Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
The American Legion's 95th Annual Convention
August 28, 2013
Good morning. It's good to be with you here in Houston. Jim Koutz, thank you for that kind introduction, and more importantly, thank you for your leadership of the Legion family and for your lifelong service on behalf of Veterans:
- Chairman Miller [House Veterans Affairs Committee];
- The Legion leadership:
- Dan Wheeler—your National Adjutant;
- Peggy Thomas, Auxiliary President—Peggy, let me also thank you for presenting the Auxiliary's "Woman of the Year" award to my wife, Patty—we both are honored by the generosity of this prestigious recognition;
- Kris Huntzinger, Commander, Sons of the American Legion;
- Peter Gaytan—your Executive Director. Let me express personal thanks to Peter and the rest of the Legion's leadership for standing with this secretary on all our efforts to better care for Veterans;
- Legionnaires, fellow Veterans, VA colleagues, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
I am very honored to be here. Last month marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice. You don't have to be much of a student of history to know what our country asked of the young men and women who went to fight there—on very short notice—or how magnificently they fought. To our Korean War Veterans, thank you for doing your duty. You saved a nation and provided us all sterling examples of service and sacrifice. Please stand, if you are able to, and accept our thanks, respect, and admiration. Thank you.
When I was appointed in January 2009, I said that we would move quickly to get as much done as possible in whatever time 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. So, access, backlog, and homelessness became the three major challenges we took on. I asked for your support then, and you gave it to me—and you continue to do so today.
In the four and a half years since January 2009, the Legion's advice and assistance, the support of other Veteran service organizations, and the leadership of the President have enabled some significant achievements:
- VA's budget grew by $40 billion;
- More than 2 million additional Veterans enrolled in VA;
- A net increase of 62 new community-based outpatient clinics gives us, now, a total of 827 CBOCs nationwide—that's more than one new clinic each month for the last 55 months. We have also opened our 151st VAMC—a new, state-of-the-art facility in Las Vegas, our first hospital in 17 years;
- More than 10,800 caregivers have been trained to care for our most seriously injured post-9/11 Veterans;
- More than a million Veteran and family member students have received educational assistance and vocational training through VA;
- An average of 113,000 Veterans a year have been laid to rest in our national cemeteries. Nearly 90 percent of all Veterans now have a burial option within 75 miles of home;
- Veterans' homelessness was reduced by 17 percent between 2009 and 2012, and we expect another reduction when new tallies are released;
- Last year, 70,000 Veteran home mortgage holders who defaulted on their home loans, were kept from foreclosure and eviction because we worked out best arrangements with the appropriate financial institutions—but we weren't able to save everybody, so our work continues;
- Finally, we fielded a new, automated claims system at all 56 VA Regional Offices—VBMS, Veterans Benefits Management System. We are now transitioning out of paper and into digital processing.
Those are our accomplishments. Momentum is up. Your support has allowed us to focus on what was best for Veterans. I know that Vice President Biden spoke to you yesterday, and I'd like to expand on several subjects he touched on and spend the remainder of my time on four important issues that impact Veterans—(1) the healthcare law, (2) the Disabilities Treaty, (3) mental health, and (4) the claims backlog.
First, the healthcare law that's about to go into effect: Veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and they deserve to know how this law applies and what choices they will have in healthcare options. Six points:
- The law is designed to provide healthcare for as many Americans as possible;
- VA wants all Veterans to receive quality care that improves their health and well-being;
- All Veterans currently enrolled in VA healthcare do not have to take any additional steps—VA care meets the new law's standard;
- Veterans not enrolled in VA healthcare can apply for enrollment at any time. Give us a good look—you won't be disappointed;
- Veterans and family members who are not eligible for VA healthcare—and who do not have employer-provided health insurance—should use the new marketplace, which opens October 1, to get coverage under the law;
- Ensuring Veterans receive quality healthcare is a fundamental obligation for VA, and we intend to help Veterans understand their options as the new healthcare law is implemented in the coming months.
Next, ratification of the Disabilities Treaty is important to our Nation's five and a half million disabled Veterans. 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 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 the Legion's support in ratifying an important treaty that seeks to enable disabled Americans, including our disabled Veterans, to travel safely and with dignity, when they go abroad.
Third, mental health: More troops are surviving combat today, and after 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"—PTSD—disorder. Unlike PTS, which most Veterans can transition out of on their own, PTSD requires professional help.
