Good morning, everyone. I am honored to have this opportunity to speak with your membership about VA and the 300,000 good folks, who come to work there everyday. First, let me thank you for your leadership and the service of your men and women in uniform. You are responding to missions today and at a tempo that would have been difficult to imagine a few years ago—and executing flawlessly.
Caring for Veterans is the primary mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs. For that reason, most see VA as a healthcare organization, and to be sure, that is generally true:
But healthcare is just one of our three major operations—besides our health administration, we operate a benefits administration and a National Cemetery Administration, making us the second largest department in the Federal government. Beyond healthcare, here’s what’s also true about VA:
In short—VA is a large and complex enterprise designed and devoted entirely to serving the Veterans of this country—Active, Guard, Reserve. So when President Obama invited me to serve Veterans as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I did not hesitate. It is my opportunity to give back—to those youngsters with whom I went to war 44 years ago in Vietnam, those I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff, and those giants, who fought World War II and Korea and on whose shoulders I, and my generation, stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.
For the past hundred years, the Reserve Component has been the training ground for our Nation’s leaders. Seven presidents in that time were reserve officers. Six current members of Congress today serve in the Guard or the Reserve.
In 1917, a 27-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was commissioned a major in the Army Reserve as the United States entered World War I. He finished the war commanding the Blue Spaders, the 26th Infantry Regiment, fought and was wounded at Soissons in 1918, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war, Ted Roosevelt, Jr. remained in the Reserves, attending infantry officers basic and advanced courses and the Command and General Staff College. In 1940, he returned to active duty at nearly age 50, resuming both his old rank and command of the 26th Infantry. Following Pearl Harbor, he rapidly earned promotions to Brigadier General and was made Assistant Division Commander, 1st Infantry Division, seeing action in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy.
In preparation for the Normandy landings, Roosevelt was assigned as Assistant Division Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, destined for Utah beach. He begged his division commander, MG “Tubby” Barton, to let him go ashore on D-Day with the first wave of assault companies.
Roosevelt was the only general officer to do so. Friction in battle—his landing craft drifted more than a mile south of the intended landing zone. Once ashore, Roosevelt personally re-conned the terrain beyond the beach, identified routes inland toward the division’s objectives, and adjusted its scheme of maneuver. “We’ll start the war from right here,” he told subordinate commanders. The assault forces easily carried their objectives. roosevelt remained on the beach, briefing each arriving regimental commander on his new objective, inspiring their men and directing operations.
Years later, Omar Bradley would say that the single most heroic action he ever saw in combat was "Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach." for his actions that day, Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor—posthumously, because a month after D-Day, Roosevelt suffered a heart attack and died. At that point, he had been selected for promotion to major general and was on orders to take command of the 90th Infantry Division.
The elder Teddy Roosevelt deserves a lot of credit for raising a fine son. But the Army Reserves turned that son into a Soldier and that Soldier into a wartime commander.
At VA, we are determined to fulfill President Obama’s charter to transform the Department into a 20th century organization—to better serve all Veterans. Our proposed 2011 budget, builds on the president’s tremendous, 15 percent budget increase for 2010, which focuses on three concerns of critical importance to Veterans:
Access: There are 23 million Veterans in this country—roughly 8 million of them are enrolled in our healthcare system, about 5 million use our healthcare services at least once a year, and around 3 million use us regularly—weekly. We reach out to the other 15 million Veterans to insure they know about their benefits and our services. Access also means reaching those Veterans, who live in the rural areas of this country, where VA presence is limited. Our community-based outpatient clinics, temporary outreach clinics, mobile clinics on wheels, and investments in telehealth technologies are strategies for changing the access profile.
Backlog: VA claims are up 75 percent since the year 2000. We expect another 30 percent increase in 2011. To keep up with the claims increase and to also shorten waiting times, VA’s proposed 2011 budget would fund over 4,000 more claims processors. We already have 11,400 people processing claims. That’s the equivalent of the 82nd Airborne Division without parachutes. The 2011 budget would add another heavy brigade to that effort. Until automation tools, which we and DOD are designing together, arrive, brute force has been our traditional approach to faster and better processing.
This will change. The long-term solution to the claims backlog is a new information system called V-LER, the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, which is being developed by VA and DOD. V-LER will track each member of our military forces—active and reserve component— from the day they first put on the uniform until the day they are laid to rest. This will transform our benefits administration—faster processing, better decisions, no lost records, fewer errors.
