John [Rowan, President], thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of Vietnam Veterans of American.
Let me begin by greeting Medal of Honor recipient Buddy Bucha, whom I've known for 50 years now. From the earliest days, his skills as a leader and his instincts for what was right always outmatched everyone else's. Bud, as always, it's great to see you again.
I am honored to be addressing you at your 15th national convention in "the biggest little city in the world." Holding your conference here in Reno helps create jobs and provides a much-needed shot in the arm during these tough economic times.
VA joins you in this effort. Our infrastructure in Nevada includes two medical centers [Las Vegas, Reno], ten Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, six Vet Centers, and a VBA regional office. We will also open a new VA medical center next year in Las Vegas. This $600 million dollar construction project will generate an estimated $1.2 billion in economic impact over the following five years—730 hard-hat jobs, with an average salary of $85,000, during the construction phase, and 1,850 permanent medical jobs, 450 of them new, with an average salary of $108,000 per year, once the medical center opens its doors.
VA spends nearly $1.3 billion a year in Nevada, providing care and benefits to many of the state's 244,000 Veterans, and adding over 2,700 jobs statewide.
Additionally, we recently awarded seven of our 15 major T4 [Transformation Twenty-one Total Technology] information technology contracts to service-disabled Veteran-owned or Veteran-owned small businesses, and we are requiring all 15 awardees of our contracts to meet aggressive subcontracting goals for service-disabled and Veteran-owned small businesses on their teams. Historically, Veterans hire Veterans. So in boosting the number of Veteran-owned small businesses, we intend to increase jobs for Veterans.
Incidentally, 30 percent of our own VA workforce—over 100,000 employees—are Veterans, and our goal is to up that to 40 percent.
I am thankful to President Obama for giving me the opportunity to serve Veterans. You don't get many do-over's in life, and for me, this is a do-over. I get to care for folks like you, with whom I went to war 40 years ago in Vietnam. I get to care for youngsters I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff. And I get to care for those who saved the world during World War II and who marched to the guns in Korea in 1950.
Like all of you, I grew up in Vietnam. My experiences there and what I learned about myself have become central to my life. We went to war with a generation of patriots who, like infantry Captain "Rocky" Versace, were equally tough, determined, courageous, and capable of unbelievable acts of courage and sacrifice as any other generation that went to war.
Rocky Versace distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism from October 1963 to September 1965—not just once, but multiple, repeated acts of heroism during captivity. Severely wounded during an attack by a heavily armed enemy battalion, Captain Versace fought until he ran out of ammunition and was taken captive.
For two years, he continued to resist his Viet-cong captors, assuming command of his fellow prisoners, rallying their support of one another, defying and scorning the enemy's brutal mistreatment of him, making three unsuccessful escape attempts, and then absorbing even greater brutality in punishment. Finally, unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America, his captors executed him on 26 September 1965.
The last time his fellow prisoners heard him, Rocky Versace was singing "God Bless America" at the top of his voice to rally his fellow prisoners and strengthen their resolve in resisting the enemy's efforts to break their spirits. To the very end, Rocky led and served his fellow prisoners. For extraordinary heroism, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Rocky Versace did not come home from Vietnam, but we honor the fallen by how we care for those who did come home. So welcome home to everyone in this room. For the past two-and-a-half years, President Obama and I, and all in VA, have rededicated ourselves to those who served the Nation, in peace and in war.
Now, these are tough economic times, especially for Veterans. As of June this year, one million Veterans remained unemployed, and the jobless rate for post-9/11 Veterans was 13.3 percent. And, as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, an additional one million servicemembers are projected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016.
So, this week, in New Orleans, VA is conducting, for the first time, our national Veteran-owned small business conference. We are providing both Veteran-owned and service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses an unprecedented opportunity to build capacity, grow their businesses, and connect directly with VA procurement decision-makers. Over 4,300 people are in attendance—roughly 1,600 of them represent Veteran-owned small businesses—and they are learning a lot.
Two weeks ago, President Obama again demonstrated both his unwavering support of Veterans and his concerns about their employment opportunities by announcing bold, new initiatives to get Veterans back to work:
President Obama handed me two priorities when he offered me this appointment: First, make things better for Veterans, and then, transform the department of Veterans affairs so that it better serves Veterans throughout the 21st century—some straightforward strategic guidance.
Well, I didn't grow up in VA , and I'm not a clinician, so I had a lot of learning to do that first year. You watched me struggle implementing the new post-9/11 GI Bill, without any automation tools for a massive, new program. The law directed VA to implement it on the fly—and we did.
