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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Office of General Counsel Conference
Boston, MA
May 8, 2009

It’s great to be here in Boston—and what an absolute delight to visit this historic Parker House Hotel, with its fabulous food and famous guests.  The menu has remained a trademark for over 150 years now, I’m told.  I am also told that the Vietnamese Nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who ultimately became president of North Vietnam, once worked as a baker here, from 1911 to 1913.    I have to wonder whether aspects of our own history, like the Boston Tea Party, might have contributed to his turning away from making croissants to taking up the gun.      

 

But one thing is clear; he proved a formidable adversary, and fighting against some of his battle-hardened regiments occupied much of my earliest days in uniform.  In what ended up being a 38-year calling, the Army took me far beyond the geography of Southeast Asia.  Some of my most memorable assignments were in Texas, and I am reminded that, in Texas, they offer some simple, sensible advice for folks at this point in my life:  First, there’s no tree too tall for a short-legged dog; next, if you think you’re a big deal, just try ordering someone else’s dog around; and finally, you can’t wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time—you must choose to do one or the other.

 

Another saying, closer to home, comes from one of Boston’s famous sons and one of our founding fathers, Samuel Adams:  “The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending against all hazards: and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks.”

 

These words are as salient today as they were over 200 years ago.  Every oath I took in uniform and the oath I most recently took as VA Secretary contained the promise “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic . . . .”.  From the first shots fired at nearby Lexington and Concord, through the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the spirit of that oath has been foundational to the sacrifices of the selfless, who always placed our Nation’s safety before their own.  All of us, who sip the peace that is purchased by their sacrifices in the name of freedom and liberty, remain in their debt.  We best repay that debt to those who safeguarded us by being good stewards of the process that safeguards those who survived those terrible conflicts.  In the words of one of the Veterans’ Service Organizations, “honor the dead by caring for the living.”   

      

My service as VA Secretary is a calling—a noble calling to serve those with whom I went to war against Ho Chi Minh, those I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff, and those on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in my profession.  We are stewards of the long-held national obligation to care for those who defended the Nation, a VA ministry for nearly 80 years.

 

Our progress in achieving clinical quality and patient safety highlights many hard-earned successes.  And that hard work lays the foundation for us all as we transform VA into a 21st century organization.

 

The Office of the General Counsel’s (OGC’s) own accomplishments are noteworthy: 

 

  • The Ethics Office, led by Walt Hall and Renee Szybala, was awarded the Office of Government Ethics’ 2008 Ethics Program Award in recognition of your outstanding achievements in managing VA’s ethics program.  President Obama’s first official act was to sign an executive order outlining his expectations regarding ethical behavior.    In turn, my first official acts were to sign a letter pledging my own ethical conduct and then promulgating instructions on ethics to VA leaders.    
  • OGC lawyers, including Martie Adelman, working with their counterparts at the Department of Justice, recently resulted in the Supreme Court’s overturning a federal circuit court ruling in the Sanders and Simmons case that had threatened to add to the backlog of benefit claims at VBA.     
  • OGC also helped convince the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of the hard-won Haas decision, which overturned a Veterans’ Court ruling.  My thanks to Dick Hipolit and David Barrans for your fine work on that case. 

While these are some of OGC’s more notable accomplishments, I am grateful, as well, for your day-to-day efforts in all of the less visible aspects of your practice—sound legal advice which enables VA’s leadership to succeed in the mission we are all privileged to share.

 

I have found my duties as secretary not dissimilar from those I had as Army Chief of Staff.  First, figure out the mission—break it down so you understand its finite demands on you and your organization, then internalize it so it becomes part of your daily regimen.  Next, secure the resources needed to empower your people to be successful in achieving that mission.  Finally, develop metrics and a method for assessing progress, so you know when you have achieved your objectives.  Then lead. 

