"They should not have to overcome high barriers, high walls, between federal agencies in order to receive the benefits they've earned through their service and their sacrifices," Anthony J. Principi said at a luncheon at the National Press Club.
Principi said although he already has heard complaints about long waits for medical appointments, such situations should not become routine.
Compared to the hundred of thousands of casualties suffered in the Vietnam and Korean War, he said, fewer than 1,000 service men and women have been injured or killed during the recent military operations in Iraq. As such, the VA will not have to alter its policies significantly to handle the new cases.
In an effort to benefit both new and old veterans, Principi outlined a new discharge program intended to respond within 30 days to veterans filing claims for medical treatment, compared with the current average of 178 days.
"The Benefits Delivery at Discharge program enables us to truly, truly put people first," he said.
Operation Iraqi Freedom not only recorded a small number of casualties, but it was fought in such a short time questions have arisen over the lack of compensation awarded to veterans held captive as prisoners of war for under 30 days. Principi said he was fighting to have that stipulation removed. "We have a legislative proposal to take it away," he said.
Although there were no reported chemical or biological attacks on U.S. military forces, Principi said his department still is preparing to deal with diseases suffered due to battlefield conditions during combat. "We do not now know if our troops will return ill from exposure to environmental hazards on the battlefield, as they did after the first Gulf War (and) as they did after Vietnam," he said.
Principi told the audience the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs hope to avoid a repeat of the situation after the last Gulf War, when many military personnel were said to have been afflicted with what became known as Gulf War Syndrome after returning to the United States. He said more communication between the two departments would aid the level of medical treatment for veterans.
He also noted increased counseling services are available to military personnel. This change was made because three members of special operations units killed their wives last August after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Troops returning from combat in Iraq will go through readjustment counseling to help with the transition from the battlefield back to home. The counseling also is intended to help battle substance abuse and mental health problems, which could lead to new cases of homeless veterans.
Aside from his official responsibility, Principi said he has personal reasons for ensuring the well-being of new Iraqi veterans: Two of his sons served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.