effects of long deployments.  Service members would greatly benefit by having access to the resources and knowledge that TAP can provide, but the program should have stronger employment, mental health, and small business components. 

The Effects of Reserve Call-ups on Civilian Employers and Veteran Owned Businesses

The impact of deployment on self-employed Reservists is tragic with a reported 40 percent of all veteran owned businesses suffering financial losses and in some cases bankruptcies.  Many veteran owned small businesses are unable to operate and suffer some form of financial loss when key employees are activated.  The Congressional Budget Office in a report titled “The Effects of Reserve Call-Ups on Civilian Employers” stated that itexpects that as many as 30,000 small businesses and 55,000 self-employed individuals may be more severely affected if their reservist employee or owner is activated.” 

Currently, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loans.  This program offers loans to businesses that meet certain eligibility criteria to help offset the economic consequences of the loss of their Reservist personnel.  To qualify, a company must be able to show that the activated Reservist is critical to the success of the company.  The American Legion recommends that the SBA should be part of any Reservist and National Guard TAP briefing, and act in an advisory capacity to veteran business owners, to assist them with resources and information to help lessen the impact of activation on their bottom line.

Education and the GI Bill

Historically, The American Legion has encouraged the development of essential benefits to help attract and retain service members into the Armed Services, as well as to assist them in making the best possible transition back to the civilian community.  On June 22, 1944, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which later became known as the GI Bill of Rights.  This historic piece of legislation, authored by the leadership of The American Legion, enabled veterans to purchase their first homes, attend college, and start private businesses.  The emergence of the American middle class, the suburbs, civil rights, and finally a worldwide economic boom can be attributed to this important legislation. 

The majority of individuals who join the National Guard or Reserves enter the Armed Forces straight out of high school, and many are full and part time students.  With the number of activations since September 11, these same Reservists are discovering that their graduation will take longer than once anticipated.  Currently the Montgomery GI Bill pays the average Reservist $317 a month compared to his active duty counterpart who is paid $1,101 a month. 

With the rising cost of tuition many Reservists must resort to commercial loans and other loans or grants to supplement the Montgomery GI Bill.  When a service member is forced to withdraw from school due to military obligation, the commercial loan must still be paid regardless of whether the student finishes the course, adding to the accumulated debt of that service member. 

The American Legion recommends that TAP briefings include an education representative to provide National Guard and Reservist members this kind of information so they can avoid undue financial hardship.

The Service Members Civil Relief Act

On December 19, 2003, the President signed into law a complete update of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA) of 1940.  This helps ease the economic and legal burdens on military personnel called to active duty status in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. 

Relief under SCRA extends to actions terminating leases, evictions, foreclosures and repossessions, default judgments, lower interest rates on credit cards and loans and protects against lapses or termination of insurance policies. 

With the military’s increased reliance on National Guard and Reserve units, creditors residing in remote areas of the country outside of the traditional military towns are not aware of this act, including members of the reserve component.  Therefore, service members are experiencing serious financial difficulties while on active duty – their cars are repossessed, homes foreclosed and credit histories ruined because this piece of legislation is unknown. 

The American Legion has produced a brochure on active duty legal rights, copies of which will be distributed across the country.  If TAP was mandatory, service members and local community businesses would also know of this program, and a lot of frustration, time and misunderstandings could be avoided.  To their credit, Navy TAP representatives discuss personal financial planning during workshops and seminars.  However, the Reserve components need to have this issue addressed during TAP as well.

Make TAP/DTAP a Mandatory Program

DoL estimates that 60 percent to 65 percent of all separating active duty service members attend the employment TAP seminars and 30 percent of all separating National Guard and Reservists attend a portion of TAP.  The American Legion believes this low attendance number is a disservice to all transitioning service members.  Many service members and most National Guard and Reservists are unaware of the assistance and resources offered by TAP.  Without this program, service members who have served their country bravely return to the civilian workforce less equipped than their counterparts who took advantage of the information provided by TAP.  According to written testimony from John M. McWilliam, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Veterans’ Employment and Training, Department of Labor, May 12, 2005, “We have been working with the National Guard and Reserve on providing TAP services to these returning service members in many states on an informal and as needed basis.  In this regard, three Reserve Component TAP demonstration programs are underway in Oregon, Michigan and Minnesota.” 

