WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday promised continued focus by Pentagon officials on improving veterans’ lives even as his department struggles with fiscal headaches and strategic soul-searching in years to come.
“The DoD is not a corporation and cannot be run like one,” he told attendees at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kentucky. “The costs of our decisions are measured not in how they affect the financial bottom line, but in how they affect human lives.
“Making the right decisions about our future depends on our appreciation of the sacrifices our people and their families make for our country. We must continue to pay close attention to their needs and our commitments to them.”
Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, administration officials have mandated closer coordination between the departments of defense and veterans affairs as the country concludes two overseas wars.
Hagel reiterated his department’s recent work on lifetime electronic medical records, assisting with veterans benefits claims processing, and transition programs for departing servicemembers.
Those issues, once just background concerns on the department’s priority list, have been consistently pushed to the forefront as all of government shifts focus to how to welcome back a generation of combat veterans.
“As the wars wind down, we are also dealing with debilitating, insidious and destructive challenges such as alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Hagel said. “Our military leaders do everything possible to protect our men and women on the battlefield. We must make this same commitment to our people here at home.”
But Hagel told the veterans that the Pentagon also has its expected challenges of balancing military readiness and fiscal uncertainty, particularly since lawmakers have yet to address the problem of sequestration.
Department officials have decried sequestration — $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade — for two years now, ever since lawmakers approved the idea. Combined with other planned reductions, the moves will decrease planned defense funding by almost $1 trillion by 2023.
But partisan infighting has derailed any attempts for a compromise budgeting plan. Hagel again offered a plea to find some alternative, imploring the veterans to get involved in the lobbying effort as well.
“We have gone through periods of realignment and redefinition after every major conflict in American history,” he said. “They always have enormous ramifications and consequences for our entire defense enterprise, in terms of national security priorities, available resources, and the needs of our men and women in uniform and their families.”
While defense spending has taken a hit in recent years, spending on the Department of Veterans Affairs has rapidly risen. The VA budget is up more than 40 percent from fiscal 2009, growing as large as any of the individual military services.
On Tuesday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is expected to speak at the convention about many of the same topics, including how restrictions on military funding ultimately hurts national security and veterans quality of life.
Hagel, a former VA administrator and longtime VFW member, spoke about the work he and Shinseki have done together so far and pledged to continue to build the interagency cooperation in coming years.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done, but we are making good progress,” he said.