Everything had to be done by stubby pencil, but we put every youngster who wanted to attend college that fall—173,000 of them—into school, the hard way. At the same time, we fast-tracked development of those missing IT tools. They have since arrived and are in operation today, administering the education of over 518,000 Veterans and family members under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. And when VA's other educational assistance programs are added, the number of Veteran and family member students exceeds 840,000.
This fall, we will expand that GI Bill program to provide vocational training and other non-degree job opportunities for Veterans, who want to work, but who aren't necessarily interested in spending four years in a college classroom.
I learned a few things from implementing the new GI Bill: First, VA is tough and agile enough to implement a new program on the fly. Second, as it does so, it is also innovative enough to simultaneously develop new tools to better administer that program over the long haul. That told me that good, dedicated, creative, and reliable people come to work at VA every day. My job is to unleash their initiative, grow and develop their leadership skills, and provide them the right tools, which have been sorely lacking.
Now, besides strategic guidance, the President also provided personal support and leadership; he assured availability of much needed, scarce resources; and then he allowed me the freedom to make decisions and act. Well, two-and-a-half years ago, here were some of the things Veterans told me: Too many Veterans could not access VA 's services and benefits. And when they tried, the claims process was difficult to navigate—some said "near impossible"—creating a massive backlog in disability claims. In fact, some Veterans suggested that VA was waiting for them to die so it wouldn't have to pay them their benefits—pretty strong stuff for a new secretary to hear. But ok, I got it. I asked folks to give me a chance to try to fix a backlog that had been years in the making. I just needed a little time to gather resources and make a plan.
Veterans also told me that it was wrong for any Veteran in this country to be homeless, and I agreed. In fact, the President was ahead of both of us on this. He had already decided this was immoral.
Some of you also told me that VA had an attitude problem—that we didn't always treat Veterans with dignity and respect—and that women Veterans, in particular, were not being well served. Our system was heavily male-oriented, and women Veterans didn't feel comfortable or welcomed. Ok, we needed to do something about both of these perceptions.
Finally, you felt we were too slow to react to real changes in Veterans lives. An example here might be the impact of rising gas prices or the cost of medications on Veterans pocketbooks. Well, three-and-a-half years ago, the beneficial travel rate was 11 cents per mile; today, it is 41.5 cents per mile, and we have controlled co-pay costs on medications to the benefit of all Veterans for the past one-and-a-half years.
So, based on what you told me and other things I learned that first year, we crafted budget proposals to address these concerns, among a number of others. In response, and with congressional support, President Obama increased VA's 2010 budget to $115 billion—a 16 percent increase over the $99.8 billion, congressionally enhanced budget I inherited in 2009—the largest single-year increase in over 30 years. This year, the 2011 budget grew to $126.6 billion, and the President's 2012 budget request for next year, currently before the Congress, is for $132.2 billion. Very few organizations—public, private, profit, nonprofit—have had this kind of resourcing support over the past three budget cycles. And every bit of it has been needed to fix longstanding issues in this department—longstanding issues like addressing the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam-era Veterans, Gulf War Syndrome in those who fought in Desert Storm, and verifiable PTSD for anyone—anyone—who has ever served in combat.
Thanks to the President, we have a clear direction, predictability in resourcing, and unwavering support. Now, it's up to us to deliver. Veterans remain a very high priority with this President—I know that personally, and it goes deep with him. That commitment will be reflected in the care and benefits VA continues to provide the men and women who have safeguarded this nation.
The President's budgets have kept faith with Veterans and enabled VA to address the early concerns you asked me to take on when I arrived:
Access: To your concerns from 2009 that not enough Veterans could access VA 's benefits and services, we have aggressively outreached to Veterans who did not know about VA or their earned benefits, or had lost faith in us some time ago. Veterans enrolled for VA healthcare has increased by nearly 800,000 in the last two-and-a-half years—a 10 percent uptick.
We will continue to outreach and to broaden our appeal to women Veterans. With women's program coordinators at each major medical center, with over 1,200 providers trained in advanced women's healthcare, and with a national women's summit giving women Veterans their own larger voice, we believe we are doing the right things to anticipate the coming surge in women Veterans.
Homelessness: In 2009, you told me that no Veteran should live homeless in this rich and powerful country. Our progress has been significant. Since 2008, VA has helped permanently house over 29,000 homeless Veterans, and another 30,000 have been assisted through the homeless call center. We intend to reduce the number of homeless Veterans to below 60,000 by June 2012, with the goal of ending this national embarrassment in 2015.
What we have learned over the past two-and-a-half years is that we cannot end Veterans homelessness through street rescues alone. We must develop robust prevention initiatives that protect an at-risk population that is difficult to define and see. But we know this at-risk population exists because Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and are well up there in joblessness, as well. Unless we are conducting a full-court press in all these areas, street rescues of the estimated 80,000 homeless Veterans alone will not be enough.