VLER will also facilitate transitioning between active and reserve status by providing health-care providers in DOD, at VA, and in the private sector access to the same health records. When you’re not on active duty, most of your care will come from the private sector. To assure the safest, most appropriate health care, all your care-givers, with your permission, should have access to your medical records. V-LER will allow them that access.
Homelessness: Over the next five years, we are going to take 131,000 homeless Veterans off of our streets. I learned a long time ago that there are no absolutes in life. Setting a course to end Veteran homelessness is pretty close to an absolute. But, unless we set an ambitious target, none of us would not be working this issue hard enough.
Beyond these three broad initiatives— increase access, reduce the backlog, and end homelessness—VA is particularly focused on outreach to the Reserve component. As Guard and Reserve members return from combat tours, they are entitled to five years of free VA health care and 180 days to obtain a one-time dental evaluation and treatment. This means we must get them quickly enrolled in VA. Mailed letters have not been enough. We have designed an aggressive plan, including leveraging proactive use of social media—blogs, tweets, and Facebook.
We have designed the “Seven Touches of Outreach.” The goal of this program is to engage Guard and Reserve Veterans at least seven times during the deployment cycle, with targeted messages and face-to-face encounters with VA staff members.
Touch Point 1 is our demobilization initiative to ensure RC units returning from a combat zone are engaged by VA during out-processing at the 61 demob sites. It started out spotty, responding to the ones we knew about. Since May 2008, we have supported over 1,295 demob events, briefed over 80,000 Veterans, and enrolled over 78,000 of them , for a 97.5% enrollment rate.
Touch point 2 is VA’s individual ready reserve muster [IRR], initiated last May to inform IRR reservists of their enhanced VA health and dental benefits. Over 8,000 reservists have attended IRR musters.
Touch point 3 is VA’s Combat Veteran Call Center, which telephones OEF/OIF Veterans to ensure they are aware of VA services and benefits. In its first year, the call center made over 700,000 phone calls and contacted 504,000 RC members.
Touch point 4 is DOD’s Yellow Ribbon Program, where VA staff are present for yellow ribbon events, which were initiated in 2009 for each of the services, during the 30-60-90 days post-deployment cycle.
Touch point 5 is DOD’s Post-Deployment Health Reassessment. VA supports the health assessment conducted by DOD providers and is able to link Guard and Reserve Veterans with appointments to VA for mental health or other follow-up requirements.
Touch point 6 is VA’s partnership with the National Guard and the training of transition assistance advisors who work for the Adjutant General in each state.
Touch point 7 is the new Internet Webpage for OEF/OIF Veterans. The site uses blogs and other social media tools to engage this new generation of Veterans. There is also a section on the Website for women Veterans and family members.
You can also help, by talking to your troops and stressing the importance of registering with VA as soon as they are eligible. Some may view VA as an organization for old men—but it will become important to them in 20 or 30 years, as evidenced by our inventory and backlogged number of disability claims.
I have learned a lot in this first year at VA—most of you know, I didn’t grow up here, and I am not a clinician. So after a year in this appointment, I am caught by two starkly different contrasts of the men and women, who serve and have served in uniform—yours included.
The first image is this—each year, about 60 percent of high school graduates go on to college. Of the remaining 40 percent or so, some undergo vocational training, and some immediately enter the workforce. Less than one percent of Americans volunteer to serve in our Nation’s Armed Forces.
These young volunteers come from every racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic background from across the entire country. When they reach their first units, they are quickly made valued and trusted members of high-performing teams—
tough, motivated, extremely dedicated. And with inspired and inspiring leadership, they step forward, each and every day, to perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous. Think of what they’ve been asked to do, and what they’ve accomplished, these last years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second image is this—Veterans suffer very high levels of homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides, and they are well up there in joblessness, as well. And while I am reminded that this second image is much smaller—consisting of far fewer individuals—I am still unable to reconcile the two images.
131,000 homeless Veterans sleeping on the streets of this wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. Another 40,000 released from prison each year.
I am familiar with the people who populate both images—they are essentially the same. So, what went wrong? What did we do? What did we fail to do? How did we miss perpetuating the successes so many of them achieved while in uniform? How do we keep those in image one from being swept into joblessness, depression, and substance abuse that often leads to homelessness and, sometimes, to suicide?
Transformation of VA is about answering those questions. It is about keeping faith with our Veterans. And it is about advocacy for them. At VA, we advocate for Veterans—
it is our overarching philosophy, and in time, it will also become our culture.
Thank you for your service and for your leadership of the Reserve Component.
God bless those, who serve and have served, our Nation in uniform—and their families. God bless each of you. And may God continue to bless our wonderful country.