I am honored to be here this evening to congratulate SVA on its many accomplishments on behalf of Veterans. Since your founding, you have moved quickly to establish yourselves as premier advocates for Veterans seeking better jobs and better futures through education.
You know, better than most, that the transition from highly-structured operational environments to campus life can be demanding—at times, confusing and frustrating. All of you are dealing with it. My hope is that on each of your campuses, you have established sponsorship programs so that each arriving freshman class and every new graduate student undergoes easier transitions than you experienced. That’s what good units do. There may be no company commanders or first sergeants in your midst, but that does not make you less a unit. Your shared experiences, alone, make you one. And you have tremendous organizing skills—learned in the world’s best military. Don’t let them go to waste.
Some of you are entering college for the first time, having volunteered out of high school to serve our Nation. Others are returning to college after having put education on hold, or having left jobs and families behind, to enlist following the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Either way, the transition can be tough because some—perhaps more than some of you—are “carrying baggage.” That’s a euphemism for P-T-S—post traumatic stress. Those who have come home from combat to pursue college degrees understand that transition. It takes time, but we all come through it. On our most difficult days, it’s comforting to have a good formation around you.
Since this GI Bill’s implementation in 2009, over 360,000 Veterans and family members have enrolled in college. When you include all other college education programs, that number exceeds 600,000.
This new GI Bill is important—not only for the numbers who are accepted into schools—but for the numbers who will be graduating from them in the years ahead. That’s the measure of success. No question, we are all proud of you—President Obama foremost, your families, me—for having succeeded in getting into good schools. But I’m dad, here—I want to see you graduate! Unless you do, there is no payoff for you, for this program, or for the Nation. And I will be checking—so get organized, help each other, and graduate!
I can think of no greater service commitment by SVA than to underwrite the graduation of fellow Veterans—leave no one behind. Sponsor in the arriving Veterans, encourage academic excellence—not mere attendance. Mentor, tutor, but do not carry your fellow Veterans. If you do this well, you will not only provide invaluable service to your colleges and universities, you will also earn lifelong commitment from graduates who will go on to lead our country—in business, in government, the non-profits, education, religion, sciences, arts, athletics.
I don’t know whether the drafters of the original 1944 GI had any idea about the impact that their landmark legislation would ultimately have—but we know now, it dramatically reshaped our Nation. By the time it expired in 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II Veterans had been educated. Historian, Milton Greenburg, wrote that the original GI bill enriched America by:
They, and millions of other Veterans, provided the leadership that catapulted our economy to the world’s largest, and our Nation to global pre-eminence. They took their education and leveraged breakthroughs in science, medicine, technology, transportation, and much more. Their discoveries laid the foundation for today’s cutting-edge technologies and created an economically strong, more vibrant and resilient America.
Well, history is poised to repeat itself through you. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has every potential to transform our country in much the same way. You can have an equally resounding impact on America.
You have shouldered heavy responsibilities for the Nation over the past nine years. This new GI Bill clearly demonstrates the Nation’s respect and appreciation for your service and sacrifice, much as it did for your grandfathers following World War II.
When we speak about success after service, we are also speaking about partnerships. It is important that VA and SVA collaborate to better serve Veterans reentering the sometimes daunting civilian world of school and work. VA will always look to SVA for advice and advocacy because we know it takes a concerted effort—hard work on both our parts—to address the challenges facing our latest generation of Veterans, especially during this period of economic difficulty.
I want to assure you that VA is there for you. Thanks to President Obama and the Congress, we are well positioned to provide the best in programs, services, and benefits. Let me tell you why.
President Obama’s 2010 budget of $114 billion represents a 16% increase to last year’s budget, and is the largest single-year increase in over 30 years. His 2011 budget request of $125 billion—an $11 billion, 10% increase over 2010—will give us needed firepower to increase your access to our benefits and healthcare services, and to end the disability claims backlog.
And speaking of claims, in July, we simplified claims processing for Veterans suffering from PTSD. No longer focusing on documenting a stressor event, our new process streamlines the delivery of medical care and benefits to Veterans suffering verifiable PTSD resulting from combat. This is not just about Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a generational issue—and we aim to get it right for every generation that has gone to war for this country, and all future generations that will deploy on missions unknown, today, to places we have yet to hear about.
Mental health is a high-priority issue for VA. Last year, we provided $4.5 billion for mental health programs and launched a workforce surge to bring our staffing to over 20,000. This year, we are spending an additional $379 million.
For traumatic brain injury, we’ve fielded a new disability rating system to improve how claims are evaluated. And we’ve made enormous advances in treating comatose Veterans with the most serious head trauma—those injuries that were thought to be hopelessly irreversible. VA doesn’t accept hopelessness.