VA is leading the fight against homelessness with all of our substantial capabilities—primary medical and dental care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, case management, housing, and jobs counseling. Street rescues must continue, but they have never defined the entire problem. We are outreaching to states and communities to collaborate at the local level with nonprofit partners who know the homeless situation first hand.
We are also conducting justice outreach to support the creation of Veterans courts, which would remand Veterans—those facing minor charges, petty crimes, and repeated substance abuse offenses—to VA for treatment in lieu of incarceration, and we're working with state and federal prisons to afford Veterans being released from prison an opportunity to break the cycle of incarceration-homelessness-incarceration, which plagues many of them. We are committed to ending Veterans homelessness by 2015, and we are after it.
Claims backlog: You asked me to fix the backlog in disability claims, and I have committed to ending it in 2015 by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level. Of the things you asked me to take on, this one's taking longer to achieve momentum. But we have a host of promising options being piloted today and expect them to begin paying off in 2012, as we begin fully automating the disability claims process. Our success in automating the new GI Bill program on the fly gives us a measure of confidence that we will soon have the automation tools needed to begin beating the backlog in the short term.
Attitude: Two years ago, you told me that some in VA had an attitude problem. And so, since last December, with input and recommendations from a variety of panels, work groups, and VA senior leaders, we have settled on five core values that underscore the moral obligations inherent in VA's mission: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence.
You will begin to see our core values demonstrably at work. You have my assurance that these are promises—promises—VA has embraced with serious dispatch.
With two operational campaigns still underway and continuing economic challenges at home, VA's mission is clear and compelling. We, in VA, must be more demanding on ourselves to get every penny out of every dollar invested on behalf of Veterans. And when the last combatant comes home from Iraq and Afghanistan in a few years, DoD's missions may be over, but VA's requirements will still be growing, something that is likely to continue for another decade or more beyond that point. We must be vigilant to not create another Vietnam generation, whose unaddressed medical needs continue to challenge its members, even today.
With your help and support, we've had more than two good years for Veterans. There's still much to be done, but we have momentum in key areas and clear directions for the future. We will not fail to honor the dedication and selflessness of the men and women we serve—warriors like Army Ranger Joe Kapacziewski, who was severely wounded when an Iraqi grenade shattered his right leg, extensively damaged the right side of his body, severing a nerve and an artery in his right arm.
Doctors feared he would never walk again, let alone fulfill his wish of returning to the Ranger Regiment and becoming a squad leader. Then again, most of us don't fully appreciate iron will. In Sergeant Kapacziewski's words, "I don't like people telling me I can't do something."
Kapacziewski had been serving with the Rangers since May 2002. When he was wounded in 2005, he was on his fifth combat deployment. After multiple surgeries, slowly regaining use of his right arm, and enduring unimaginable pain, he made the courageous call to have his right leg amputated below the knee, opting for greater mobility and faster recovery with a prosthetic leg.
In March 2007, the leg was removed. Five months later he was running. After six months, he rejoined the Ranger operations company at Fort Benning. Ten months after surgery, Kapacziewski completed an Army PT test, a five-mile run, and a 12-mile road march with 40 pounds of gear. In March 2008, one year after his surgery, he became the only amputee ever to assume combat duties in the Ranger Regiment, as a squad leader. He has since deployed four more times, he's been promoted to platoon sergeant, and he's received a Bronze Star with "V" device for helping to save a severely wounded comrade.
Sergeant Kapacziewski is a member of the "9/11 Generation." More than five million Americans have served in the military during the past decade. Three million of them joined after 9/11, knowing full well that they would be deploying to combat. Their accomplishments are extraordinary—unseating the Taliban, pushing al Qaeda from its sanctuaries, capturing Saddam Hussein, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden, and training Iraqi and Afghan forces to defend their own countries.
The 9/11 Generation includes more than a million spouses and two million children of service members, many of whom have lived their entire lives in a nation at war. More military women have served in combat than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed multiple times. They have all borne a heavy burden on behalf of the nation, but despite the enormous strains of 10 years of continuous operations, our military remains as strong as it has ever been.
Sergeant Joe Kapacziewski's 9/11 Generation is defined, just as Rocky Versace's Vietnam generation, and every previous generation of American's Veterans has been defined, by the virtues of selfless service, sacrifice, and devotion to duty. These men and women who serve and have served are the flesh and blood of American exceptionalism—the living, breathing embodiment of our national values and our special place in the world.
God bless our men and women in uniform; God bless our Veterans—welcome home, VVA; and may God continue to bless our great Nation of ours.