At VA, we know that when we identify and treat, people get better. PTS, PTSD, TBI, and even depression—all are treatable, if we are able to connect with those Veterans in need of help. Veterans dealing with these issues are not damaged goods. They are fully capable of living productive lives. What they need are jobs, education, and quality healthcare—not being ostracized. They deserve a real shot at joining the middle class, so they can help rebuild our economy.
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 the work of our clinicians.
Following the President's National Mental Health Summit in June, and the White House's conference on the mental health needs of Veterans and military families in July, at the President's direction, VA is now hosting local mental health summits at each of our 151 medical centers nationwide, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first summit was held last month in San Francisco, and all 151 summits will be completed by October.
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 those needing assistance—Veterans, their families, and friends. Thirty thousand of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
Here's the bottom line: With strong leadership from the President, 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 is nearly $7 billion for VA mental health. We remember Vietnam, and we are committed to never allowing that to happen to another generation of Veterans.
Finally, the backlog. Let me be clear: No Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. The claims backlog is a decades-old problem, and we 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, and 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 this "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 before the Congress, when we announced our decisions to expand access by granting these service connections.
In February of 2010, I testified to the house Veterans affairs committee that "the volume of compensation and pension rating-related claims has been steadily increasing. . . . Reaching the goal [of no claim over 125 days] will become even more challenging because of additional claims we expect to receive related to Veterans' exposure to Agent Orange. Adding Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease, and b-cell leukemias to the list of presumptive disabilities is projected to significantly increase claims inventories in the near term, even while we make fundamental improvements to the way we process disability compensation claims."
But we went with it. The decision was the right thing to do then, and it would be the right thing to do today. Others may revisit those decisions; I will not. We also promised to develop an automation system that would help eliminate the very idea of a backlog in disability claims. We have done that, as well. As I mentioned earlier, VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—is fielded to all 56 of our Regional Offices—six months ahead of schedule. We projected, three years ago, that the backlog would grow, peaking sometime in 2013, and then begin to recede.
Those projections were funded by Congress, and we have been executing that plan. The backlog, as projected, is in decline. On 25 March 2013, the backlog peaked at a little over 611,000 claims—a huge number. Yesterday, the backlog fell to below 472,000 claims—a drop of almost 140,000 claims in roughly 155 days. By the end of 2013, claims more than a year old will be through the system, and we will be focused on a take-down of the backlog—and we have two years left to finish the job. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to fall—VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in 2015.
Finally, to close, let me share a short story from the Korean War about Jerry Murphy from Pueblo, Colorado. Graduating from college in 1951, Jerry joined the Marine Corps and found himself, a few short months later, commanding a rifle platoon in combat in Korea.
In February 1953, Murphy's platoon was the reserve for his company's coordinated attack against a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most company officers and NCO's were killed or wounded. The leaderless company was stranded on the hilltop, continuing to be battered by determined enemy forces.
Murphy sensed something had gone wrong and immediately seized the initiative to go to the aid of fellow Marines. On the objective, the numbers of dead, dying, and wounded were staggering. Murphy rallied the survivors in the midst of a raging battle, began evacuating the wounded, and organized the withdrawal of his force under fire. He carried many of the casualties out of danger himself and then manned a machinegun to cover the company's withdrawal. Murphy then led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to look for and recover any dead Marines. Wounded twice, he refused medical attention until he had accounted for every Marine and led his rescue party to safety.
Jerry Murphy was the last man to leave that bloody hilltop. For voluntarily risking his life to serve his fellow Marines, 2Lt Jerry Murphy was awarded the Nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
Jerry Murphy came home and served with VA for 23 years—as a counselor and director of Veteran services in New Mexico. And when he retired from VA, he volunteered for another eight years at the Albuquerque VA medical center—it is now named after him. And when he died in 2007, Jerry Murphy was buried, not in his dress blue uniform, but in his VA Volunteer's jacket—as he had stipulated.
First and last a selfless servant, Jerry Murphy was dedicated to the well-being of others. Devotion to fellow Marines led him, time and again, back up that hilltop in Korea. He lived the rest of his life that way.
VA's accomplishments will always be delivered by our good people who work hard, every day, to do the right things for our Nation's Veterans. We have this in common—VA and the Legion—good people devoted to serving Veterans. We have work to be done—nobody's going wobbly—nobody's taking a knee. Veterans are counting on us to deliver.
God bless the American Legion. God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.