Welcome home, VVA! It's great to be here with you in Jacksonville.
John [Rowan, National President], thank you for that kind introduction, and more importantly, thank you for your leadership of Vietnam Veterans of America. To you and Rick Weidman, your Executive Director for Government Affairs, your Vice President Fred Elliott, and other members of your leadership, I appreciate your standing with the President and this Secretary on all the things we have been accomplishing for Veterans.
Let me also acknowledge:
Fifty years ago, at a State Department press conference, President Kennedy raised the importance of continued American engagement in Vietnam to prevent a collapse of Southeast Asia.
That commitment eventually led to each of us who serviced in Vietnam. Not all of us made it home safely; 58,286 names are inscribed on the wall in Washington D.C. We remember them all with respect and admiration for their service and their sacrifice on behalf of our Nation.
I am especially honored to be speaking with you, once again. When I was appointed in 2009, I noted that the average Secretary of Veterans affairs served about three-and-a-half years. So, I said then that we had to move quickly to get as much done as possible in the time that we had. I needed help to take on some tough issues: (1) Increasing Veterans access to VA's benefits and services; (2) Eliminating the backlog in disability claims; and finally, (3) Mobilizing a national initiative to end Veterans' homelessness in this country. I am grateful for the support you provided as we took on these priorities.
In the four-and-a-half years since January 2009, the leadership of the President, the support of the Congress, the advice and assistance of Veteran service organizations, like VVA, and a close, personal, working relationship with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, and now Chuck Hagel, have enabled some significant achievements:
Generating momentum over the past four-and-a-half years has been challenging, but with your support, we have kept our sights on what was best for Veterans. Today, I'd like to address four important issues: the claims backlog, mental health, the disabilities treaty, and the healthcare law.
First, the backlog: Let me be clear—no Veteran should have to wait to receive benefits that have been earned. The claims backlog is a decades old problem, and we've committed to eliminating it—not reducing, not better managing—but eliminating the backlog. No claim over 125 days, 98 percent accuracy. We've said all along it would take time to solve this correctly. But, we are not going to leave this for another secretary and President to wrestle. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
We developed a plan and, over the past four-and-a-half years, resourced it. We are executing that plan today. First, we decided it was important to take care of some "unfinished business" from previous wars—three new diseases attributed to Agent Orange exposure, primarily for Vietnam Veterans; nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness; and service-connected PTSD for combat Veterans from all our wars. Taking care of "unfinished business" for Veterans of previous wars was bound to increase the total number of disability claims in our system—logical. At the same time, we predicted that the number of backlogged claims—those older than 125 days—would also increase. Again, logical. We testified to these projections three years ago in announcing our decisions to grant service connection.
It was the right thing to do then, and it would be the right thing to do today. At the same time, we promised to develop an automation system that would help eliminate the entire idea of a backlog in disability claims. We have done that. As mentioned earlier, VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—is now fielded to all 56 of our Regional Offices—six months ahead of schedule. We projected, three years ago, that the backlog would grow, because of those decisions to increase access. But, we also predicted it would then begin to recede during 2013.
And, that is underway—the backlog is declining. In March of this year, the backlog reached an all-time high of over 611,000 claims. Yesterday, it fell below 490,000 claims, a drop of over 121,000 claims in roughly 150 days. By the end of 2013, most year-old claims will be out of our system, and we will be focused on a steady take down of the backlog. Today, VA has the lowest number of claims in processing since 1 March 2011—under 773,000. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in 2015.
Next, mental health: More troops are surviving combat today, and after nearly 12 years of combat, their injuries are serious and their issues complex. Many combat Veterans carry with them the baggage of war—PTS, post-traumatic stress—which can include anxiety, increased irritability, a sense of numbness, flashbacks, and feeling depressed. Most of us are able to work through PTS on our own, with the help of strong families and other support mechanisms. Some Veterans incur the "D"—PTS-D—disorder. Unlike PTS, which most transition on their own, PTS-D requires professional help. Here, again, people get better with treatment.
During tough economic times, as we have experienced for the past five years, any prolonged unemployment exacerbates stress, prolonging transitions for those returning from combat with PTS, or prolonging treatment for those with PTS-D. We want to address these issues directly—and early—before complications begin a downward spiral towards depression, substance abuse, anger issues, job loss, breakdowns in relationships, homelessness, and sometimes, suicide.
The longest war in our history and these higher survival rates have sensitized us all to the mental well-being of Servicemembers and Veterans, including the need for better tools for identifying and treating their issues.
In the past, we often thought simplistically in terms of "normal and healthy" on one hand, and "mentally ill and unreliable" on the other. Such thinking created an obvious stigma against seeking help. If you were among the "normal and healthy," you didn't seek professional help for mental or emotional issues, because just seeking help moved you over into the "mentally ill and unreliable" category. And, once there, there was the chance of not being able to get back.
Today, we know that mental wellness is an issue for many people, and that we all, at times, could use some counseling in dealing with life's difficulties. So, at VA and DoD, we encourage Veterans and Servicemembers to seek treatment without being ostracized.
Bottom line: PTS, PTS-D, TBI, and even depression—all are treatable, if we are able to convince Veterans to seek treatment. Any Veteran dealing with these issues is not damaged goods. What they need are jobs, education, and quality healthcare—a real shot at joining the middle class to help rebuild our economy.