USA TODAY recently chronicled some of VA’s breakthroughs at our four “emerging consciousness” programs in Chicago, Minneapolis, Richmond, and Palo Alto. Through innovative care, increased staffing and resourcing, and engaging families as co-providers in treating their loved ones, these centers have brought nearly 70% of their comatose patients back to consciousness—a rate far exceeding the national norm. We are leading the way in this once-thought-hopeless arena.
In this rich and powerful nation, roughly 107,000 Veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the past six years, we have reduced Veteran homelessness by nearly 90,000. We intend to end Veteran homelessness in the next five years.
From healthcare to homelessness, VA is there for any Veteran who needs the care and benefits promised by President Lincoln when, in the wake of an earlier war, he called on America, “to care for [those] who shall have borne the battle.”
We are inspired by stories of young men and women, wounded in battle, whose sheer determination to rise above their injuries have redefined courage for us. Some are in this room tonight. Let me receipt one of their stories.
In applying for college last year, a young Veteran wrote: “On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. My best friend and I talked to an Army recruiter right away. By December, we were both enlisted in the United States Army as tankers.
“Our parents had to sign for us since we were still only 17. I knew I wanted to eventually go to college, but decided to put it off to serve my country. I figured one of the benefits of joining—the GI Bill—would help me pay for a school that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
“After graduation, I completed basic training and was sent to Germany. In February of 2004, we deployed to Samarra, Iraq. I remember my first combat patrol, proudly heading into the city on our tank. I was 19 years old, thinking it was exactly like the photo in the book my dad had given me when I was 7. There were no pictures in that book of what came next. We were ambushed. Two roadside bombs and a landmine hit vehicles in which I was patrolling. Halfway through the tour, I accepted the fact I would be going home in a box. But the tour finally ended and I returned to Germany—alive.
“We refitted and trained, then deployed to Iraq for a second time to Camp Ramadi in the western al Anbar province. Though the violence was nothing compared to the first tour, it only takes one blast. Six months into the tour, I was serving as turret gunner on a humvee when we drove over a roadside bomb—January 30, 2007. My truck commander, and another soldier running up from behind to help us, were both killed. I was thrown about 30 feet straight up into the air and flew about 50 feet away from the vehicle before landing, with a large piece of the truck on top of me.
“The initial radio report listed me as killed in action. Once they found me, I was immediately evacuated, eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I had broken every bone in my right leg, had a piece of it blown off, shattered my knee, cracked and ripped my pelvis open, had shrapnel punch through my left leg, shrapnel through my liver, broken my right arm, left hand, shattered most of my teeth, and had a traumatic brain injury. Two years and more than 15 surgeries later, I am ready to start down a new path.
“I don’t regret my decision to join the Army. I’m proud of my service and I know I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the friends who were with me in Iraq, and even more than that, if God had not been with me. I made a promise to God and my friends that I would succeed and make something of myself. I can never get my friends back, but I can honor their memory and sacrifice by doing something worthwhile and meaningful with my life.
“I do have trouble remembering things sometimes. All that means is that I will have to work harder to reach my goals. But, I am no stranger to hard work. I manage to succeed at whatever I put my mind to because I absolutely refuse to give up, quit, or fail. I would like the opportunity to study architecture at Catholic U.—for myself, to fulfill my potential—and to fulfill the promise I made to God and to my friends who never left the combat zone. I hope you will give me that chance.” Signed, Evan Cole.
Sergeant Cole’s college application essay carried the day—he was accepted to enter Catholic University in January of this year. He completed the semester with a 4.0 average. Last month, he started his second semester at the School of Architecture and is off to a great start with an “A” on his first math exam.
Evan Cole is just one of the Veteran-students being educated in classrooms all across America. Like you, he embodies the fighting spirit that has made our Nation great—from Bunker Hill to Baghdad and beyond.
His story is not an isolated narrative. There are those in this audience who have demonstrated the same levels of perseverance and drive.
In closing, let me turn to the words of another young president who placed so much hope, faith, and trust in the young people of America. In the speech he was to deliver in Dallas on the day he was assassinated, President Kennedy had written, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” I know President Obama shares that view because it is right.
So, as you pursue your degrees, you are preparing yourselves for leadership—of your communities and our country. You are America’s future—the ones who will lead this great Nation well into the 21st century. And just as the president and I believe that individual Americans are, and always will be, America’s most powerful resource, we also know that the young men and women who stood in our military formations will always be America’s measure of courage, perseverance, and patriotism. Few have given more in devotion and service to their fellow citizens.
I salute every one of you in the audience this evening. Graduate—make us proud—continue to serve the Nation.
God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.