WASHINGTON, April 22, 2013 – Former Army Maj. Tommy Sowers understands firsthand that the last thing many service members preparing to transition out of the military want to do is attend more briefings or fill out more forms than they already do.
But Sowers, now an assistant secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, urges those headed for the door to take advantage of what VA has to offer. And he’s calling on junior officers and noncommissioned officers — and veterans already benefitting from VA programs and services — to encourage them to do so.
Sowers acknowledged during an interview with American Forces Press Service that he knew little about VA during his 11 years of military service. His first exposure to VA, he said, came when a fellow officer encouraged him to apply for a VA home loan.
He went on to realize more VA benefits. A former Special Forces officer with back injuries, he qualified for VA health care and disability compensation. He also received educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, earning his doctoral degree at the prestigious London School of Economics.
“My time in the service made me strong, and the VA has made me stronger,” Sowers said of his military and post-military experiences. His concern, he said, is that many service members and veterans don’t realize VA can do the same for them.
For a 25-year-old enlisted service member preparing to leave the military, the draw is likely to be educational benefits, he said. More senior members probably are most interested in health care. Retirees may have started thinking about being buried with honor at a VA cemetery.
“At each of these moments, VA is there to help make those veterans stronger,” Sowers said. “But we have to increase the awareness of it.”
Sowers called the close and strengthening VA-Defense Department partnership an important step.
The Transition Assistance Program, for example, now includes mandatory briefings on VA benefits and services. This helps to create a smooth transition, Sowers said, ensuring those leaving the military recognize what’s available to help them successfully move into the next phase in their lives and careers.
VA has made broad strides in increasing awareness of its programs and services and making them accessible for more veterans, Sowers said. Fifty-six percent of the 1.5 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have used VA health care, compared to 35 percent of the veteran population, he reported. In addition, almost 1 million veterans are taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“One thing we are finding is that people like our product,” Sowers said.
VA is counting on these veterans to share what they’ve discovered, he said.
“Those 800,000 additional [Iraq and Afghanistan] veterans using VA health care, the 900,000 using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the hundreds of thousands being compensated and treated for mental injuries, those folks who are benefitting have an obligation to tell other veterans about it,” he said. “That is how we are going to expand our access.”