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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Siemens Federal Symposium
Washington, DC
January 25, 2012

John [LTG John Sylvester, USA (Ret)], thank you for that kind introduction. My thanks, as well, to Judy Marks, your CEO [President and CEO, Siemens Government Technologies, Inc], for inviting Patty and me to join you this afternoon. We are honored to be here.

Let me congratulate Siemens on your pledge to hire 300 Veterans last year—10% of your total openings—and for meeting that goal within the first three months. Then, you raised the bar and hired a total of 631 Veterans by year's end! And now, I understand you have pledged to hire another 300 Veterans this year—that's good for America, good for Veterans, and good for Siemens. Congratulations, and thank you!

President and Mrs. Obama greatly appreciate your efforts and applaud your successes. The President did so, again, last night during his State of the Union address. The Obamas have a lot on their plates right now—but "Joining Forces" is foremost among them. Patty and your board chair, Stan McChrystal, serve together on the "Joining Forces" board of directors, helping military members, Veterans, and their families access the opportunities they earned through their service and sacrifice. Patty will speak more about "Joining Forces" in a few minutes—I'm merely her warm-up act today.

Nearly three million Americans have volunteered for military service since the attacks of 9/11—knowing full well they could be headed to combat. Their accomplishments are extraordinary: unseating the Taliban, pushing al-Qaeda from its sanctuaries, capturing Saddam Hussein, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden, training Iraqi and Afghan forces to defend their own countries. And they did it again just yesterday. SEALs rescued an American and a Danish aid worker held captive in Somalia after being abducted on 25 October 2011.

This is what warfighters do. No matter how difficult or dangerous, without fanfare or complaint. The accomplishments of this latest generation were highlighted by President Obama's address last night. I can't think of a more admirable example of selfless service than the men and women in uniform today—just the latest in a narrative of success, triumph, and sacrifice spanning our Nation's long and distinguished history.

236 years ago, the courage, determination, initiative, and leadership of a young bookseller, Henry Knox, inspired George Washington and signaled the British, who were then the world's great superpower, that the American colonists were not going to be a pushover.

In the dead of winter 1775-76, Henry Knox led an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga in north-eastern New York to retrieve 59 pieces of captured British artillery desperately needed in the fight for Boston, a center of gravity for the American Revolution. There were no roads—not even well defined trails. The guns were disassembled and hauled—over 300 miles by barge and oxen-drawn sleds—across snow-covered mountains, icy streams and rivers, and frozen lakes. Several cannon broke through the ice and sank, but Knox recovered all of them and delivered the full complement of guns to George Washington in Boston—235 years ago yesterday.

On the night of 4 March 1776, the guns were in place on Dorchester Heights, commanding terrain overlooking Boston harbor, where the British fleet lay at anchor. Awakening the next morning, the outflanked British commander observed, "My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months!" He immediately ordered the abandonment of Boston.

Henry Knox epitomized the individual skills, knowledge, and attributes that, two centuries later, would be captured in the heart of something called "The Soldiers' Creed," which reads:

  • I will always place the mission first.

  • I will never accept defeat.

  • I will never quit.

  • I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Taken individually, these statements sound like bumper stickers. But taken together, they constitute promises Soldiers make to one another about being there for the team on the worst of days, when danger is high, risks are real, everyone is afraid, and failure is not an option.

Throughout our history, missions may have changed, but our people have not. From our earliest days as a fledgling democracy, we have relied on the character, courage, creativity, and determination of the Henry Knox's to safeguard this republic. Henry Knox is alive and well in today's military formations.

Those personal qualities and the teambuilding skills they learn by being on the very best teams in the world are what they have to offer when the uniforms come off. The skills, knowledge, and attributes that made them prudent yet decisive, practical yet dominant, on the battlefield, where uncertainty reigned, are what they bring back to help stoke our economic engine.

Now look, at VA, we hire about 40,000 people a year. Over 316,000 good people come to work at VA every day. One third of them—over 100,000—are Veterans. The courage, determination, initiative, perseverance, and leadership they demonstrated in uniform continue to define their performance and enable our successes at VA today. We have set a goal to increase our Veteran employees to 40% of our workforce, and we will meet that goal.

Many people see us as a large healthcare provider, and for the most part that is true—the largest integrated healthcare system in the country. But here's what's also true about VA:

  • Our 2012 budget is $126.9 billion—thanks to the President's strong leadership and congressional support.

