The secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs warned Thursday that automatic spending cuts that would be triggered by the “fiscal cliff” could hurt programs meant to help troops returning to civilian life. 

“If sequestration happens, it will impact on those who are coming home,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at a joint press conference with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at the VA headquarters in Washington. “It is going to have a serious impact in terms of those coming home, the programs that support them.”

Shinseki, while reiterating his previous statements that the White House is exempting the VA from any sequestration cuts, nonetheless echoed Panetta’s comments.

“If Leon is dealing with issues of sequestration, I’m concerned as well, because of the likely impact on veterans as they transition,” Shinseki said.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki (l.) and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (r.) address reporters Thursday at the VA. (Photo by Associated Press)

The two secretaries spoke after a meeting to discuss collaborative efforts in job training for departing troops, military suicide, and the backlog of disability claims filed by veterans.

“This is in many ways a national security issue,” Panetta said. “It goes to the heart of taking care of those who fight for us.”