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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Marine's Memorial Association
San Francisco, CA
June 22, 2009

I am most honored to be here this evening to deliver this evening’s George P. Shultz Lecture.  Secretary Schultz’s years of service as a Marine, during World War II, and his significant leadership in business, academia, and government, especially during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, makes it a high honor to stand at this lectern this evening.     

I was born in Hawai’i about a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Hawai’i was under martial law, and American citizens of Japanese ancestry were helplessly caught up in the fear and paranoia that followed the surprise attacks by Japanese Naval Air Forces.  They had lost all rights and privileges of citizenship, and tens of thousands of them, living mostly here on the west coast, were evicted from homes and businesses and sent to relocation camps for the duration of the war.          

My heroes as a youngster were the young Nisei, second generation Americans, who joined the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service and who bled heavily to remove all doubt about the loyalty and trustworthiness of Americans of Japanese Ancestry.  On the heels of World War II came the conflict in Korea.  Vietnam became my own turn to serve in combat after my commissioning at West Point in June 1965.  What might have been a brief period in uniform, further shortened by the stings of battle, turned into 38 years of service with some of the finest Americans I have ever met.  I did not plan it that way.  The Soldiers with whom I served insured that I never had a bad day, and I stayed because of them.  The years simply flew by.

Serving them as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a chance to give back to those with whom I went to war as a young man, those I sent to war as the Army’s Chief of Staff, and those from the greatest generations, on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession.

Veterans Affairs is a large and proud organization, which includes three administrations—Veterans Health, Veterans Benefits, and the National Cemetery Administrations.

Today, some 288,000 people come to work in the department each day—good people who work hard at our 153 Medical Centers, our 765 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 230 Vet Centers, 57 Regional Benefits Offices, and 128 National Cemeteries.  We have but one mission—to serve our Nation’s Veterans, providing them with the best possible benefits and care that they earned through their service to the Nation.   

There are currently more than 23.4 million Veterans in this country, 39% of whom are over age 65.  Over 2.1 million of them are World War II Veterans, 2.3 million are Korea War Veterans, over 7.1 million are Vietnam War Veterans—our largest Veteran population—and the remainder are young whipper snappers from more recent conflicts.  Of the total Veteran population of 23.4 million:

·          7.84 million are enrolled in the VA Health Care System;

·          5.58 million received treatment in 2008;

·          3 million receive disability compensation, of which almost 269 thousand are rated 100% disabled;

Additionally, VA supervises and administers 7.23 million life insurance policies, 1.3 million home loans, and provides educational benefits to more than 540,000 men and women.

California leads in numbers of Veterans—over 2 million reside here—more than the Veteran populations of New York and Pennsylvania, combined.  630,000 California Veterans are currently enrolled in VA health care, and 58% of those visited us for health care services in 2008.  California has 9 Medical Centers, 49 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, and 22 Vet Centers to meet Veterans’ access requirements.   

VA research and development has been responsible for: 

·          The implantable cardiac pacemaker;

·          The first successful liver transplants;

·          The nicotine patch to help smokers quit smoking;

·          Artificial limbs that move naturally when stimulated by electrical impulses from the brain;

Much of this R & D success has come through collaboration:

·          We have partnered with the National Institute on Aging to study Alzheimer’s disease;

·          With the National Institutes of Health to study arthritis;

·          Worked with the Army and academic researchers to help develop an oral drug to treat smallpox;

·          In 1984, VA research and development funding allowed Dr. Ernest Burgess to develop what came to be known as the “VA / Seattle foot” and the “VA / Seattle ankle.”  This drastically  improved prosthetics system has enabled thousands of amputees—Veterans and non-Veterans—to live vastly more functional lives, even to run again;

·          And, in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), VA conducted a new study on an advanced, cutting edge artificial arm that moves prosthetics into a discussion of restoring near-full functionality to amputees.

For these and many other reasons, we are proud of our performance at Veterans Affairs; but, there is much still to be done 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;

·          These budgetary pressures will likely collide with increasing demands for our services and benefits;

·          And the constant need to expedite access to high quality benefits and services in a timely, consistent, and equitable manner challenges our agility as an organization.

In five short months, we have begun to set priorities and gather resources to enable achieving President Obama’s charge—to fundamentally and comprehensively change the department into a 21st century organization.   