DOD and DOL report that in Oregon 40 percent of those part time service members who attended the TAP session were looking for employment.  The American Legion recognizes the value of this program and recommends that it become a mandatory requirement for all transitioning service members.

Access to TAP

The GAO report, Enhanced Services Could Improve Transition Assistance for Reserves and National Guard, May 2005, reports TAP is not made available to the National Guard and Reserves.  “TAP managers with DOD and the military services explained that the chief problem is lack of time during demobilization, which is often completed in 5 days.”  The American Legion recommends that TAP be instituted in the following ways:

  • Incorporate TAP into the unit’s training schedule months before activation
  • Have a TAP briefing during a unit’s organization day that includes spouses
  • Activate a unit for a weekend either before or after a deployment
  • Most units spend three to eight weeks at an installation site preparing to move into theater; TAP briefings should be available
  • Spend extra day or two at a demobilization site to include TAP

The GAO report also states that many service members are not interested in the employment segment because they believe they have jobs waiting for them once they return home.  That might have been true with the first rotations into theater; however, that is not the case now for many veterans, especially with back to back deployments.  A number of complaints have surfaced from service members around the country that some businesses are reluctant to hire veterans still in the military and businesses have allegedly started putting pressure on veterans who have deployed once not to deploy a second time. 

Transitional Assistance Program for National Guard and Reserves:

Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland

The TAP program located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, has been called a unique program and still highly regarded as model for all the Army. It is currently the only program that offers transition assistance to guard and reserves with an 8-hour presentation of services and benefits.  Briefings are given covering Finance, Education, USERRA, VA compensation and disability claims, Employment Assistance, Mental Health Counseling Services, and Tri-Care.  The program also has a number of unique partnerships with many Federal, State and local agencies.  Some of those partnerships include: the Maryland Division of Workforce Development, Perry Point VA Hospital, Department of Labor, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Ft. Monmouth, N.J., Transition Office.  The program has a pro-active philosophy.  Some examples include:

  • Service members needing employment are given immediate assistance.  In some cases this has led to immediate hires, and those service members returned home with a job while avoiding unemployment.  If the veteran lives outside the state a point of contact is given for that individual to ensure there is a Veteran Representative waiting with job service resources.
  • The Perry Point VA Hospital offers immediate shelter to service members who may be homeless, which lessens the numbers of homeless veterans on our nation’s streets.  VA reports that more than 175,000 veterans are currently homeless and another 250,000 are homeless over a period of time.  VA has also reported that the number of homeless veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan is increasing, especially among women with children.  The American Legion believes the first line of defense in preventing additional homeless cases is to have a strong and pro-active transitional assistance program.
  • Service members who need assistance with filling out compensation and disability claims are offered immediate assistance by visiting VA representatives.  The program has received positive feedback by service members and commanders.

Assessing Services Rendered

The American Legion recommends that Congress require federal agencies that deliver TAP/DTAP services to develop a management-monitoring program to better assess how well services are being delivered to transitioning service members.  Currently, the effectiveness of services provided by TAP agencies is unknown because adequate performance goals and benchmarking measures have never been instituted.  Consequently, there is a lack of any verifiable outcome data.  Performance measures should be instituted to hold all federal agencies involved in TAP/DTAP accountable for services rendered.

Summary

America asks its young people to serve in the armed forces to guard and defend this great nation and its way of life.  Their selfless service provides millions of Americans with the opportunity to pursue their vocational endeavors.  The successful transition of that service member back into the civilian workforce must be a shared responsibility, especially if that service member has suffered service-connected disabilities.  There is much talk about “seamless transition” between DOD and VA, but it goes beyond that.  It should be a “seamless transition” between all Federal agencies involved in a transition assistance program.  That means:

  • Ensuring service members know their active duty legal rights and that those federal agencies involved should monitor and assist in the compliance with those rights
  • Prompt adjudication of disability claims
  • Prompt adjudication of educational claims
  • Timely access to Tri-Care and VA quality health care
  • Housing of the homeless
  • Employment assistance
  • Small business assistance
  • Any other federal assistance as needed

The American Legion reaffirms its strong support of TAP but also encourages DoD to require that all separating, active-duty service members, including those from the Reserves and the National Guard, be given an opportunity to participate in TAP training not more than 180 days prior to their separation or retirement from the armed forces, and follow-up counseling not later than 180 days after separation from active duty.  The American Legion supports efforts to mandate that all service members be given the opportunity to participate in TAP/DTAP.