Senator Brown, thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me here today. Let me acknowledge other Members of the Congress who are present; our Veteran Service Organizations, who provide insight and support to our missions; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
Good afternoon, I'm honored to be with you. For 38 years, I had the privilege of serving as a Soldier. Something happens when you are carried out of difficulty on the backs of American Soldiers. It stays with you for the rest of your life. Four years ago, President Obama offered me the privilege of this appointment. Here, I get to care for the folks I went to war with in Vietnam 47 years ago, care for the men and women I sent to war as a service chief, and care for the giants who saved the world during World War II and who saved a nation in the 1950's.
And there is particular satisfaction in being able to help this latest generation of Veterans gain an education and critical training at many of your schools—preparation for professional lives that will help heal our Nation after 12 years of war; help, as the President says, "restore the middle class in this country"; in turn, help strengthen our economy; and help provide bold leadership for this Nation in the years to come.
To fulfill this potential, they must gain from you learning that's essential to underpin such hope, aspiration, and expectation. Importantly, they must graduate. Otherwise, there is no payoff to them, to you, or to the American people, who have underwritten this most generous of education programs. When I speak with student Veterans, I usually deliver a one-word message: "Graduate!" That's it. "Graduate!" No question, we are incredibly proud of their getting into great schools, but they must graduate. As I tell them, "If I sound like your Dad, I am. I'm paying most of your bills."
Ohio has already made great strides in creating a Veteran-friendly atmosphere in higher education by extending to eligible Veterans and family members tuition at in-state rates, waiving the residency requirements to attend the University System of Ohio schools. The "Ohio GI Promise" is a warm and welcoming gesture to the exceptional men and women, who have, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "borne the battle" for all of us.
Last year (FY 2012), over 23,000 Veterans attended Ohio schools, using their VA educational and training benefits, including over 15,000, who used the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
This is a critically important time in our country. Our troops are no longer in Iraq. A drawdown is underway in Afghanistan. The economy shows signs of recovery from years of sluggishness. And the educational opportunities available to Veterans today begin to position them to add momentum to our strengthening economy. As the President remarked during his State of the Union address, a key step in that process is rebuilding the middle class. Your programs are very much a part of enabling Veterans—a piece, but a key piece, of that emerging population—to help lead that effort of rebuilding the middle class in this country. They are ready, just as members of the World War II generation were when they began their post-war journeys nearly 69 years ago.
The original GI Bill only lasted 12 years—1944-1956. Historian Milton Greenberg writes that, when the original GI Bill expired, "the United States was richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-educated individuals."
Those graduates went on to provide our country the necessary leadership to catapult our economy to world's largest and our Nation to world leadership.
Today's Post-9/11 GI Bill is the largest educational assistance program of its kind since the original GI Bill of 1944. We are already four years into it. How long will this investment last? I don't know, but what will not help answer that question would be suboptimal graduation rates. People will expect a return on investment for a program that has expended, to date, over $28 billion. Graduation rates are a metric we should all be attentive to—and here, I'm a bystander, an observer of outcomes, but I will be asked to provide those metrics at some point.
During fiscal year 2012, over one million Veterans and eligible family members used VA's education benefits. They are a sound investment. While I don't know them all individually, I know them as a group. I have a sense of what they've been through. I also have a sense of what they are going through to try to fit into your academic environments, focus on their studies, and do well. They are a unique group—not special, not better—simply unique. Only one in four Americans in the target demographic of 17-24 year-olds meet all of the Army's eligibility criteria for military service.
In the military, these young men and women have been asked to solve complex problems—perhaps helping to oversee the governance of entire villages or parts of major cities—setting up hospitals, building roads, opening schools, dealing daily in a deadly, high-stakes security environment in which goods and services must flow and the populations must be protected. Logistics, not just security, becomes a key determinant of success. They may have coordinated raids involving troops, aircraft, and ground units, where there was little margin for error. Many have served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan enduring the harshest environments and the most dangerous situations. They are courageous, determined, loyal, creative, hard-working, and tremendous at team-building. There is a cumulative effect of having "borne these battles" for over a decade, both physical and mental. Trust is an enormous value, and their relationships are defined by it.
You frequently see the military running in formation because everyone finishes when they do, and the pace is usually faster than the slowest runners, so there's lift from being in a group that seeks to help one another finish. Veterans come to your campuses with these habits and instincts and can quickly find themselves isolated, withdrawn, and uncomfortable. Please get to know them from day one; embrace them and help them find their sense of community. They will blossom when you are able to do that.
President Obama has made hiring Veterans in his administration a top priority, as have many private corporations. At VA, we employ over 100,000 Veterans, a third of our workforce, and our goal is 40 percent. We find that their discipline, determination, leadership, and team-building skills set them apart. They bring the same skills, knowledge, and attributes to your campuses.