We have begun that transformation.  In the short term, even as we begin to make advocacy on behalf of Veterans our overarching philosophy, and prepare our workforce to embrace that discipline, we must quickly put in place a successful execution plan to get something on the order of 200,000 young Veterans into college this fall under the new GI Bill—more than difficult, and we’re not quite there yet; but, Veterans will be in school this fall.    

We must also expand our services to welcome back up to 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans, 266,000 of them within this first year in 2010, who lost their entitlements in 2003.  The downturn in the economy makes this crucially important, and we begin registering Priority Group 8 Veterans this summer.   

I am committed to reducing the backlog and processing times of disability claims so that Veterans don’t have to wait 6-12 months for their checks, and I don’t have to have 11,100 claims adjudicators in the Benefits Administration and 60 judges and 300 lawyers in the Board of Veterans’ Appeals involved in delivering benefits to Veterans.  The long term solution is information technology, but that will take a number of years to fully implement.  In the meantime, the equivalent of the 82nd Airborne Division processes claims for us each and every day. 

For the long term, I have asked why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for presumption of service connected disabilities tied to its toxic effects.  And why, 20 years after Operation Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of Gulf War Illness.  Left to our processes, 20-40 years from now, future Secretaries of Veterans Affairs will be adjudicating service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts if we don’t find a better way.  I don’t have answers yet, but I’ve asked the questions, and we’re going to find that better way.   

Women will constitute 15% of the Veteran population in 10 years.  With a current population of 23.4 million, well, you can do the math—it is a big number, and we are currently structured as a male-oriented institution.  We have time, but we have to begin our restructuring now.   

We will also hold a mental health summit before this year is out.  Veterans lead the Nation in substance abuse, depression, homelessness, and suicides—and rank right up there in joblessness, as well.  131,000 Veterans sleep on our streets every night—male, female, young and old, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans.  I have told my folks we’ll work to take that to zero in the next five years.  I know that there are no absolutes in life—ever—but I also know that if we don’t put a bold number on the table, we’ll all be working for something less and not doing enough.  If a single Veteran sleeps on the street, I don’t want to entertain discussions about why that’s good enough.  You see, homelessness is just about the last step in the downward spiral—to get to zero homeless Veterans, we have to work on jobs and education, on mental health, on substance abuse and suicides.  We have to attack the entire cycle to get to zero homeless Veterans in the next five years.

We’ve been busy, and there’s much work to be done; but it’s why I agreed to come back to government—to harness the potential in this country to give back to the men and women who have served us.   

Three weeks ago, we honored our Nation’s war dead on Memorial Day and recommitted ourselves, as a Nation, to remembering the sacrifices made by service members and their families for our freedom and liberty—two words we sometimes take for granted.

Two weeks ago, I attended the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.    Standing at the Normandy American Cemetery and memorial with a Ranger, who scaled Pointe Du Hoc, paratroopers of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment—the “Band of Brothers” of HBO fame, and Veterans of many other distinguished units—was a high honor for this Veteran.   

Listening to those members of the greatest generation recall their experiences in battle reminded me that, throughout history, those at the tip of the spear have always fought for one another.  Trust was a sufficient bond to produce the precious few whose acts of gallantry can never be explained by any of the rest of us.  They have become the stuff of legend and have given themselves up to the ages because of their indomitable spirit—the willingness to give everything, even the last full measure of devotion, for others.  They are, of course, recipients of our nation’s highest award for valor—the Medal of Honor.

The award honors acts of gallantry and intrepidity that go beyond human comprehension—acts of courage so profound that all of the rest us feel somewhat uneasy in the commonness of our own humanity.  It is not possible to train for the circumstances which give rise to such extraordinary courage and sacrifice.  No one is ever expected to make this kind of sacrifice, and no one would have been criticized for not having acted in the moment.  Amongst the 3,467 recipients, you will find the names of:

Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph Daly, USMA.  Twice a recipient of the Medal of Honor for two separate acts of heroism in two wars—one of only two Marines ever to be so decorated.  Sergeant Major Daly received the Medal of Honor as a private for heroism in China, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, and again for his valor in Haiti in 1915 as a Gunnery Sergeant.  Yet, perhaps Sergeant Major Daly’s most well-remembered exploit occurred in June of 1918, during the desperate fighting near Belleau Wood.  When his men were pinned down and outgunned, Daly ordered an attack.  Leaping forward, he inspired his tired Marines to follow him with his famous battle cry, "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"  The rest is history.

Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy, Commander,  Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, for conspicuous gallantry in France, 26 January 1945, in single-handedly fighting a rear guard action for over an hour against a superior force of tanks, enabling his rifle company to displace to and prepare a subsequent battle position—from which he led their counterattack to drive the still superior enemy force from the battlefield.

Private First Class Alford McLaughlin, Company l, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, for conspicuous gallantry on the night of 4-5 September 1952, Korea.  Having volunteered for a second continuous mission on a strategic combat outpost line far in advance of the main battle area, Private McLaughlin successfully defended his position under enemy artillery and mortar barrages by delivering devastating fires from his two machine guns and carbine on enemy forces attacking in battalion strength.  Laying his weapons on the cool earth to keep them from overheating, Private McLaughlin accounted for 150 enemy killed and 50 wounded that night.

Captain “Rocky” Versace distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism during the period, 29 October 1963 to 26 September 1965, while held as a prisoner of war.  Severely wounded during an attack by a heavily armed enemy battalion, Captain Versace fought until he ran out of ammunition before being taken prisoner, where he continued to resist his Viet-Cong captors for two long years—assuming command of his fellow prisoners, scorning the enemy’s brutal mistreatment of him, making three unsuccessful escape attempts.  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 his voice, 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.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 3 October 1993, two Medals of Honor were awarded to Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shugart, who volunteered to go to the aide of a downed helicopter crew, knowing they were probably not going to make it out alive.  Fighting to reach the crew members, they formed a 2-man defensive perimeter around them, killing numerous enemy militia until they ran out of ammunition.  After Sergeant Shugart was mortally wounded, Master Sergeant Gordon handed his rifle with its last five rounds of ammunition to one of the pilots and wished him  “good luck” before continuing to fight with his pistol until he, too, was killed.       

Five Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously for actions in Afghanistan and Iraq: Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry in saving his Special Reconnaissance Element, June 2005, Asadabad, Afghanistan.   

Corporal Jason Dunham, United States Marine Corps, Rifle Squad Leader, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 14 April 2004, Karbala, Iraq, for conspicuous gallantry in giving his life for members of his team.   

Master at Arms 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, for conspicuous gallantry in giving his life to protect members of his combined seal and Iraqi sniper overwatch element, 29 September 2006, Ar Ramadi, Iraq.   

Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, M2 .50 caliber machine gunner, Company C, 1-26th Infantry Regiment, for conspicuous gallantry on 4 December 2006, in giving his life to protect his teammates.

Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, U.S. Army, for conspicuous gallantry on 4 April 2003, in repelling a company-sized attack that threatened to overrun his engineer work party.  

Now, we all know that there were more—far more—heroes on those battlefields than the recipients of the Medal of Honor.  We focus on these few to remind us that in our formations there have always been young Americans like these, who will rise and do the most magnificent  things in the most frightening and painful moments we can imagine.  They represent an ideal.  They also remind us that those who are privileged to command must approach their duties with a reverence equal to the courage and selflessness of those they will lead.  You see, within all formations, there are men and women like these, who, given the right circumstances, will rise to magnificence.  We just don’t know who they are.

As citizens, we must find ways to remember and honor the young men and women who serve us in uniform.  And when they return to our communities to take their places amongst us, we must be ready to welcome and embrace them and to quickly transition them into our midst.  a century and a half ago, in his 2nd inaugural address, President Lincoln delivered a charge to Americans “. . . To care for him, who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”    And though he was speaking about those who fought the Civil War, the most divisive and destructive conflict in our Nation’s history, his words have come to be our Nation’s charge down through the decades since to meet the obligations set by our 16th President and re-chartered by our 44th President.  It is my great privilege and honor to be a part of upholding that charge for our Nation’s Veterans, and it has been my pleasure to join you tonight. 

God bless our men and women in uniform, wherever they serve.  God bless our Veterans, and God bless our wonderful country.

Thank you.