WASHINGTON -- The secretary of veterans affairs said today that where some might see challenges for the department, he sees opportunities.
"One of the big opportunities we have - and it's a priority of ours - is to make sure that our servicemembers coming out of the combat theater are well taken care of," R. James Nicholson said during an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service. "That is one of our biggest opportunities."
With more than 200,000 Guardsmen and Reservists deployed in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the VA has expanded some of the benefits offered to this group of service members, he said.
"VA has a very extensive, new program for our reserve components," Nicholson said. "The reserve component person who comes back, is redeployed back, is entitled to two years of full medical and dental care at any nearby VA facility. Then of course, if they have any other service-connected disablement, either physical or mental, as a result of their service, that care will continue on beyond the two years."
Education benefits also have been expanded for Guardsmen and Reservists so they may participate in the G.I. Bill. The amount of the benefit, however, depends on the time spent in an active duty capacity, Nicholson said. The life insurance and home loan programs also have improved for Guardsmen and Reservists, he said.
Eligibility requirements can be found on the Veterans Affairs Web site.
Changes within VA affect active duty servicemembers who come back from the combat theater and choose to leave the service, too, Nicholson said.
The Seamless Transition Program, he said, makes 158 medical centers and more than 850 clinics available for service members who separate from the military. A home loan program has 25 percent of the mortgage guaranteed by the VA, which allows most veterans to buy a home without down payment. "That used to be a one-time benefit," Nicholson said. "It now is a continuing benefit throughout the life of a veteran -- any veteran."
Benefits also include vocational and rehabilitation training for those injured physically or mentally. The VA also is working to help disabled veterans adapt to their environment, including the adaptation of a home or a vehicle if needed.
The VA also works to help veterans find work. This is a top priority, Nicholson said, as about 20 percent of veterans between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed.
"We ... are working within the other agencies of government, encouraging them to hire our veterans. We're doing it ourselves at the VA," Nicholson said. "We have many disabled veterans working here ... especially in the (Information Technology) department."
Nicholson said he has worked with governors and heads of corporations and major trade associations to encourage them to reach out to veterans looking for employment. The program is promising, he said, but more needs to be done.
Readjustment counseling services are important as well, Nicholson said. The program is crucial to heading off any latent mental health problems. "It's important to (veterans) now, and it's important to them for the rest of their lives," Nicholson said.
The program was extended to families of veterans who also make a sacrifice. Injuries cause change for every family member and every family member needs to adjust to that change, he said.
"We're responsible for veterans affairs," Nicholson said. "And certainly part of a veteran's welfare is his family, his family life and his quality of life. Spouses and dependents have to endure a great deal of sacrifice at home when a service member is deployed, especially to a combat zone, and especially if they're injured.
"We need to educate the whole family about what's going on there so that they can accommodate to that and accept that and go on as a, hopefully, happy productive family unit," Nicholson said.
Benefit changes also have affected life insurance provisions. Congress has approved the increase in the death gratuity -- a one-time payment to the family of a servicemember killed in action -- from $12,000 to $100,000. The maximum life insurance benefit also has increased, from $250,000 to $400,000.
A new catastrophic insurance program covers the service member up to $100,000 above the other programs in the event of a catastrophic injury like the loss of eyesight or hearing, Nicholson said. The premium for that coverage is about $1 a month, he added.
It all boils down to veterans having the right benefits available to them, and service members need to know what their benefits are and how to access them, Nicholson said. The recent changes to veterans' benefits are moves to make sure that the VA's goal of taking care of service members is met, he said.
"It's an expression of the appreciation of the American people, the president and the Congress," the secretary said, "for the important work and the sacrifices that the reserve components are making in our operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and for freedom for our country."