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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

The American Legion Mid-Winter Conference
Washington, DC
March 22, 2011

National Commander Foster—Thank you for that kind introduction, and for the invitation to join you today.

Let me also acknowledge your Vice Commanders: Russell Henry, Midwest Region; Gene Pytka, Northeast Region; Bill Schrier, Western Region; John Mella, Central Region; and Carlos Orria-Medina, Southeast Region.

  • Peter Gaytan, your Executive Director, and Dan Wheeler, your Adjutant.
  • Dan Dellinger, National Legislative Chairman.
  • Carlene Ashworth, Auxiliary President
  • National Commander, David Dew, Sons of The American Legion.

Let me congratulate your honorees, Congressman Jason Altmire and Senator Daniel Akaka. Each has been a tremendous supporter and tireless worker on behalf of Veterans and their families, and survivors. They are most deserving of your recognition. Congratulations to them, once again.

  • Members of the Legion.
  • Fellow Veterans.
  • Other distinguished guests, including assistant secretary Ray Jefferson.
  • Ladies and gentlemen.

I salute the Legion’s longstanding devotion to our Nation’s Veterans.

Last week, I attended the funeral of Frank Buckles, who enlisted in the Army at age 16—the last known American Veteran of the War to End All Wars. When asked, in his later years, why he lied about his age to serve in World War I, he said: “If your country needs you, you should be right there; that is the way I felt when I was young, and that’s the way I feel today.”

On the eve of battle during World War II, Marine Lieutenant Anthony Turtora, wrote his family: “Always pray, not that I shall come back, but that I will have the courage to do my duty.” Killed in the battle at Guadalcanal, Lieutenant Turtora joined, what is today, the more than one million Americans who have, throughout the nearly 235-year history of our republic, placed their most precious gifts on the altar of freedom.

With your help and support, 2010 was a good year for Veterans. For two years now, we have been teaching three fundamental behaviors and three key priorities—six simple rules of thumb.

The three behaviors: First, people-centric. We serve Veterans, and people count. They must be properly trained, properly motivated, with the right attitudes, and enjoy inspiring leadership.

Next, results oriented. We must be able to measure return on any investments we make. If we can’t measure, we won’t invest.

Finally, forward-looking. We look out five years to envision the VA we will need—in terms of training, equipment, and leadership, if we are to better serve Veterans—and decide how to get there.

These three key behaviors are focused on the three key priorities we have been emphasizing for the past two years now: Increase Veteran access to VA benefits and services now; reduce and, ultimately, eliminate the backlog in disability claims in 2014; and finally, end Veterans homelessness by 2015.

Three fundamental behaviors—people-centric, results oriented, forward-looking. And three key priorities—access, backlog, homelessness. We have momentum in each of these initiatives and expect to see major deliverables over the next two years.

On 14 February, President Obama submitted his 2012 budget and 2013 advance appropriations requests, and in doing so, kept his promise to care for those who have safeguarded this Nation. His budget requests $132.2 billion in 2012—$61.9 billion in discretionary funding and $70.3 billion in mandatory funding. Our discretionary budget request represents an increase of $5.9 billion, or 10.6 percent, over the 2010 enacted budget.

While each document—budget request and advance appropriations request—is important enough on its own, taken together, they are powerful in terms of energy, opportunity, and continuity thanks to Congress’ granting the advance appropriations authority on which you worked so hard. So, while VBA, benefits, and NCA, cemeteries, like other departments and agencies all across government, are dealing with a continuing resolution, VHA is fully funded to deliver healthcare to Veterans throughout 2011.

It’s often noted that less than 1 percent of Americans serve in our military. Those who do allow the rest of us to do what Americans do best—and that’s out-think, out-create, out-work, and out-produce the rest of the world. They help unleash our powerful economic engine, enabling us to do what we’ve historically done—and that’s win.

I know the economy has lost a bit of sparkle for the moment, but I trust the instincts, the energy, the creativity, and the intellect of the American people to get us back on course. President Obama has challenged us to win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our competition, and this budget helps Veterans and VA do our part.
Today, our military remains operationally deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan—conflicts that have been underway for most of the past decade. The burden on our magnificent all-volunteer force and its families to accomplish every mission—without failure, fanfare, or complaint—has been enormous.

And as they redeploy home, and return to their communities, the Nation must find ways to offer them the opportunity to add their substantial skills, knowledge, and attributes to that powerful economic engine.

VA’s mission is crucial to their transition home. As President Lincoln reminded us 146 years ago, we “care for [those] who have borne the battle and [their spouses] and orphan[s].”

Those requirements and responsibilities have grown as we addressed longstanding issues from past wars—Agent Orange, Gulf War Illness, combat PTSD—and watched the injuries and illnesses from the current conflicts grow significantly. These numbers will continue to rise for many years, perhaps decades, after the last American combatant departs Iraq and Afghanistan. You understand this reality. You have lived it, and we must ensure that the lessons of that history are not forgotten.

VA is a large organization with a correspondingly large budget and diverse and complex mission. We provide healthcare, disability benefits, pensions, home loans, life insurance, and educational assistance, and run the Nation’s largest cemetery system, which has outperformed every other enterprise in this country for the past decade—public or private, profit or non-profit.

Some ask, why is the VA enterprise so large and complex? Why is the federal government doing so many things for Veterans? Simple. Because in times past, those who wore our Nation’s uniforms were often unable to either acquire, or afford, these services on their own. No one would provide them. And so, VA has been missioned to deliver the promises of presidents and meet the obligations of the American people.

At present, about 8.4 million Veterans receive VA medical care and benefits. But another 14.3 million Veterans and 35 million spouses and adult children, who do not receive such care and benefits, still see themselves as Veterans or parts of Veterans’ families, whether or not they ever visit our medical centers or apply for disability. They expect us to get things right for the Veterans we do serve.