Through the strong leadership of the President and the support of the Congress, we continue to improve access to mental health services. The President's budget requests between 2009 and 2014 increased VA mental health funding by nearly 57 percent. For FY 2014 alone, the President's budget request was nearly $7 billion for VA mental health.
Mental health staff levels have also increased to keep pace with Veterans' needs. A year ago, the President directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. VA has exceeded that goal and is now hiring 800 peer support specialists before the end of this year to augment that increase in clinicians.
In June, the President hosted a National Mental Health Summit at the White House to demystify the issues surrounding mental health, especially the stigma against seeking treatment. The White House followed up with a conference several weeks ago, focusing specifically on the mental health needs of Veterans and military families.
At VA, we know that when we "identify and treat," people get better. So, to increase "identification and treatment," we are collaborating at the local level. VA is hosting 151 local Mental Health Summits at each of our Medical Centers, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first was held last month in San Francisco, and all 151 will be completed by October. We are also partnering on 24 pilot projects with federally-qualified community health centers in nine states to get more out of our resources.
One of our most successful efforts is our Veterans Crisis Line. DoD knows it as the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, 24 / 7, to deliver optimal care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over 890,000 calls from Veterans in need. Most importantly, 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
Chatting and texting appeal to those who are comfortable with technology. So, in 2009, we added an on-line chat service, and in 2011, a texting service. Since then, we've engaged almost 118,000 people in on-line chats and texts. Our Crisis Line webpage is averaging about 37,000 visits per month. If we are able to engage Veterans who need help we stand a good chance of averting crisis. We will outreach in every possible way to ensure we are available to Veterans in need.
Let me speak briefly about an issue that is important for our Nation's five-and-a-half million disabled Veterans: ratification of the Disabilities Treaty.
Here in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects all those with disabilities from discrimination and helps to provide equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. However, in some other countries, what we have here isn't always available.
The Disabilities Treaty will help other countries reduce barriers that affect the disabled—including our newest and youngest disabled Veterans, who travel overseas for work, study, and leisure. Importantly, ratifying this treaty enables disabled Americans the same protections abroad as they have here at home.
I served for roughly 10 years in Europe as a disabled Soldier following my tours in Vietnam—learning to walk and run again, convincing the Army I could continue to serve, and learning to adjust to a new reality. I recall the absence of aids for the disabled in many places where I served—ramps, lifts, automatic door openers, among other devices that are commonly available in this country.
This is not a partisan issue. Former-senator Bob dole, a distinguished, combat Veteran of World War II, has supported ratification of this treaty. Doing so would keep faith with generations of disabled Veterans, who have served this Nation faithfully and with distinction. I ask for VVA's support in ratifying an important treaty that seeks to enable disabled Americans, including disabled American Veterans, to travel safely and with dignity, when they go abroad.
Finally, let me touch on the healthcare law that's about to go into effect. Veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and deserve to know and understand what this law means and what choices they have in deciding their healthcare plans. Six points:
As I mentioned at the outset, 50 years ago, President Kennedy committed to keeping troops in Vietnam. In closing, a short story about Vietnam: a Marine, a Soldier, and an Airman—not three different men, but one—Colonel "Bud" Day, who passed away recently.
Bud Day served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—first, as a Marine, then as a Soldier, and finally, as an Air Force pilot. He's been called the most decorated officer in modern U.S. history.
A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Bud Day quit high school in 1942 to join the Marine Corps, serving 30 months in the North Pacific as a member of a 5-inch gun battery. Returning home, he used the original GI Bill to earn both his undergraduate and his law degrees.
His calling to serve led him to join the Army reserve, followed by a direct commission into the Iowa air National Guard in 1950. Within a year, Bud was activated to fly f-84 Thunderjets during two combat tours in Korea.
Following the Korean War, Bud remained in the regular Air Force, flying F-100s. In 1967, just a year away from retirement, he volunteered for a tour in Vietnam and was assigned as the commander of Detachment One, 416th Tactical Fighter squadron, 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phu-Cat Air Base.
On 26 August 1967, while on his 65th mission over North Vietnam, Bud Day ejected after his aircraft was struck by 37mm anti-aircraft fire. During the ejection, his right arm was broken in three places, and he suffered back and eye injuries. He was captured and severely tortured, but soon after his capture, he managed to escape. After spending almost two weeks evading the enemy and making it to the south side of the DMZ—heartbreakingly close to freedom, he was recaptured—receiving gunshot wounds to the hand and thigh in the process. His torture intensified as he was moved across a series of camps until he arrived in Hanoi. He endured a total of five years and seven months in brutal captivity.
Bud Day's determination to resist the efforts of a brutal enemy to break his will, his disregard for his own comfort and safety leading to life-threatening injuries, and his example of living the code of conduct set the example for other American POWs and protected pilots, who were still flying operational missions over North Vietnam. He inspired those imprisoned with him. Heroic in his selflessness, his courage, and his willingness to sacrifice for his comrades, Colonel Day was awarded the Medal of Honor on 4 March, 1976. His story is a legacy of bravery, honor, and devotion for all Americans.
God bless Bud Day. God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.