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September 12, 2014
Defense One

Years of study notwithstanding, the Veterans Affairs Department still knows too little about the readjustment difficulties faced by the increasingly younger and more female cohort of recently separated service members.

That’s according to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that financial troubles, joblessness, homelessness and stressed personal relationships continue to victimize an undetermined portion of the 2.3 million veterans who served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“There is limited and incomplete data to assess the extent to which veterans experience readjustment difficulties,” GAO wrote.

Relatively more information, however, is available on the number of veterans who had a physical or mental condition within a few years of leaving the military. A 2010 study, for example, shows that 32 percent of recently-separated veterans were diagnosed with a disease or injury of the musculoskeletal system.

VA has made progress in making its many services more accessible, but GAO found that the department has struggled to provide timely access to medical appointments, make timely disability compensation decisions and coordinate the transfer of medical records from the Defense Department.

Complicating the programs is a shift in demographics among the more recent veterans—of service members stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, GAO noted, as many as 12 percent were female and 33 percent were members of the National Guard or Reserves. By contrast, during the Persian Gulf War in 1990, 6.8 percent of service members were women, and 16 percent were in the Guard or Reserves.

Studies show that veterans who served in combat and younger veterans—fewer service members today are serving the traditional 20 years—are more likely than others to experience readjustment difficulties or be diagnosed with a mental health condition. Veterans who had served in ground units of the Army or Marines had post-traumatic stress disorder rates 3.7 times higher than those who had served in the Navy or Air Force.

But researchers need to learn more, GAO said, and VA expects another 1 million service members to separate in the next six years. The watchdog agency called the problem “a key issue facing the nation.”

Auditors recommended that VA work to “better understand the difficulties faced by readjusting veterans and use this information to determine how best to enhance its benefits and services for these veterans.”

VA officials largely agreed with a draft of the report. But they pointed out that the department established a new Office of Interagency Care and Benefits Coordination in 2014 and helped create the Transition Assistance Program, a career-planning partnership now being delivered to vets through the Defense, Education and Labor departments, and the Small Business Administration.

Author

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the ... Full Bio