 

President Obama has a vision for a transformed 21st century VA—I am committed to helping him achieve it.  But neither one of us can do it alone.  I need your help and the help of everyone else in our large, vast organization.  So, I was delighted to find that the title of your conference this week is, “Leading Our Transformation: It’s More Than Meets the I.”  As our legal team, you are at the nexus of change and relevance.  As Congress passes new laws and repeals old ones, you must remain nimble—ready to advise on what’s new, what no longer applies, and how it affects our clients.

 

Your role at VA is to serve as our reconnaissance arm—our eyes and ears—for early warning on all that’s likely to affect our plans and policies.  You must be constantly attentive, collecting the kinds of early signals that lead to policy changes and reporting them quickly so we can be both responsive and decisive in our actions.  We have no one else like you at VA—you are integral to our transformation.  

 

In your leadership role, you will be confronted with challenges.  You know the political dimensions to this town, Washington, D.C., where character assaults can sometimes be blood-sport.  Washington thrives on political engagement, sometimes elegantly called “the art of the possible”—but it is battle nonetheless.  Its drumbeats are, negotiate and compromise, negotiate and compromise.  It’s important to understand those drumbeats.  For the most part, they form a useful process.  On the other hand, our professional ethic is about the unwavering demand of duty—the professional responsibility for knowing what needs to be done, knowing how to do it, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and then for cleaving consistently to the right—ethically, morally, professionally.   

 

It’s called professional judgment.  You all know the tremendous consequences that go with professional advice—you have lived it.  If you are to continue rendering value to those of us you advise, it will be because your judgments are perceived to be competent, unbiased, apolitical, and intended to assist decision makers in arriving at the right decisions—not necessarily the ones they, or you, might want.  Those determinations must be grounded in legal doctrine and knowledge of the law—not the wild guesses of the hopeful.

 

Now, you can have ethical behavior without good leadership—most people will do the right thing regardless of who is at the helm.  But you can’t have good leadership without ethical behavior.  History is replete with examples of this.  The deplorable treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is a prime example of what can happen when ethical leadership is not present—and how much damage this causes to otherwise honorable institutions.

 

The sub-title of your conference—“It’s More than Meets the I”—shows that you understand that necessary transformation will only come about if we work together.    Achieving the President’s vision will require transforming VA into an agile, adaptive organization that is capable of leading change, not waiting to be dragged into it, of maintaining the highest ethical standards within our organization, not waiting for others to correct unethical behavior.  It will require trust and respect among colleagues, initiative, innovation, and the highest levels of transparency.  We’ll need to challenge some of VA’s existing processes and find ways to work smarter, faster, more efficiently, and more cost-effectively.

 

While overcoming today’s challenges, we must also look hard at long-term challenges and the initiatives we should launch to address the requirements of Veterans in the future—before their needs are brought to our attention by others.

 

All too often, we address issues that had their roots in events decades earlier.  An example: We knew about Agent Orange in Vietnam; we had inklings of developing health problems within a few years of the war’s end; but it took many years before there was a vigorous national debate about the effects of Agent Orange and then years of prolonged study—the scientific method, if you will—to lay the groundwork for disability claims.  The last use of Agent Orange was in 1970, but decades passed before a comprehensive list of Agent Orange-related illnesses was compiled and considered for service-connected disability claims.  If we had been more responsive then to the immediate needs of Veterans exposed to Agent Orange—well, we might not be facing the claims backlog issues that haunt us today.

 

I could draw the same parallel to the Gulf War Illness Syndrome.  I am concerned that the same scientific process is already at work on today’s signature wounds involving PTSD, TBI, and polytrauma.  If it is, this is not a system based on advocacy for Veterans—it is inherently an adversarial one that places the burden on the Veteran to demonstrate the validity of the claim.  It’s too early for me to suggest that I’ve figured this all out, but I don’t believe this is where we want, or need, to position VA.

 

VA will not be a static organization.  Organizations that resist change soon become irrelevant and fade away.  Veterans are not irrelevant, and VA will not fade away.  Our Veterans deserve a VA that is self-aware and able to adapt to evolving needs.  The change we seek won’t come overnight, but with your help, it will come.  We need your help to get there.

