Butch, thank you for that kind introduction. Let me also acknowledge:
I’m honored to be here tonight, and to have this opportunity for a civil conversation with some of you—before the Army-Navy football game on 11 December.
I last spoke to MOAA in April 2009, about 100 days into this appointment. I asked a couple of questions and made a promise. I wondered why 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary was still adjudicating Agent Orange claims. And why, 20 years after Operation Desert Storm, we were still trying to determine the causes of Gulf War Illness. I promised to get into VA’s processes and ensure that they were serving Veterans better.
Over the past 22 months, I’ve realized that many see VA only as a healthcare provider. And for the most part, that is true; VA is the largest integrated healthcare system in this country, with 152 medical centers affiliated with 107 of the best medical schools in the Nation, 784 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics serving Veterans in rural areas. But, here’s what’s also true:
In fiscal year 2009, we implemented the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill of 1944. To date, over 365,000 Veterans and family members are enrolled in college under this new GI Bill. When you include VA’s other education programs, that number jumps to over 800,000. These numbers will continue to grow as men and women return to our communities. We need their ingenuity, their leadership, their operational experience, their toughness, their discipline, and their dreams in business and government today. But as I tell them—this is Dad speaking—I’ll be checking graduation rates. Unless you graduate, there is no payoff for you or our Nation.
Over the past 22 months, we’ve established clear priorities and, with the President’s leadership, gained incredible funding support to begin addressing some longstanding issues. Let me highlight what we’ve accomplished thus far and where we’re headed over the next two years:
To deliver on these initiatives, VA must, without hesitation, be an advocate for Veterans. Given the economic challenges facing the Nation, VA’s $25 billion dollar increase over two years underscores the President’s commitment and the Congress’ support for transforming VA. Our responsibility, inside VA, is to generate a sense of urgency that matches the President’s commitment.
We have worked two issues hard—the two questions I raised two years ago: Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness.
A little over a year ago, I received the Institute of Medicine’s 2008 Agent Orange Update. Based on the law and the IOM’s findings, I decided that the evidence was sufficient to award presumptions of service connection for three new diseases—Parkinson’s Disease, Hairy Cell and other chronic b-cell leukemias, and Ischemic Heart Disease—bringing the total number of Agent Orange Presumptions to 15.
The President fully supported these presumptions and the Congress has appropriated $13.4 billion dollars to begin making benefits payments to the 250,000 or so Veterans who are expected to submit Agent Orange claims in the next 12-18 months. Automated payments began last week.
In March of this year, we provided presumption of service connection for nine new diseases associated with service during Operation Desert Storm. We will continue searching for causes of these illnesses, but our primary mission is to care and treat the Veterans who suffer from them.
Furthermore, this past July, we simplified claims processing for Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD. This decision ends decades of forcing Veterans to document a stressor event, and streamlines medical care and benefits to those suffering from combat-related, verifiable PTSD, a longstanding issue for every generation of warfighters. We intend to fix this.
Since fiscal year 2008, we have increased our spending on mental health programs from $3.9 billion to over $5.2 billion dollars in fiscal year 2011—an increase of $1.3 billion dollars. In 2009 and 2010, we hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals, and our mental health staff now totals almost 21,000. Our priority here is to diagnose, treat, and cure; and, if cure is not possible, diagnose, treat, and care must be the standard. We won’t allow our Veterans to languish without hope.
For traumatic brain injury, or TBI, we’ve fielded a new disability rating system to greatly improve how claims are evaluated. We’ve also made enormous advances in treating the most serious head injuries—Veterans who arrive at our polytrauma centers comatose, with injuries that, only a few years ago, were considered irreversible and hopeless. USA Today recently chronicled some of our successes, breakthroughs at our four “Emerging Consciousness” Centers in Tampa, Minneapolis, Richmond, and Palo Alto.
Through innovation, a tripling of staffs, increased resources, and engaging families as co-providers in treating loved ones, VA has brought nearly 70% of our comatose patients back to consciousness, a rate far exceeding the national norm, according to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. At VA, we don’t accept hopelessness—not among the injured, not among the ill, and not among the homeless.
In 2011, we will continue to focus on three critical priorities:
Let me touch on each of them:
Access: First, VA must do much better at ensuring Veterans are aware of our programs and their entitlements. Access includes the healthcare system I described earlier—hospitals, outpatient clinics, Vet centers, and mobile clinics.
But access also includes telehealth technologies to extend our reach into the most remote rural areas and Veterans homes, where life-saving monitoring is ongoing today for roughly 40,000 chronically-ill Veterans. In our 2010 and 2011 budgets, we are investing $284 million dollars in telehealth technologies. We see this as the next major breakthrough in healthcare delivery.