  • VA is second only to the Department of Education in providing educational benefits of $10 billion annually.

  • VA guarantees nearly 1.6 million home loans with an unpaid balance of $248 billion. Our foreclosure rate is the lowest in all categories of mortgage loans.

  • VA is the Nation's 8th largest life insurance enterprise, with $1.3 trillion in coverage, 7.1 million clients, and a 95% satisfaction rating.

  • VA operates the country's largest national cemetery system—131 cemeteries.

In size and scope, VA looks like a Fortune 15 company, and at VA, our Veteran-centric workforce has been a large factor behind our successes. Nearly three-quarters of our cemetery employees are Veterans, and for the past 10 years, they have been, hands down, the top-rated public or private organization in customer service, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index—outperforming Google, Lexus, Apple, all the others.

Some wonder, how much can there be to burial operations? Well, if you abide the philosophy that our cemeteries are shrines honoring our Nation's heroes and you commit to getting it right on the one most painful day for families—you strive for perfection over 117,000 times a year, every year, for ten years to earn ACSI's top ranking. That's what our Veterans deliver for us.

Three years ago, we were meeting only 30 percent of our IT delivery milestones—huge investments with little to show for it. So we beefed up our IT operations with qualified Veterans—people who know how to "get on the objective at 2:00 in the morning in the driving rain." We also reached out to Veteran-owned IT businesses to partner with us. And today, nearly two-thirds of our IT developmental work is done by Veterans. Their discipline, teambuilding skills, and leader instincts have helped our IT product development group meet nearly 90 percent of its delivery targets last fiscal year. I am told the industry average is 32 percent.

VA's Veteran-heavy workforce also performs well in other areas. Our Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy filled over 111 million prescriptions last year. J.D. Power and Associates recognized it as one of their 2011 customer-service champions—one of only 40 organizations to earn that distinction out of more than 800 evaluated.

And in 2009, our Clinical Research Pharmacy Coordinating Center received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige quality award, America's highest honor for innovation and performance excellence presented annually by the President—only the second federal agency to be so recognized in the last 23 years.

VA encourages Veteran entrepreneurship. To bolster Veteran-owned small businesses, we sponsor a "Veterans First" contracting policy for verified Veteran-owned small businesses. Last year, we awarded seven out of 15 major IT contracts to Veteran-owned small businesses, and required the eight non-Veteran awardees to meet aggressive goals for subcontracting to Veteran-owned small businesses.

We know historically that Veterans hire Veterans—they know their value and are comfortable in dealing with them. This creates churn, and more Veterans end up working.

With a compendium of tax incentives and salary reimbursements for employers who hire Veterans and disabled Veterans who have been unemployed for six months or longer, the administration has committed to moving Veterans quickly from the battle space into the workplace.

In 2009, the President and the Congress provided us the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill in 1944. Historian Milton Greenberg wrote that when the original GI Bill expired in 1956, "the United States was richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-educated individuals."

In the second half of the 20th century, those graduates went on to provide the leadership that catapulted our economy to world's largest and our Nation to leader of the Free World and victor in the Cold War.

Lightning is about to strike a second time. At the end of 2011, we had almost 950,000 Veterans and family members enrolled in college. On 1 October 2011, the GI Bill was expanded to include non-college degree programs, on-the-job apprenticeships, correspondence courses, and flight programs, so Veterans who don't want to spend four years in a classroom can gain the important skills needed to transition their military experience into civilian occupations.

One final story about an outstanding young Veteran who is going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. His name is Evan Cole—Sergeant Evan Cole, U.S. Army, retired.

In his application essay to Catholic University in 2009, Evan 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 seven. 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. My truck commander, and another soldier running up from behind to help us, were both killed. I was thrown . . . 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'm 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 University—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 2010. He completed his first semester with a 4.0 average. He continues to excel at the school of architecture, maintaining a 3.92 cumulative GPA. He married a beautiful lady this past summer—life is good. I have no doubt that, together, they will meet every challenge life thrusts at them—and, in William Faulkner's words, "…not merely endure [but] prevail."

Thank you for your commitment to hiring our returning Veterans, for setting high goals, and for exceeding your targets. As President Obama reminded us last night, "Our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it . . . We must serve them as well as they served us. That includes . . . enlisting our Veterans in the work of rebuilding our Nation." Siemens is to be congratulated for doing just that.

Veterans are among the finest people I know—among them walk the Henry Knoxs and the Evan Coles.

God bless those who serve and have served the Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.