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Secretary of Defense Testimony

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Spoken Statement on DOD-VA Collaboration before the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington D.C., Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thank you very much.

Chairman McKeon, Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Smith and Ranking Member Filner, dear former colleagues of mine, I appreciate the opportunity to be here.  And I also want to pay my respects to the members of both committees.  This is a unique event.  It's an important event.

And first and foremost, I want to thank all of the members of both the Armed Services Committee and Veterans Committee for the support that you provide the Department of Defense, our men and women in uniform, and our veterans.  We could simply not do the work that needs to be done in protecting this country and in serving those who are our warriors and their families – we just could not do it without the partnership that we have with all of you.  And for that reason, let me just express my personal appreciation to all of you for your dedication and for your commitment to those areas.

I also want to thank you for the opportunity to appear this morning alongside Secretary Shinseki.  He is a great public servant, a great military leader and a great friend to me and to our nation's veterans, and I appreciate the opportunity to appear alongside of him.

I'm pleased to have this chance to discuss the ways that the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working together to try to meet the needs of our service members, our veterans and their families.  This hearing comes at a very important time for our nation and for collaboration between our two Departments.

DoD and VA are in the process of building an integrated military and veteran support system.  It's something that should have been done a long time ago, but we are in the process of trying to make that happen and develop a support system that's fundamentally different and a lot more robust than it's been in the past.

Today, after a decade of war, a new generation of service members, of veterans, are coming home.  Our nation has made a lifetime commitment to them for their service and for their sacrifice, for their willingness to put their lives on the line for this country.  These men and women have shouldered a very heavy burden.  They've been deployed, as you know, time and time and time again.

They've fought battles in Iraq.  They've fought battles in Afghanistan.  They've been targeted by terrorists and by IEDs.  They've been deployed from Kuwait to South Korea, from the Pacific to the Middle East.  Many are dealing with serious wounds, as well as with complex and difficult problems, both seen and unseen.  They fought, and many have died, to protect this country, and we need to fight to protect them.

We owe it to those returning service members and to the veterans to provide them with a seamless support system so that they can put their lives back together, so that they can pursue their goals, so that they can not only go back to their communities but be able to give back to their communities and to help strengthen our nation in many ways.

None of this is easy.  It takes tremendous commitment on the part of all Americans – those in government, those in the military.  It takes tremendous commitment on the part of those in the private sector, our business leaders and frankly all citizens across our country.

There is no doubt that DoD and VA are working more closely together than we have before.  But frankly, we have much more to do to try to reach a level of cooperation to better meet the needs of those who have served our nation in uniform, especially our wounded warriors.

Since I became Secretary a little over a year ago, Secretary Shinseki and I have met on a regular basis in order to personally guide efforts to share resources and expand cooperation between our departments.  The partnership between our departments extends to all levels, led by a joint committee co-chaired by the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Senior military leaders have been deeply committed to this effort.  This is about the care of their troops, but it's also about recruiting and retaining the very best military force in the world.  When it comes down to it, caring for those who have served and their families is not only a moral imperative, it is a national security imperative as well.

For those who have fought for their nation, we need to protect their care and their benefits, but we also need to protect their integrity and their honor.  It's for that reason that before I discuss the specifics about DoD and VA collaboration, I want to announce an important step that my Department is taking in order to help maintain the integrity of the awards and honors that are earned by our service members and their veterans.

You're all aware of the Supreme Court decision that determined that free speech allows someone to lie about military awards and honors.  Free speech is one thing, but dishonoring those who have been honored on the battlefield is something else.

For that reason, today we are posting a new page on the Defense Department's website that will list those service members and veterans who have earned our nation's highest military awards for valor.  Initially the website will list the names of those who have earned the Medal of Honor since 9/11, but in the near term, it will include the recipients of the Services Crosses and the Silver Star since 9/11.  We'll look at expanding that information available on the website over time.

This effort will help raise public awareness about our nation's heroes and help deter those who might falsely claim military honors, which I know has been a source of great concern for many veterans and members of these committees and members of the Congress.  I want to thank you for your concerns and for your leadership on this issue.  And our hope is that this will help protect the honor of those who serve the United States in battle.

Now let me discuss the five priority areas that DoD and VA are trying to work on to enhance collaboration.

The first is this transition program, the Transition GPS program.  At the Department of Defense, our goal is to provide a comprehensive transition assistance program that prepares those who are leaving the service for the next step – whether that is pursuing additional education, whether it's trying to find a job in the public sector or the private sector, or whether it's starting their own business.

On Monday, the President announced the new “Transition GPS program” that will extend transition preparation through the entire span of each service member's military career.  The program will ensure that every service member develops their own individual transition plan, meets new career readiness standards and is prepared to apply their valuable military experience however and wherever they choose.

