By Randy Tisor, Fort Carson MountaineerJanuary 14, 2009
FORT CARSON, Colo. Aca,!" In an effort to streamline the process of transitioning from Army to civilian life, the Department of Defense is developing a program specifically geared toward Soldiers who have incurred a serious illness or disability from an injury while serving their country.
During a brief visit to the Mountain Post, Army Career and Alumni Program National Director James Hoffman stated that Fort Carson has been selected to participate in the extension of the pilot program.
The pilot DES is expected to be implemented on Fort Carson before June. Other posts currently implementing the DES include: Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Forts Wainwright and Richardson in Alaska, Hoffman said.
Hoffman, along with representatives from several agencies within the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Department of the Army have scheduled fact-finding visits to Fort Carson as part of the evaluation and implementation of the system. A handful of other Army installations are also being considered for participation in what is officially known as the Disability Evaluation System.
The DES pilot program combines the joint efforts of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Hoffman. The goal, he said, is to improve the timeliness, effectiveness and transparency of the DES review process.
As injuries started to occur due to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, took the initiative to get on board early with the expected changes to disability process criteria. Posts in which known and expected challenges were present were selected to participate in the implementation phase of the pilot project. Fort Carson was selected to participate in DES due to the volume of disability cases processed here.
"When the improved process gets to Fort Carson, the hope is that Soldiers will be provided a more timely and valuable service to assist them and their spouses in navigating the detailed medical disability system," Hoffman said.
Currently, Soldiers who leave the Army with a medical disability are required to have two physical examinations; one administered by the Army and, in most cases, one given by Veterans Affairs. DES intends to simplify the process with just one physical exam completed to meet both agency requirements.
While on the surface the project may appear fairly simple, the amount of coordination involved to make it reality is far more complex, officials said. They said many agencies and commands need to be involved in the process in order for DES to become reality. In addition, all of the service branches are involved in the coordination and implementation of DES. Add in the fact that one set of procedures may not produce the same results at all Army posts and the project becomes a bit more complicated. Hoffman said that a certain amount of tailoring to individual posts will be necessary in order for DES to work as intended.
A primary area of interest is the type of testing and health evaluation that a Soldier receives during the transition process.
"The idea is that the Soldier enters into the health care of Veterans Affairs with a thorough baseline of medical history established for all of the injuries or illnesses that occurred during the entire term of enlistment, regardless of the length of enlistment," Hoffman said.
Other changes will factor heavily into the improved process, according to Hoffman.
Recently the Army authorized the digital signature of the ubiquitous Department of Defense form 214 - a Soldier's official record of separation or discharge. In the current process, once a Soldier signs the DD 214, the form is then physically mailed to VA and processed manually, thereby delaying the processing of disability claims for benefits. With the implementation of the digital signature on the DD 214, a copy of the Soldier's DD 214 will be posted within Human Resources Command record-keeping systems no longer than 24 hours after separation. VA will then have online access to the document which will speed up the disability compensation process and the process of follow-on health care for Soldiers entering civilian life.
Actual separation dates factor heavily into DES as well. For the most part, Soldiers participating in the DES are encouraged to establish their actual separation date between the 25th and 27th of the month of separation. Doing so should allow for initial receipt of VA disability benefit payments within 30 days of separation from the Army. If a Soldier separates outside of that time frame, he or she may have to wait up to 60 days to receive the first VA disability check.
The Army Career and Alumni Program is involved as a partner in the DES process, according to Hoffman, due to the fact that all Soldiers who enter the Army's medical board process must report to ACAP at the start of the process. From that point, all Soldiers receive mandatory preseparation counseling. A copy of that counseling is submitted with the medical board packet to the Department of the Army.
"ACAP is the prime mover," Hoffman said. "ACAP, in cooperation with the Warrior Transition Unit, schedules and monitors the progress of the Soldier through each of the mandatory briefings and workshops that they must process through in order to separate from active duty."
Hoffman added that ACAP is working especially closely with the WTU to make sure that Soldiers with often very busy and demanding appointment schedules report to the ACAP Transition Center as soon as their medical board has been approved.
"Our goal," Hoffman said, "is to treat each Soldier individually and at the same time ensure that we can support their decisions and help them with a smooth transition to the VA Health Care system."
Hoffman added that ACAP is not solely focused on transitioning Soldiers to civilian life. In many cases, he said, Soldiers start the transition process and, at some point, determine that they would like to re-enlist and continue their Army career. According to Hoffman, in 2008 more than 3,700 Soldiers initiated ACAP services and then re-enlisted. During the same time frame, more than 7,900 Soldiers transitioned to the National Guard or Reserve.
As is presently the case, some Soldiers who have medical disabilities may request to remain on active duty should they meet criteria for continuation on active duty. Continued service may well require retraining into a different military occupational specialty.
Some disabled Soldiers may be limited or prohibited, however, from returning to active duty.
Expediting the disability process and getting Soldiers the continued VA health care they need is what the DES is all about. In the end, it boils down to taking care of the Soldier - even Soldiers who are transitioning out of the Army and into civilian life.