The GAO found that the DOD’s Transition Assistance Program did not provide additional career transition services to 4,300 service members eligible for them between 2021 and 2023.

The GAO found that the DOD’s Transition Assistance Program did not provide additional career transition services to 4,300 service members eligible for them between 2021 and 2023. videodet / GETTY IMAGES

DOD, other agencies could better transition service members to civilian life

GAO officials said the Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor departments could better collaborate to provide more at-risk veterans “warm handovers” to help transition them from military service to civilian life.

The Government Accountability Office recently found that a Defense Department program designed to aid certain service members transitioning to civilian life doesn’t have clear insight into who receives services, and some commanders are unclear about their responsibility to ensure that support is even rendered. 

The March 21 report examined the DOD’s Transition Assistance Program, which provides help to service members leaving active duty with benefits like individual meetings with a TAP counselor, training and other services. 

Within the TAP program is a policy designed to offer service members what’s commonly called a “warm handover” when they don’t meet either career readiness standards or are expected to face other transition challenges. 

With a warm handover, the military services partner with other agencies — such as the VA, Education, Homeland Security and Labor departments, as well as the Office of Personnel Management and Small Business Administration — to establish a person-to-person connection with the service member to offer additional services and resources from those agencies.

Warm handovers are administered through a series of interagency agreements and target younger service members, those who separate from the military with short notice, receive administrative separations or medical separations. According to DOD policies, if a service member does not meet all applicable career readiness standards, they are to receive a warm handover. 

However, the GAO found that between April 2021 and March 2023, 4,300 service members who separated from the military and should have received warm handovers did not. 

“DOD does not know why some service members who do not meet career readiness standards are not receiving a warm handover, because DOD has not analyzed available data to determine the reasons why they did not receive them,” the report said, noting that while the department maintains information on the transition assistance criteria service members do complete, it does not “analyze data on the characteristics or circumstances of service members who did not meet these requirements and who did not receive a warm handover.”

And for those who did receive warm handovers, the report found that TAP officials often did not ensure that the person-to-person connection to the partner agency was officially received.

“TAP officials we interviewed said they had trouble making a person-to-person connection for service members due, in part, to outdated contact information on websites linked in the TAP database,” GAO officials said, noting that while the VA and Labor departments were responsible for updating their information, the DOD didn’t have a process for regularly requesting new contact information. 

The Defense Department also is not reliably ensuring that the handovers occur, as commanders are unclear on the responsibility to verify that a handover has been completed. Approximately one-third of the nearly 41,000 warm handovers administered between April 2021 and March 2023 were not verified. 

Another 77,711 service members were verified by commanders as having received a warm handover, despite not having recorded one. 

The GAO offered six recommendations to the DOD, one to the Labor Department and one to the VA to develop plans to analyze data on receiving warm handovers, to update online contact information and better establish person-to-person connections, better verify at the commander-level that handovers have occurred and to better assess their helpfulness.

All three agencies agreed with the recommendations and laid out plans to address them.