Gerald [Kapinos, Program Director], thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me here today.
I am honored to be here to congratulate SVA on its many accomplishments on behalf of Veterans. When I last spoke to you in October 2010, I congratulated you on moving quickly to establish yourselves as the premier advocacy group for helping all Veterans, but especially OEF-OIF Veterans, find better jobs and better futures through education. I encouraged you then to take a lead role in helping Veterans transition quickly from the highly structured, high-stress, super-vigilant operational environments many of you experienced in the military to a largely unstructured student life—yet not without its own demands, confusion, frustration, stress, and isolation that confronted more than just a few of you.
I further encouraged establishing sponsorship programs on each of our 6,500 participating campuses to ensure each arriving Veteran—freshman or graduate student—transitioned smoothly into a better, more welcoming, higher-payoff academic experience than you had when you first arrived on campus.
I’m only asking you to do what good units do—become learning organizations that improve continuously over time. The goal here is academic excellence and productivity for each student Veteran, earning—in the process—the respect of academicians for our Veterans as serious students, as having intellectual strengths, and as value-added to the college experiences of others.
It may sound like a tall order, but this should be a chip shot for those who have internalized military values, absorbed service cultures, and acquired the operational mindset that goes with getting things done in a time-sensitive, high-precision, multi-task, no-fail environment.
You know what I’m talking about. That culture is captured in the creeds and slogans, the habits and rhythms, the cadences you have followed during your military service. If you think those disciplines only had value when you wore the uniforms, I think you will find otherwise. 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.
In the words of one creed:
At first glance, these lines sound like bumper stickers. But a closer reading reveals them to be the promises one makes to one’s teammates about being there on the worst of days when danger is high, the risks are real, everyone is afraid, and the adversary is good enough to test us.
The mission’s changed, but you have not. The objective today is gaining a college education, and I expect all of you to study hard, earn your degrees, and cross a graduation stage in the coming years—and I expect you, as SVA leaders, to lead other Veterans to successful outcomes. The mission is clear, defeat is not an option, no one quits, and no one gets left behind. Figure it out. If I sound like dad, I am dad—I pay most of the bills; I worry about how you are doing; and I look forward to graduation day. So, make me happy—you may get a new car as a graduation gift!
Some of you—perhaps more than some—are “carrying baggage.” That’s a euphemism for PTS—post traumatic stress. Those who have come home from combat before you to pursue college degrees understand that transition. It takes time, but we all come through it. On the most difficult days, it’s comforting to have a good formation around you, and SVA can be that good formation.
Since the GI Bill’s implementation in 2009, over 518,000 Veterans and family members have enrolled in college; when you include all other college education programs, that number exceeds 800,000. Great news!
But here’s what we also know: Nationally, among all students entering four-year institutions, only 57 percent graduate. Early indications suggest graduation rates for Veteran students are lower than that—perhaps significantly lower. I’m not proud of that kind of statistic, and you shouldn’t be either.
And for those who might think that these are personal failures—that the drop outs just couldn’t hang—well, that violates the creed I just recited to you. Every failure is our collective failure; every drop-out is our defeat, our quit, our abandoned comrade. And if you don’t care about this attrition factor, your complacency risks the continuation of this program for Veterans coming behind you. The best way to ensure continuation of this program is to make it a high payoff for the American people—and graduation is that payoff.
So, next academic year, Fall 2011, we will require schools to report Veterans’ programs of study, Veterans on academic probation and those terminated for unsatisfactory progress, and Veterans’ graduation rates.
I’ve never been able to solve problems I could not see—and when those reports are available in 2012, we’ll know how to best help those Veterans who are struggling—and how serious the problem is with Veterans not graduating. But I already know this—the people sitting in this room are those best equipped to help their brethren-in-arms be successful. I need and the Nation expects you to help.
I don’t know whether the drafters of the original GI Bill of 1944 had any idea about the impact that their landmark legislation would ultimately have—but, we now know, it dramatically reshaped our Nation. By the time it expired in 1956, after just 12 years, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II Veterans had been educated. Historian Milton Greenberg wrote that the original GI Bill enriched America by:
They, and millions of other vocationally trained and educated Veterans, provided the leadership that catapulted our economy to the world’s largest, and our Nation to global pre-eminence in the latter half of the 20th century.
They took their educational opportunity and leveraged breakthroughs in automation, business, medicine, science, transportation, technology and so much more. Their discoveries laid the foundation for today’s cutting-edge technologies and created an economically strong, more vibrant, and resilient America.
Veterans 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.
History may be poised to repeat itself—it’s in your hands. The post-9/11 GI Bill has every potential of transforming our country in globally significant ways. You can have an equally resounding impact on America. The question is, are you up to it? Do you have the strategic vision, individually and collectively, to reshape the world as the World War II generation did? Are you determined enough to take this on? If you aren’t, we have the wrong people benefiting from the generosity of the American people.
The President has done everything in his power to provide you the same opportunity to reshape our country and the world the way that the World War II generation did. Thanks to President Obama, we are well positioned to provide the best in programs, services, and benefits. Let me explain.
President Obama’s 2010 budget of $114 billion represented a 16% increase over the 2009 budget, and is the largest single-year increase in over 30 years.
His 2011 budget of $125 billion—an $11 billion, 10% increase over 2010—has given us needed firepower to increase your access to our benefits and healthcare services and to end the disability claims backlog.
His 2012 budget request, currently before the Congress, seeks $132.2 billion dollars for this department to better care for Veterans and transform itself for the 21st century—increasing Veteran access to our services and benefits; eliminating the frustration of backlogged disability claims; and ending the shame of Veterans homelessness.
Regarding disability claims, in July 2010, 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 who has gone to war for this country, and all future generations who will deploy on missions unknown today to places we have yet to hear about.
Mental health is an extremely high priority for VA. Since our 2009 Mental Health Summit, co-hosted with the Department of Defense, we have looked for ways to increase our momentum, our reach, and our sense of urgency. Last year, we provided $4.5 billion for mental health programs and launched a workforce surge to bring our staffing to over 21,000. This year, fiscal year 2011, we are spending an additional $542 million for a total mental health budget allocation of $5.7 billion.
For traumatic brain injury, we’ve fielded a new disability rating system to improve how claims are evaluated.
In this rich and powerful Nation, roughly 76,000 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 four years.
In 2010, we provided $3.7 billion to homelessness; in 2011, we invested $4.3 billion; and in 2012, we have requested $4.9 billion.
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 daily by stories of young men and women, wounded in battle, whose sheer determination to rise above their injuries have re-defined courage for us. Some are in this room this morning.
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 morning. 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.