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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

American Legion Mid-Winter Conference
Washington, DC
March 3, 2009

Dave Rehbein, thank you for that kind introduction.

My name is Shinseki. I am a Veteran, and I am most honored to be serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Born in Hawai’i about a year after Pearl Harbor, I grew up under martial law in the 1940’s. Korea followed closely on the heels of World War II, and then, Vietnam became my turn to go to war in 1966. The next 37 years slipped by quickly. I never had a bad day as a soldier, because those with whom I served never let me have a bad day.

This appointment as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a calling that offers me an opportunity to give back to those who have served with and for me in uniform, and to those heroes of World War II and Korea on whose shoulders I stood and still stand today, as I grew up in the profession of arms.

It’s been six weeks since my confirmation as secretary, and it has been fast-paced, stimulating, and spirited. A century and a half ago, President Lincoln delivered his oft-repeated call to action, “. . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Though he was clearly speaking about those who had fought in the most divisive and destructive conflict in our Nation’s history, his words have come to reflect on all who have worn our Nation’s uniforms in peace and in war.

One such individual was PFC Alford McLaughlin, United States Marine Corps. On the night of 4-5 September 1952, in Korea, having volunteered for a second continuous mission on a strategic combat outpost line, far in advance of his unit’s main battle area, Private McLaughlin successfully defended his position under enemy artillery and mortar barrages by delivering devastating fires from his two machine guns and his carbine on enemy forces attacking in battalion strength. Laying his weapons on the cool earth to keep them from overheating, Private McLaughlin accounted for 150 enemy killed and 50 wounded. For conspicuous gallantry in battle, PFC McLaughlin was awarded the Medal of Honor, our Nation’s highest award for valor. No one trained him to respond as he did, and no commander can anticipate who, in any formation, will rise to the moment and respond this way under fire. And so, they accept that the spark of such heroism resides in the breast of every member of the formation awaiting the right set of circumstances to be ignited.

We have, you and I, the opportunity to answer Lincoln’s call for men and women such as these during our watch.

Your counsel is important to me, so I welcome your advice on how to reinforce the time-honored covenant between America and her Veterans. We have worked together on behalf of America’s Veterans for nearly ninety years. The VA owes its existence, in part, to the Legion. You lobbied for the creation of the Veterans Bureau in 1921, and fought long and hard to see that bureau become, first, an administration in 1930, and then a cabinet-level department in 1989.

The Legion has often walked point on legislative reforms affecting Veterans—its accomplishments are legend. Two years before the first great waves of Veterans began returning home from the fight against fascism during World War II, Harry Colmery, one of your past National Commanders, sat down in his room at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, D.C., and wrote out on hotel stationery the first draft of the G.I. Bill of Rights. Congress passed that legislation the following year, which began to change our Nation over the next 50 years as Veterans used their educational opportunities to rise to leadership roles in every venue in the country—from government to education to science and religion to business and non-profit and even in the military. At the end of the 20th Century, the United States stood alone as a global superpower, all from the power of ideas of one person.

The Legion was also out front on the post-9­­­/11 G.I. Bill, and it has taken the lead in support of today’s Veterans through a host of good works:

  • Tens of thousands of your volunteers have donated millions of hours through the VA Voluntary Service Program—1.3 million hours last year alone.
  • Your Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission provides direct assistance to Veterans and their families to make sure they receive the benefits and honors they deserve.
  • Your “Heroes to Hometowns” program helps severely injured Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan learn to persevere despite their injuries.
  • Your annual “Legacy Run” raises money for academic scholarships for children of service members killed in the current conflict.
  • Your auxiliary co-sponsors the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, supporting the use of the arts in recreation therapy at VA facilities.
  • And your Legion family actively works to make sure Americans don’t forget our Veterans currently serving, through your Blue Star Banner campaign.

Many returned from Vietnam to a Nation deeply divided by the war and whose treatment of Veterans oscillated somewhere between indifference and hostility. I want to thank the American Legion for not letting this country forget its wartime Veterans, a tradition that continues today.

I ask you to be as proactive and forward-thinking about our future direction as you have been in your past. President Obama has a vision for change at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I am fully committed to helping him achieve it. That vision requires transforming VA into an agile, adaptive organization that is capable of leading change, not waiting to be dragged into it. We will review the fundamentals in every line of operation we manage. To begin, I’ve asked for a review of every large meeting and conference we sponsor to insure that we are focusing on training to better serve Veterans, rather than merely gathering socially. To date, we have recouped $16 million for reinvestment elsewhere. As your advocate, I intend to represent you forcefully.

