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Program for departing service members plagued by inconsistencies, indifference

| Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, 7:13 p.m.
After Iraqi insurgent bullets shredded his legs, cavalry scout Sgt. Dary Finck spent nine months in the Army's Walter Reed hospital in Washington before entering Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition unit. He told the Trib that despite both of his legs getting 'shot out, the cadre still ordered me to come and watch everyone else PT.' Submitted photo.
After Iraqi insurgent bullets shredded his legs, cavalry scout Sgt. Dary Finck spent nine months in the Army's Walter Reed hospital in Washington before entering Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition unit. He told the Trib that despite both of his legs getting 'shot out, the cadre still ordered me to come and watch everyone else PT.' Submitted photo.
Ken Katter of Saginaw, MI, a former sergeant who led Army scouts in Iraq came home to recover from his wounds in a Warrior Transition unit he called a nightmare.  (Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review)
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Ken Katter of Saginaw, MI, a former sergeant who led Army scouts in Iraq came home to recover from his wounds in a Warrior Transition unit he called a nightmare. (Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review)

WASHINGTON -- Launched during a time of peace to aid departing service members, the Transition Assistance Program is failing war veterans and their families, according to Pentagon reports obtained by the Tribune-Review.

Called "TAP," it began in 1989 as a federal pilot program run by the Department of Defense, Labor Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. For most of the 140,000 troops who annually must take the course, it's three days of classes on topics ranging from the new GI Bill for college to special initiatives that help wounded personnel and their families.

Crisscrossing the U.S. and Europe, investigators from the Pentagon's Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy in Alexandria, Va., determined that TAP was plagued with "significant gaps in consistency of services" and "low" spousal participation, according to the files. The reports added that there was "little evidence" financial aid, relocation assistance or post-military education applications "are emphasized or provided" by TAP coordinators.

Reports state that TAP staffers often failed to help military spouses find off-base jobs and were "not well versed" in recovery care programs; TAP support for injured personnel and their families was "not readily apparent."

"It's an issue of selling it. We had a hard time getting people to understand the issues and what's available to them," said Noel Koch, the former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense who ordered the investigations before he resigned in April.

"Military commanders fought us on letting guys even go to the TAP briefings. It was a slog. We identified the problems and tried to find ways to overcome them. We weren't satisfied with the status quo."

Koch claims he was forced out after bringing problems about TAP and other programs to Pentagon officials, who declined to comment on the allegations.

The reports allege:

• Instructors at Italy's Naval Air Station Signorella in late 2009 lacked the training and "established level of competency" to conduct counseling for personnel leaving the service.

• Sailors at Florida's Naval Station Mayport slept through classes in late 2009 because they were forced to stand overnight watch, a problem of "mission win; Sailors lose." At naval bases in southern Europe, sailors were forced to pay their own way to attend briefings.

• Military discharge counseling so bad at Naval Hospital Jacksonville in Florida that the "risks of violations of federal statute high."

• A program at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina that exceeded classroom capacity for Marines, offered limited child care to spouses attending workshops and discharged reservists who weren't receiving the courses that they needed.

• Questions about the program's ability to "maintain enduring connection with National Guard or Reserve Community questionable; extent of proactive engagement could not be determined."

Another key problem investigators identified was the services' inability to attract personnel and their spouses to TAP and Veterans Affairs briefings. U.S Army Garrison Vicenza Italy, for example, provided a mere 31 soldiers with federal employment and resume writing classes out of nearly 2,800 personnel stationed there, according to the reports.

Koch told the Trib the services often failed to tell today's generation of GIs about the program in the electronic media they use. He said David DuBois, a top aide at the Warrior Transition policy office, was working on reforms, but the Pentagon inexplicably removed him from that job in a bureaucratic reshuffle.

Pentagon officials declined to comment.

The Pentagon reports disclosed "unmanageable caseloads" for Veterans Affairs counselors at Air Force bases nationwide and widespread confusion triggered by the 2008 enactment of the GI Bill, especially for the VA in Europe.

When military personnel called the VA's toll-free numbers to get help, they found them "unpopular and unresponsive," according to the Pentagon reports.

VA leaders told the Trib that most of the GI Bill problems had been solved and they were revamping the hotlines.

In a written statement, Department of Labor spokesman Jesse Lawder agreed with Koch's assessment of TAP, saying that the "program is not providing those who have served and sacrificed for their country with the best tools the marketplace has to offer to enable them to realize their professional goals."

Lawder said that the department was scrutinizing bids to fix the agency's portion of TAP and reforming six major components of the initiative, including providing personal and online support and counseling for veterans after they take the TAP course.

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