Soldiers’ transition top priority

By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist

Vietnam War veterans will nod with understanding over many of Noel Koch’s comments contrasting support for wounded troops and veterans today, from citizenry and government, compared to how it was 40 years ago.

During the Vietnam War, he said, “we got very good at saving people’s lives on the battlefield. But we never got good at giving them a life worth living once they got back here,” Koch said. “We just warehoused them in VA hospitals and that’s part of the scandal of the times.”

“We’re not going to let that happen again,” he continued. “And that’s a directive that comes from the president — and I should say the First Lady as well — and runs in a straight line, with the secretary of defense straddling it, right into this office.”

Koch is director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Transition Policy and Care Coodination (TPCC), an entity less than a year old. He’s responsible for how well DoD and the services implement very ambitious initiatives and reforms to ensure this generation of warriors gets the support it needs to stay in service or move as smoothly as possible into civilian life.

At the risk of personalizing the issue too much, Koch said, he noted he’s a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

“And our basic motto is never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. You may take from that a certain sense of grievance,” he said, “but that’s not the important part. The important part is this: that (Vietnam) generation is determined to take care of this generation.”

In the wake of the scandal that rocked the campus of the Walter Reed Medical Center more than two years ago, several commissions and internal studies produced mounds of recommendations to improve support of wounded warriors. Seemingly before the ink dried on commission draft reports, Congress had passed comprehensive wounded warrior legislation.

Meanwhile, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs jointly established the Wounded, Ill and Injured Senior Oversight Committee (SOC), co-chaired by the deputy secretaries of VA and DoD. The SOC was to ensure that wounded warrior legislation was implemented properly and that key task force recommendations were adopted and resourced.

The spotlight has dimmed, SOC survives but, within DoD, it’s Koch’s TPCC office, with a staff of 30 and rising, taking over day-to-day oversight of dramatic warrior transition reforms.