The second area that we focused on is trying to integrate the Disability Evaluation System.  We've overhauled the legacy disability evaluation system in trying to make improvements with regards to developing a new system.  In the past, as you know, service members with medical conditions preventing them from doing their military jobs had to navigate separate disability evaluation systems at both DoD and VA.  We've replaced that legacy system with a single integrated Disability Evaluation System that enables our departments to work in tandem.  Under the new system currently in use, service members and veterans have to deal with fewer layers of bureaucracy, and they are able to receive VA disability compensation sooner after separating from the military.

But let's understand as we try to do this, this is a tough challenge to try to make this work in a way that can respond to our veterans effectively.  After all, veterans have rights.  They have the right to ensure that their claims are carefully adjudicated.  But at the same time, we need to expedite the process, and to ensure that as we do that we protect their benefits.  And that's what we're trying to do with this system.

The third area is to try to integrate – as was pointed out – a new Electronic Health Record system.  We're working on a major initiative to try to do that. For too long, efforts to achieve a real seamless transition between our health care systems have been hamstrung by separate legacy health record systems.  In response to the challenge that was issued by the President – and frankly, presidents in the past who have tried to address this issue – DoD and VA is finally working steadily to build an integrated Electronic Health Record system.  When operational, that system will be the single source for service members and veterans to access their medical history and for clinicians to use that history at any DoD and VA medical facility.

Again, this is not easy, and so the way we're approaching it is to try to see if we can complete this process at two places – San Antonio and Hampton Roads – and then try to expand it to every other hospital.  It's tough, but if we can achieve this, it would be a very significant achievement that I think could be a model not only for the hospitals that we run but for hospitals in the private sector as well.

Fourthly, we need greater collaboration on mental and behavioral health.  Beyond these specific initiatives that I mentioned, we are trying to focus on enhancing collaboration in areas that involve some of the toughest challenges we face now, related to mental and behavioral health.  Post-traumatic stress has emerged as a signature unseen wound of this last decade of war.  Its impact will be felt for decades to come, and both the DoD and VA must therefore improve our ability to identify and treat this condition, as well as all mental and behavioral health conditions, and to better equip our system to deal with the unique challenges these conditions can present.

For example, I've been very concerned about reports of problems with modifying diagnoses for post-traumatic stress in the military disability evaluation system.  Many of these issues were brought to my attention by members of Congress – and I appreciate their doing that – particularly the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray, who addressed this issue because it happened in her own state in a particular way.

To address these concerns, I've directed a review across all of the uniformed services.  This review, led by the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Erin Conaton, will help ensure that we are delivering on our commitment to care for our service members.  The review will be analytically sound, it will be action-oriented and it will provide hopefully the least disruptive impact to behavioral health services for service members.  The effort here is to determine where those diagnoses take place, why they were downgraded downward, what took place, so that we know exactly what has happened.  I hope that the entire review will be completed within approximately 18 months.

The last area is an area that has really concerned me, which is the area of trying to prevent military suicides.  We've strongly focused on doing what we can to try to deal with this issue, which I've said is one of the most frustrating problems I have come across as Secretary of Defense.  Despite increased efforts and attention by both DoD and VA, the suicide trends among service members and veterans continues to move in a very troubling and tragic direction.  In part, it is reflective of the larger society.  The fact is, numbers are increasing now within the military.

In close cooperation with the VA, DoD is taking aggressive steps to try to address this issue, including promoting a culture to try to get people to seek the kind of help that they need, to improve access to mental and behavioral health care, to emphasize mental fitness and to work to better understand the issue of suicide with the help of other agencies, including the VA.

One of the things that I'm trying to stress is that we have got to improve the ability of leadership within the military to see these issues, to see them coming and to do something to try to prevent it from happening.  Our efforts to deliver the best possible services depend on the dedication of our DoD and VA professionals who work extremely hard every day on behalf of those who have served in uniform, and I extend my thanks to all who help support our men and women in uniform today, to our veterans and to our families.

Let me just say, we are one family.  We have to be one family at the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, a family that supports one another and all those who have answered the call to defend our country.  Together, we will do everything possible to ensure that the bond between our two Departments and between our country and those who have defended it only grows stronger in the future.

Let me also say this.  As a former Congressman – now as Secretary of Defense – and someone who's spent over 40 years involved in government in some capacity or another, I am well aware that too often the very best intentions for caring for our veterans can get trapped in bureaucratic infighting.  It gets trapped by conflicting rules and regulations.  It gets trapped by frustrating levels of responsibility.

This cannot be an excuse for not dealing with these issues.  It should be a challenge for both the VA and DoD, for the Congress and for the Administration to try to meet that challenge together.

Our warriors are trained not to fail on the battlefield.  We must be committed not to fail them on the homefront.  I realize that there have been a lot of good words and a lot of good will and a lot of good intentions.  But I can assure you that my interest is in results, not words.  I'm grateful for the support of the Congress and particularly these two committees.  And I thank you and look forward to your questions. 

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