WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to send benefit packages to nearly 37,000 National Guard and Reserve members who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan because it mistakenly thought they were ineligible.
Several senators raised the discovery Wednesday, detailed in a report by the VA's Office of Inspector General, as the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing on whether Guard and Reserve members are being adequately informed of the benefits that are available to them.
"While the VA has targeted outreach programs in place to help service members, we still miss far too many veterans who need help and aren't aware of the services and benefits they have earned," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the committee.
Murray and others have long criticized the VA and the Defense Department as not doing enough to ensure that the more than 488,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves who've been mobilized and deployed are notified of and receive the benefits they're entitled to.
VA and Pentagon officials defended their efforts and said that improvements have been made.
"I am pleased to report the VA and Defense Department are coordinating their efforts more closely than ever before," said retired Maj. Gen. Marianne Mathewson-Chapman, the coordinator of the VA's outreach programs for the National Guard and Reserves.
Murray said a recent Pentagon study found that National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were 25 percent more likely to suffer from combat-related psychological problems than active-duty soldiers who've been deployed. In addition, Guard and Reserve members are twice as likely to have their VA claims denied as active-duty service members are, she said.
"The skills that helped them deal with the horrific experiences they had on the battlefield often made it harder for them to return to everyday life," she said. "And unlike active-duty troops, Guard and Reserve members often live in remote, rural areas, making it more difficult for them to gain access to the services and benefits they have earned."
Others senators said that Guard and Reserve members often were demobilized within days of their return, while active-duty members who were leaving the armed forces had weeks or months to prepare for the adjustment.
"They have one week to trade in a rifle for a job," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "They have one week to trade in patrols in hostile areas for civilian life."
Mathewson-Chapman said the VA had become "proactive" in informing Guard and Reserve members and their families of the benefits they could receive. The VA has enrollment forms available when Guard and Reserve members are demobilized and during health-care follow-ups 30, 60 and 90 days after they've been demobilized, she said.
The VA also is increasing the number of transition assistance advisers it has to help returning veterans and has enrollment information available at a growing number of clinics in rural areas, she said.
"The system isn't perfect, but we are making every effort to work the kinks out," said Donald Nelson, the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for reserve affairs.
In many cases, it may be up to the commander of a Guard or Reserve unit to determine how much contact his returning soldiers have with the VA.
"The success depends a lot on the commander," Tester said. "Shouldn't it be more formal?"
"Yes it should," said Bradley Mayes, the director of the VA's compensation and benefits service. But Mayes also indicated that a new generation of soldiers may require more than just meetings, letters and enrollment forms to learn about their benefits, suggesting that the VA may have to try such things as text-messaging and podcasting.
"We need to communicate with the modern warrior," he said. "They are different from those who served in World War II or Korea."