With the vast majority of troops not starting the Transition Assistance Program early enough to ensure a smooth exit from the military, some lawmakers are seeking more accountability from unit commanders and the Defense Department.
Timely TAP completion should be incorporated into unit commanders’ performance metrics, to ensure service members have time to start the process at least one year before their separation date, as is required by law, said Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisconsin, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee, during a hearing Wednesday.
“I strongly recommend you do that,” Van Orden told the DoD official who oversees TAP. “These service members and the Department of Defense will not take this program seriously until commanders are held accountable, which means they’re not getting promoted,” he said.
The full-year requirement was implemented with the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act; before that it had been 90 days. But in December 2022, the Government Accountability Office reported that between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, 70% of service members had not started the transition assistance process a year before separating.
The result of that failure is lost opportunities, which can make a difference to service members’ future success, said Dawn G. Locke, GAO’s director of strategic issues, in testimony before the subcommittee.
For example, troops who start the process late may not be able to participate in DoD’s SkillBridge program, which provides on-the-job training with civilian employers during the last six months of military service. They may also miss the chance to apply for a disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs and possibly get a decision about their disability benefits before leaving active duty, she said.
GAO auditors were given a variety of reasons for the delays, including deployments, lack of commander support and medical discharges, Locke said.
The idea to include TAP compliance in commanders’ performance metrics came from the field, Locke said. GAO didn’t look at data on whether commanders were being held accountable, but at the five installations they visited and across the services, auditors were told they were not.
Another suggestion auditors heard was to incorporate TAP into DoD’s mission. “If TAP were part of that mission, it might be given a higher priority,” she said.
The Transition Assistance Program is administered by the Defense Department, but a number of federal agencies work together to deliver and assess the program. Both DoD and the VA deliver part of the core curriculum. The TAP interagency governance structure includes senior officials from DoD and VA, the departments of Education, Homeland Security and Labor, the Office of Personnel Management and the Small Business Administration.
Alex Baird, acting director of the Defense Support Services Center, said the department and the services were in the process of implementing the one-year mandate when the pandemic hit. They then had to shift from mostly in-person training to virtual training online.
“Each service is working to get back on track,” he said.
Part of each service’s corrective action plan is to make it a commander’s program and determine how to hold commanders responsible, he said.
“I need to get all of our commanders to the 365 days” (before separation to start TAP), he said, adding that he also needs IT infrastructure in place to help researchers assess the effectiveness of TAP and measure long-term outcomes.
There’s not enough information to determine if TAP is successful, Locke agreed, and DoD needs to make better use of the data. DoD and its partners are sponsoring a number of studies on TAP outcomes, she said, which will help them determine how quickly service members get jobs and how much they earn.
Van Orden questioned whether just one lead agency should be accountable for the program. “There needs to be a captain of the ship,” he said, and asked Baird whether he would be opposed to having VA be the lead agency.
“We work as a team,” Baird said. “I don’t think it makes a difference who you make lead.”
Four of five leaders of private entities that work closely with veterans, who testified in a second panel, said they would support having VA as the lead agency.
Rep. Mike Levin, D-California, pressed Baird on which agency’s mission statement makes more sense program leadership: DoD’s mission to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security; or the VA’s mission to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who served in the military, their families, caregivers and survivors.
Baird conceded TAP is more in line with the VA mission.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.