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Donna Miles - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 8, 2009 – The best way to ensure servicemembers transition seamlessly from the Defense Department to the Department of Veterans Affairs when they leave the military is to start the process at the swearing-in ceremony, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told American Forces Press Service.
“Seamless transition really has to begin when that servicemember is still serving, puts on the uniform, raises a right hand and takes the oath of allegiance,” said Shinseki, who spent 38 years in uniform before retiring in 2003 as Army chief of staff. “We need to begin the transition then.”
Shinseki said he’s had several conversations with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates about ways to continue improving the transition process between the two departments.
One concept, called “uniform registration,” would enroll servicemembers automatically in a single Defense-VA management system when they join the military. As envisioned, the system would have two components: one for personnel files and another for medical files.
Shinseki explained the benefits of uniform registration last month during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. “Uniform registration will push both of us, both the VA and the [Defense Department], to create a single, electronic record that would govern how we acknowledge, identify, track and manage each of our clients,” he said.
“That way, we could begin to track them throughout the course of their service in uniform – whether it’s two years, four years, 10 years, 30 years,” he told American Forces Press Service.
“And when the change in their status occurs and they take the uniform off and return to civilian life, the transition has already been done,” he continued. “They are already a member of our department, we know who they are, and we have been watching their development.”
The initiative, he said, would result in better, faster, more consistent management decisions, with less chance of lost files or destroyed claims and fewer backlogs in processing claims. Servicemembers leaving the military would come to VA as known entities, and their entitlements would be clear, Shinseki said. Meanwhile, VA could better project veterans’ needs.
Shinseki told the Senate committee both VA and the Defense Department “are in agreement about the goodness of such a system and have people working toward making this a reality.”
Uniform registration is really just an extension of other VA-administered programs that cover those in uniform, Shinseki said. These include Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, educational loans and guaranteed home loans.
“So this idea that your benefits begin when you take off the uniform is misleading,” he said. “Those benefits are there in those categories from the time they begin serving.”
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have been working diligently to eliminate gaps as servicemembers – particularly wounded warriors – transition from military to civilian life. Congressional panels, blue-ribbon commissions and in-house investigations all have pointed to the need for the two departments to improve their coordination and cooperation to better serve transitioning troops.
Shinseki told the Senate panel progress being made will help ensure better care and support for veterans. “Through a cooperative effort, we seek to improve the delivery of benefits and assure the availability of medical data to support the care of patients shared by VA and [the Defense Department],” he wrote in his written testimony. “This will enhance our ability to provide world-class care to veterans, active-duty servicemembers receiving care from both health-care systems, and our wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.”