Over the next two years, we intend to produce the following deliverables:

Homelessness. President Obama strongly supports ending Veteran homelessness by 2015. Two years ago, there were approximately 131,000 homeless Veterans on any given night. Today, we estimate there are about 76,000 homeless Veterans. We intend to take this below 60,000 by June of next year, and end Veteran homelessness by 2015.

The 2012 budget includes $939 million to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans, an increase of 17.5 percent, or $140 million over 2011.
A comprehensive review is underway to use VA’s inventory of vacant or under-utilized buildings to house homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. VA has identified 94 sites which will potentially add another 6,300 units of housing through public/private ventures using VA’s enhanced-use lease authority. This EUL authority is scheduled to lapse at the end of calendar year 2011, and its re-authorization by Congress is needed to continue increasing housing for homeless Veterans and their families. We are asking Congress to help us here.

The most flexible and responsive housing option remains the HUD-VASH voucher, on which we work closely with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both Secretary Donovan and I endorse the importance of this joint effort. HUD-VASH vouchers are our only option, at the moment, for housing Veterans with families.

The claims backlog. In 2009, we produced 977,000 claims decisions, but took in one million claims in return. In 2010, for the first time, we produced a million claims decisions, but took in 1.2 million claims. We expect 1.45 million claims to be submitted this year and know that we will produce another record in claims decisions—but still fall short. This growth is tied, in part, to the economic downturn. The numbers are so large that merely hiring more claims processors won’t allow us to dominate the growth. We must automate, and quickly. The 2012 budget request for VBA is $2 billion, an increase of $330 million, or 19.5 percent, over the 2010 budget.

These funds are needed to get us out of paper and into electronic processing, something that should have happened two decades ago. Automation alone is not enough, we must also increase accuracy—today 84 percent, 2015—98 percent. We have a host of promising options being piloted today. We expect them to begin paying off next year as we begin moving to fully automate the disability claims process. The president’s budget request for VBA provides $148 million to complete pilot testing and fielding of our paperless Veterans Benefits Management System.

The GI Bill. The budget request supports expanded eligibility for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits by including non-college degree programs, such as on-the-job training, flight training, and correspondence courses. It also funds full automation of the payment process by the end of this calendar year, speeding tuition and housing payments to eligible Veterans. Through October 2010, VA issued over $7 billion in tuition, housing, and stipends to more than 423,000 student-Veterans and eligible family members. When all educational initiatives are rolled together, enrollments grow to over 800,000 Veterans and family members in college. This program is working thanks to Congress’ generosity.

Mental health. This budget request seeks nearly $51 billion for medical care, including $6.2 billion for critically required mental health programs—$68 million directly to our suicide prevention initiatives alone. Our focus is on treatment for post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and other psychological and cognitive health requirements, as well as greater collaboration between the Departments of Defense and VA to seamlessly provide mental healthcare.

In addition to these major initiatives, the new budget recognizes the tremendous responsibilities and financial burdens assumed by Veterans’ caregivers, and provides funding for specialized training, stipends, healthcare, and mental health services. It is hard to overstate the tremendous sacrifices they make every day to help all Veterans. They are VA’s historic and mission-critical partners, deserving of our continued support, assistance, and gratitude.

The new budget also invests in the healthcare needs of women Veterans, wherever they seek care. It provides operations and maintenance funding to NCA to establish a new standard for providing nearly 90 percent of the Veteran population a burial site within 75 miles of their homes. Finally, the 2012 budget request continues robust funding for the rural health initiatives we funded in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Let me close with a reminder about why VA must look beyond today and position itself for its responsibilities over the coming decade. On 26 march 2010, Marine Corporal Todd Nicely, walking point for his squad near Lakari, Afghanistan, tripped a 40-pound, pressure-detonated IED [improvised explosive device], ripping off his body armor and helmet, tearing off his right leg and left hand, and ultimately costing him his left leg and right arm as well.

Amazingly resilient through innumerable surgeries, Todd Nicely is one of our Nation’s three surviving quadruple amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Washington Post recently told his incredible story of survival, adjustment, love, and support—but at its core, it described a Marine with the heart of a lion. What shines through are Todd’s resilience, humility, strength of character, and an incredibly positive attitude from somewhere deep within.

“I remember screaming once or twice. You know, those bloodcurdling screams they do in the movies,” he recounted of the moments immediately after the IED went off, “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 their reunion at Bethesda, his 24-year-old wife, Crystal—a wonderful woman every bit as tough as her husband—asked him if he knew his legs were missing. He said he did. She then asked him if he knew that his hands were also missing. He said “No.” He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Did anybody else get hurt?” Crystal said “No.” His response was one word—“Good.”

During an awards ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with members of his unit present, Lieutenant Colonel McDonough, Todd’s battalion commander, said that he hoped that his own children might one day have the courage of Corporal Nicely. When it was his turn to speak, Todd said simply, “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.”

Todd Nicely’s toughness, his courage, concern for squad mates—even when his own life hung in the balance—and his quiet humility are hallmarks we have witnessed time and again amongst this generation of warriors, and warriors of previous generations. 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.”

I am told “polytrauma” was not a word until this conflict. Todd Nicely, and others like him, is going to need VA for a long time. We must posture VA for the future we can already see today. We must remain “always faithful” to the men and women who have gone into harm’s way on our behalf.

We have come a long ways over the past 26 months, but we have a lot more work to do. My report to you today underscores the fact that this administration, VA itself, and our partners like The American Legion, will spare no effort in serving the generations of men and women whose love of freedom, and dedication to democracy, have raised America up to greatness.

I look forward to working with you in our mutual calling. May God bless all who serve and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.