I appreciate your support of the good people at VA. A large percentage of them are Veterans themselves. We have over 280,000 employees—they work in 153 Medical Centers, 755 Outpatient Clinics, 230 VetCenters, 128 National Cemeteries, 57 Regional Offices, and the Central Office in Washington, D.C. To a person, they are committed to our mission and devoted to our clients. I am proud of them all.

But, as dedicated and loyal as they are, we face significant challenges in the months and years ahead:

  • The economic downturn stresses Veterans and their families, in turn, straining local, state, and federal resources for Veterans’ care;
  • Implementing the new GI Bill, the Outreach Improvement Act, and the re-authorization of VA benefits to Priority Group 8 Veterans challenges our own agility as an organization;
  • Budgetary pressures, given the state of the economy, will likely collide with increasing demand for our services and benefits;
  • The connectivity between TBI, PTSD, mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide ideation requires quick and effective solutions for all affected Veterans;
  • And the need to expedite access to high-quality benefits and services in a timely, consistent, and equitable manner remains a priority.

This is clearly a time of great challenge, but it is also a time of greater opportunity. It provides us an interval to re-set the VA’s key vectors for the 21st Century. Teamwork, initiative, innovation, and the highest levels of integrity, transparency, and performance are what’s needed to transform the department.

There was a time when I used to remind folks to “take care of our people—they will take care of the mission.” It will be our people who will generate change, keep us relevant, and exceed our expectations—not technology or processes. So transformation is, ultimately, a leadership issue. I am proud of our people, and I intend to lead them through transformation.

Where we lead, we will continue to do so; where we do not, we will regain a position of preeminence. From delivering cutting-edge medical care to answering a simple benefits inquiry, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce. Training and continuous learning, communications and team-building—these will be the attributes of a culture of achievement.

At the end of each day, we will be measured by our accomplishments, not by our promises. Veterans, Congress, and the American people expect that, and I do, as well.

Finally, we will continually challenge ourselves to find ways of working smarter and more efficiently. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base, and emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.

To begin addressing these issues, I am developing a credible and adequate 2010 budget request. The long-term priority will always be to transform the VA into a 21st Century organization, but we must begin from where we are and build momentum quickly.

In closing, let me acknowledge another special Veteran—Roy Benavidez. Master Sergeant, then Staff Sergeant, Roy Benavidez, Fifth Special Forces Group, was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry on 2 May, 1968. Hearing that three attempts to remove a Special Forces team from a desperate firefight had failed, and knowing that all 12 of the team members were either dead or wounded—unable to move to their pickup zone—Sergeant Benavidez voluntarily boarded an aircraft returning to make another attempt. He directed the pilot to a clearing, jumped from the aircraft, and ran 75 meters through withering fire to the team. During that run, he was wounded in the right leg, face, and head. Despite his wounds, he took charge, directed fire, marked the position with smoke for another aircraft, and carried or dragged half of the wounded team members to it. As enemy fire intensified, he ran to recover the body and classified documents of the dead team leader—and was again severely wounded by small-arms fire in the abdomen and by grenade fragments in his back. Unfortunately, the extraction aircraft was shot down and the pilot killed. Despite his wounds, Benavidez secured the documents and gathered the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. While directing tactical air strikes and gunship fire, he was wounded yet again in his thigh—but still engaged and killed at least three enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand fighting and with small arms while ferrying his fellow warriors to yet another extraction aircraft. With little strength remaining, he made one last trip to the perimeter to ensure all classified material had been collected or destroyed, and to bring in the remaining wounded. Only then did he allow himself to be pulled into the extraction aircraft and flown to safety.

We are proud to call men and women like MSG Benavidez, PFC McLaughlin, and their comrades our clients—they have already retained our services and have every right to expect the highest quality of care, delivered in a timely, consistent, and fair manner. From the oldest warrior of our “Greatest Generation,” to the youngest warrior of our “latest generation”—they deserve nothing less.

You have my intense respect and admiration for all that you do. I look forward to working with you. God bless you all, God bless our Veterans, and God bless America. Thank you.