Let me begin by thanking all of you for the incredible work you do on behalf of Veterans—most especially the heavy lifting you do as volunteers—literally hundreds of thousands of hours last year, alone.
A little over two years ago, President Obama invited me to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I was honored to accept this appointment because it would provide me an opportunity to give back to the folks I went to war with 40 years ago, give back to youngsters I sent to war as a service chief, and give back to the giants, who fought and won World War II and Korea, who raised me and my generation of leaders in the profession of arms. What convinced me, in those first discussions, to accept the President’s invitation was his own passion and commitment, as he described “doing better” by America’s Veterans—a commitment he has reinforced many times over since coming to office.
The course he set for VA is the same course he recently set for the entire Nation during his State of the Union address—win the future. He challenged us all to resurrect our competitive instincts, rekindle our American habits of being the best at everything we do by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building others. And as we do this, he’s asked us all, individually and collectively, to think about how we can do things better—more effectively, more accountably, and more efficiently through the responsible use of the taxpayer dollars entrusted to us. Not just doing things better, but doing the right things better.
At VA, we have been underway on such a journey for two years now. VA began building a set of VA behaviors that would provide the best possible care and benefits to the men and women who safeguarded this Nation through their service and sacrifice. In doing so, we help the Services attract other young men and women to follow in your footsteps to serve the Nation with honor and courage, selflessly, because they know that they will be cared for.
The President told me to take the best care of Veterans possible and to change this department in fundamental and comprehensive ways so that Veterans would be better served throughout the 21st century—in other words, transform VA into a high-performing organization. And he has provided the funding to do that.
Given the economic challenges facing the Nation, VA’s $25 billion increase over two years underscores the President’s and the Congress’s support for VA and its transformation. Our responsibility, inside VA, is to generate a sense of urgency that matches the President’s commitment.
As we know, our military is engaged in two operational theaters, conflicts which have been underway for most of the past decade. Some day those missions will end, but VA’s mission will continue long after the last American combatants depart Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, our requirements to care for the men and women who fought there will still be growing. We must not repeat the shortsightedness of the past, when missions were sometimes declared accomplished and near-immediate cuts made to critical funding needed to responsibly deal with the aftermath of war. If we can recover and repair battle-damaged tanks and helicopters, we must repair the men and women who fought them and return them to useful lives.
Along these lines, many see VA as a healthcare provider. And for the most part, that is true—the largest integrated healthcare system in this country with 152 medical centers affiliated with 107 of the best medical schools in the Nation, 790 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 300 Vet Centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics serving Veterans in highly rural areas. But here’s what’s also true:
Why is the VA enterprise so large and complex? Simple—because in times past, Veterans were unable to acquire or afford these services from others.
In FY 2009, we implemented the new Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill of 1944. To date, over 442,000 Veterans and family members are enrolled in college under this new GI Bill. When you include VA’s other education programs, that number jumps to over 800,000.
Two longstanding health issues that have plagued Veterans for decades were advanced with the support of the Congress: Agent Orange and Gulf War illnesses. Based on an Institute of Medicine 2008 Agent Orange update, VA awarded presumptions of service connection for three new diseases, bringing the total number of Agent Orange presumptions to 15. The President fully supported these presumptions and the Congress has appropriated $13.4 billion to begin making benefits payments to the estimated 250,000 Veterans who will submit claims.
Last March, we also provided presumption of service connection for nine new diseases associated with service during Operation Desert Storm. We will continue searching for causes of these illnesses, but our primary mission is to care and treat the Veterans who suffer from them.
Furthermore, this past July, we simplified claims processing for Veterans suffering from verifiable Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—PTSD. This decision ends decades of forcing Veterans to document a stressor event, and streamlines medical care and benefits to those suffering from combat-related, verifiable PTSD—a longstanding issue for every generation of warfighters. We intend to fix this.
Since FY 2008, we have increased spending on mental health programs by one third, to over $5.2 billion dollars in FY 2011 [vice $3.9 billion]. In FY 2009 and 2010, we hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals. Our mental health staff now totals almost 21,000. We will not allow our Veterans to languish without hope, as has sometimes happened in the past.
In 2011, we continue to attack three critical priorities: increasing Veterans’ access to VA benefits and services; eliminating the disability claims backlog; and ending Veterans’ homelessness. Let me quickly touch on each of them:
Access: First, VA must do much better at ensuring Veterans are aware of our programs and their entitlements. Access includes the points of care I described earlier—hospitals, outpatient clinics, Vet Centers, and mobile clinics. But it also includes telehealth technologies that extend our reach into the most remote rural areas and Veterans’ homes, where life-saving monitoring is ongoing today for roughly 40,000 chronically ill Veterans. In our 2010 and 2011 budgets, we are investing $284 million in telehealth technologies because we see this as the next major breakthrough in healthcare delivery.