Benefits: In 2009, we completed 975,000 Veterans’ claims—but took in, for the first time, over a million new claims. Disability claims have more than doubled since 2000. We now average over 99,000 new claims each month.
We’ve launched an aggressive campaign to attack the disability claims backlog on multiple fronts, and we have set an ambitious objective: No claim over 125 days in processing and a 98-percent accuracy rate—not just faster, but also better and more accurate decisions.
In the past two years, our Veterans Benefits Administration hired over 4,600 more people, began accepting on-line applications, conducted an innovation competition, launched over 40 pilot programs, and invested over $138 million dollars to create a paperless process by 2013.
Homelessness: Roughly 643,000 Americans remain homeless on any given night. Nearly one sixth are Veterans—107,000 of them. If you wonder what I will be working on for the next several years, this is it. We will end Veteran homelessness in 2014.
National Cemetery Administration, or NCA: In fiscal year 2010, NCA performed over 111,000 interments of Veterans and eligible family members and opened five new national cemeteries. We provide final resting places for the heroes of our Nation, and our cemeteries are the national shrines they deserve.
So, why have I provided you this budget level laydown? Because dollars are firepower. If we are to continue the momentum of fixing these longstanding issues, it will be because we enjoy stable, predictable budgets and then hold ourselves accountable for delivering on our promises.
The Nation has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the past 10 years. The requirements for VA’s services and benefits have grown over that time and will continue growing in the coming years, even after the last warfighter has returned from these operational theaters. For those with life-altering, service-disabling injuries and illnesses, we provide the lifetime of care they earned through their service.
We still have two children of Civil War Veterans on our beneficiary rolls. We still care for 151 beneficiaries from the Spanish-American War of the 1890s. The promises of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley are being delivered today by President Barack Obama. And President Obama’s obligations will be delivered by a future President and Secretary of Veterans Affairs—perhaps years from now. We must make compelling arguments for budget stability and predictability. Too many young Veterans are counting on us.
On 26 March 2010, Marine Corporal Todd Nicely led his squad on a foot patrol near Lakari, Afghanistan. Walking point, he tripped a pressure-detonated IED, an Improvised Explosive Device, containing over 40 pounds of explosives.
The blast ripped off his body armor and his helmet and tore off corporal Nicely’s right leg and left hand. His left leg was barely attached to his body, and his right arm was shredded badly. Both of these limbs were subsequently removed.
Todd Nicely is one of our Nation’s three surviving quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has endured innumerable surgeries and has amazed everyone with his resilience. A recent Washington Post front-page article revealed his incredible character, the great love of a wonderful spouse, and the support of family and caregivers; but at the core, it is the story of a Marine with the heart of a lion.
What is most striking is his humility in the midst of devastating injury, his resilience and strength of character, and the positive attitude he has exhibited since just moments after the IED went off—struggling each and every day in the face of tremendous pain and adversity.
“I remember screaming once or twice. You know, those blood-curdling screams they do in the movies,” he recounted of the moments after the explosion, “and I remember thinking to myself: ‘Don’t do that again, because this is the last image that these boys are going to have of you in their heads. So stay strong.’ After that, I just shut up.”
At Bethesda, in his first meeting with his 24 year old wife, Crystal, a wonderful woman every bit as tough as her husband, she asked him if he knew he was missing his legs. He said he did. She then asked him if he knew he was missing his hands. He said no. He was quiet for a moment, and then he asked her, “Did anybody else get hurt?” Crystal told him they did not. His response was one word. “Good.”
Two months ago, members of his unit gathered at Walter Reed Medical Center for an award ceremony. Following remarks by his former Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel McDonough, in which the colonel said he hoped that his own children might one day have the courage of Corporal Nicely, it was Todd’s turn to speak. Here’s what he said:
“I’d just like to thank everybody. I’d like to thank my platoon for getting me back. If it wasn’t for you guys, I don’t think I’d be alive today. Other than that, I really don’t have much more to say. I love you guys.”
Corporal Todd Nicely’s humility and modesty, his concern for others in his squad, even as his own life hung in the balance, are the hallmarks of the fighting spirit that we have witnessed, time and again, amongst this generation of warriors. Whatever service we come from, all of us can see in Todd Nicely and his actions the essence of the Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis—Always Faithful.
The Todd Nicely’s of every war, of every generation, have always remained faithful—faithful to the country, to our Constitution, to their leadership, and to their brothers-and sisters-in-arms. VA will fulfill its end of the bargain and remain always faithful to the men and women who give so much and who need us and the care promised by President Lincoln in 1865. That promise defines VA’s mission and the reason 300,000 of us come to work every day. We will always look to MOAA for assistance, advice, and advocacy to help us meet mission.
May God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. May God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.