Let me touch for a moment on what some might consider the undiscussables, the signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Once they have met your entrance requirements, these injuries do not stop these Veterans from achieving academic success. The vast majority of them work through these issues on their own. Some require some counseling. A few require more formal mental health support. Much as they learned in their units, they are also of immense help to one another; they know what others are going through. It's transitory, and they learn by helping others get through a tough day. VA's array of services and benefits are available to student Veterans on your campuses. For example, VITAL is one of VA's two new campus outreach efforts. VITAL stands for "Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership." Managed by our Veteran Health Administration, VITAL coordinates efforts which connect student Veterans with their local VA medical centers, where they can get the care and counseling they need while still in school. The program is now underway at 21 VA health facilities, partnered with 64 schools, including eight in Ohio, two of which are the University of Cincinnati and Owens Community College.
VITAL has provided face-to-face support to nearly 6,000 student Veterans, helped over 900 enroll in the VA healthcare system, and held over 300 training and education events for campus leadership, faculty, staff and non-Veteran students. Our VITAL program staff are eager to help you serve Veterans.
The other initiative, our VetSuccess On Campus, provides information, counseling, support, and outreach to Veterans and family members on campus. Managed by our Benefits Administration, VetSuccess is at 32 colleges and universities across the country, including Cleveland State University. And just last week, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Ohio State to launch their VetSuccess On Campus program in early summer.
VA recently signed an agreement with the Student Veterans of America (SVA) and the National Student Clearinghouse to track Veteran graduation rates for Post 9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill students. We believe this kind of tracking and collaboration is critical to the success of our education programs.
If you haven't already done so, we hope you will agree to sign on with the Principles of Excellence that the President outlined in his Executive Order last year. These principles seek to ensure that our Servicemembers, Veterans, spouses, and other family members have the information they need to make informed decisions concerning their education benefits.
I ask you to embrace your Veteran-students. Encourage them to organize themselves—that'll be good for them and good for your schools. Provide them a meeting place where they can gather to peer-mentor each other, and let them know they are valued members of your institutions. They will be superb students and add to the education of your non-Veteran students and faculty, as well.
As I tell them, no one can do their work. They must go to class and complete their academic requirements. I need your help to better transition each arriving cohort of Veterans from battlefield to campus. They want an education. Our Nation needs them. Let's find more ways to improve their opportunity to succeed. Many of you are already reaching out and supporting our Veterans. Thank you for your investment in them.
Your efforts will help students like Army Staff Sergeant Emily Heath, a junior pre-medical student at John Carroll University.
Staff Sergeant Heath graduated from high school in 2002, in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, and told her Dad she wanted to enlist. He tried to encourage her to get her degree first, but she decided to join the Army to become an ER/trauma medic specializing in orthopedics. Her "baptism by fire" came when she deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in 2006. Emily spent her first night there bunkered down from mortar attacks. That same week, another female medic was hit by shrapnel. She was frightened, but it soon became apparent that this would be a way of life; she got on with her job.
Due to the large numbers of wounded, she often accompanied the surgeons into the operating rooms. When her tour in Iraq ended, Emily had assisted with over 30 surgeries. She was just 23.
Two months after returning from Iraq, Emily was driving home with a friend when traffic came to a standstill. She could see smoke rising up ahead and thought perhaps one of the local restaurants was on fire. As they approached the intersection they encountered a terrible traffic accident.
A teenage boy and his father were involved in a head-on collision. The father had been thrown out of the vehicle into the middle of the road. No medical professionals had yet arrived on the scene, and just one police officer. So Emily got to work. She stabilized the father, and when the ambulance arrived, told the medics about her training.They let her continue to lead the trauma team until the patients were safely on their way to the hospital.
The media immediately labeled Emily a hero and a Good Samaritan. In Emily's own words, "From day one in [Army] basic training we are given our first true mission. It is not to be a Soldier or Rifleman first but to look to the person on our right and our left. They are all we have, and all we have is each other. We must look out for one another. Whether in or out of uniform…. What if it was your parent, sibling, or best friend lying in the middle of that intersection? By not acting…to me that would be leaving a fallen comrade."
Emily plans to become an orthopedic surgeon and credits her time in the Army as helping her decide her life's future direction. In her admissions letter to John Carroll about her dream of becoming a doctor, she wrote, "I do not have an 'idea' or 'dream' of what it would be like based on television or movies, but of real life experience. My hands have done compressions to bring back the heartbeat of a dying Soldier. My heart broke while sitting alongside another who lost his legs while trying to save his friends, and his only regret was he could not do more to protect them. My soul has flown when saving the life of a child who would have died if not for the medicine we provided."
Staff Sergeant Heath plans to graduate in 2014 and will soon be taking the MCATS and applying to medical school. She serves in the Army Reserves and has no plans to leave. I have no doubt that she will achieve her goals.
Given a chance, Veterans like Emily Heath will prevail as your best students—mature beyond their years and accustomed to working hard to succeed. They are self-starters who work well in teams and with others from diverse backgrounds. Thank you for opening your doors to them and for helping them graduate. We'll all be the better for it.
God bless those who serve and have served the Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.