 

My first three months have been very busy, but I’ve been consistently impressed by the caliber of the workforce.  I think we are moving in the right direction—a robust budget and new initiatives such as our collaboration with DoD to create one joint, virtual, electronic health record that will follow a service member from the time they enter the Armed Forces to the time we lay them to rest.

 

Nonetheless, we face significant challenges in the months and years ahead.  The economic downturn stresses Veterans and their families, in turn, straining local, state, and federal resources for Veterans’ care:

 

  • Implementing the new G.I. Bill, the Outreach Improvement Act, and the re-authorization of VA benefits to Priority Group 8 Veterans challenges our own agility as an organization; 
  • Budgetary pressures, given the state of the economy, will likely collide with increasing demand for our services and benefits; 
  • The connectivity between TBI, PTSD, mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide requires quick and effective solutions for all affected Veterans; 
  • The constant need to expedite access to high-quality benefits and services—timely, consistent, and equitable—remains a priority. 
  • Within OGC, I know you are struggling to keep up with an ever-growing number of cases brought before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims;    
  • And my focus on ensuring we have the proper legal support at every step of our procurement process has you working hard to become fully resourced in that area.     

This is clearly a time of challenge, but it is also a time of opportunity.  It provides us a chance to re-set VA’s key vectors for the 21st century, something we will do along three basic principles:

 

First, a renewed recognition that Veterans are the centerpiece of our organization.  They are clients, not merely customers.  It all comes down to the personal, the immediate, and the host of interactions that define responsive, respectful client services.  It is at that individual, human level where all of us in the department need to set our operational sights. 

 

Second, we will be results-oriented.  We will be judged by our accomplishments, not by our promises.  Our Veterans want solutions to their problems, and it is up to us to provide those solutions.

 

Finally, VA will be forward-looking.  We must be attuned to evolving needs and seek out opportunities for delivering the best services with available resources.  We must continually challenge ourselves to work smarter and more efficiently.  We must leverage the world’s best practices, our own knowledge base, and emerging technologies to multiply our capabilities VA-wide.

 

In the end, the work we do every day isn’t about us— it’s certainly not about this secretary.  It’s about Veterans and how we deliver on our promises.  In the words of Omar Bradley, “we are dealing with Veterans, not procedures; with their problems, not ours.”

 

In my 38 years in uniform, I met some incredible people and have been inspired time and again by their courage and devotion.  That’s why it is so important to always treat our Veterans with dignity and respect.  They are clients who deserve our utmost devotion for their service.  

 

One example—Corporal Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, a World War II Veteran who volunteered to serve again in Korea.  On the 24th of April, 1951, near Taejon-ni, he and his company occupied a defensive position when the enemy attacked, threatening to overrun them.  Corporal Miyamura jumped from his shelter and fended off the enemy attack by wielding his bayonet in close hand-to-hand combat, downing 10 of the enemy.  Under continued assault, he helped his wounded men and arranged for their evacuation.

 

He then ordered his remaining squad members to withdraw while he manned his machine gun, alone, until he ran out of ammunition.  Although severely wounded, he maintained his stand—and when last seen by his comrades, was in a hand-to-hand fight against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers.  He not only personally killed 50 of the enemy that night, but he managed to survive his severe injuries and a long stint in a North Korean POW camp after his capture.  For his action, he received the Medal of Honor.

 

No one can train people for such extraordinary action; we stand in awe of such dedication, perseverance, and fortitude under the worst imaginable conditions.   

 

You could have chosen more lucrative careers in private practice—yet you choose to serve at VA.  Perhaps you did so understanding that Corporal Miyamura and others like him walk our halls daily.  We have the privilege of rolling our sleeves up to help them.  

 

Give us your best efforts—as you ponder the legal challenges we face and prepare those legal briefs which attempt best outcomes for Veterans—give us your best efforts.  Challenge all the assumptions; be creative in solving our problems; know the law better than anyone else; and hold us to our ethics.  Generations of Veterans will live their lives more fully because of your service.

 

Thank you for your dedication to our mission.  God bless this great Nation and our Veterans.  God bless all of you.   

 

Thank you.