Claims backlog: In 2009, we completed 975,000 Veterans’ claims, but took in, for the first time, over a million new claims. Then in 2010, we completed for the first time over one million claims, but received in 1.2 million claims. We expect to receive 1.45 million claims this year—over double the claims we received in the year 2000 [from 578,773 to 1,192,346 in 2010]. This is a big numbers game, and merely hiring more claims handlers won’t get this done.
We’ve launched an aggressive campaign to attack the disability claims backlog on multiple fronts. In the past two years, our Veterans Benefits Administration began moving to automate its processes, accepting on-line applications, conducting an innovation competition to elicit best ideas and practices from the very folks who process claims, launching over 40 pilot programs, and investing over $138 million to create a paperless process by 2013. Faster, better, and more accurate decisions for Veterans.
Homelessness: Nearly 76,000 Veterans live on the streets of our country. As the President has said, “We’re not going to be satisfied until every Veteran who has fought for America, has a home in America.” If you wonder what I will be working on for the next several years, this is it. We will end Veteran homelessness in 2014.
National Cemetery Administration: In FY 2010, NCA performed over 111,000 interments of Veterans and eligible family members [106,000 in 2009] and opened five new national cemeteries. We provide the final resting places for heroes of our Nation, and our cemeteries are the national shrines they deserve.
Why have I provided you this budget level laydown? Because dollars are firepower. If we are to continue the momentum of fixing these longstanding issues, it will be because we enjoy stable, predictable budgets and then hold ourselves accountable for delivering on our promises. We cannot allow our commitment to Veterans to run hot and cold—fully funding one year, skimping in the next. The courage and dedication of our men and women in uniform didn’t run hot and cold, and neither do the long-term needs of Veterans.
The conditions of war have changed: In Korea and Vietnam, the ratio of combat deaths to surviving wounded was one to three; in our first two years in Iraq, it was one to thirteen. The good news—more of our wounded are surviving. Stark reality—more of them are permanently disabled from devastating injuries requiring a lifetime of care. The word polytrauma did not exist before this war.
We have adjusted to this new reality and stepped up to do what’s right. As advocates for Veterans, we will make compelling arguments for budget stability and predictability. Too many young Veterans are counting on us—Veterans like Marine Corporal Todd Nicely.
On 26 March 2010, Corporal Nicely led his squad on a foot patrol near Lakari, Afghanistan. Walking point, he tripped a pressure-detonated IED—improvised explosive device—containing over 40 pounds of explosives.
The blast ripped off his body armor and his helmet—and tore off Corporal Nicely’s right leg and left hand. His left leg was barely attached to his body, and his right arm was shredded badly. Both limbs were subsequently removed.
Todd Nicely is one of our Nation’s three surviving quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has endured innumerable surgeries and has amazed everyone with his resilience. A Washington Post front-page article from late in 2010 revealed his incredible character, the great love of a wonderful spouse, and the support of family and caregivers—but at the core, it is the story of a Marine with the heart of a lion.
What is most striking is his humility in the midst of devastating injury, his resilience and strength of character, and the positive attitude he has exhibited since just moments after the IED went off—struggling each and every day in the face of tremendous pain and adversity.
“I remember screaming once or twice. You know, those blood curdling screams they do in the movies,” he recounted of the moments after the IED went off, “and I remember thinking to myself: ‘Don’t do that again, because this is the last image that these boys are going to have of you in their heads. So stay strong.’ After that, I just shut up.”
At Bethesda, in his first meeting with his 24-year-old wife, Crystal—a wonderful woman every bit as tough as her husband—she asked him if he knew he was missing his legs. He said he did. She then asked him if he knew he was missing his hands. He said no. He was quiet for a moment, and then he asked her, “Did anybody else get hurt?” Crystal told him they did not. His response was one word: “Good.”
A few months ago, members of his unit gathered at Walter Reed Medical Center for an award ceremony. Following remarks by his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel McDonough, in which the colonel said he hoped that his own children might one day have the courage of Corporal Nicely, it was Todd’s turn to speak. Here’s what he said:
“I’d just like to thank everybody. I’d like to thank my platoon for getting me back. If it wasn’t for you guys, I don’t think I’d be alive today. Other than that, I really don’t have much more to say. I love you guys.”
Corporal Todd Nicely’s humility and modesty, his concern for others in his squad even as his own life hung in the balance, are the hallmarks of the fighting spirit that we have witnessed, time and again, amongst this generation of warriors. Whatever service we come from, all of us can see in Todd Nicely and his actions, the essence of the Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis—Always Faithful.
The Todd Nicelys of every war, of every generation, have always remained faithful—to the country, to its Constitution, to their leadership, and to their brothers- and sisters-in-arms. VA will fulfill its end of the bargain and remain always faithful to the men and women who give so much and who need us now and throughout the rest of their lives.
I know I can count on the Marine Corps League to be there for them, too. We will always look to the League for assistance, advice, and advocacy to help us meet our mission.
May God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. May God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.