Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. I am honored to be officiating today's swearing-in ceremony of Brigadier General Allison Hickey as our Under Secretary for Benefits. Allison, what a great day for a ceremony, and it's terrific that so many of your family members could be here to share the moment with you.
As Allison knows only too well, the search for a new Under Secretary began over a year ago. More than 200 people applied, and 19 made it through the screening process to interviews with our 16-member selection commission.
When the members of the commission convened, I told them that we needed a brilliant manager and a gifted leader. I was looking for someone who is capable of transforming large organizations; someone able to balance competing priorities; a person who could interact with a wide range of stakeholders and constituents; someone who understood quality and excellence, who had great business acumen, someone capable of leading change, and someone who understood the needs of Veterans—an exceedingly tall order.
I am satisfied that the commission met its responsibilities. Allison Hickey emerged from their deliberations and debate. She has the right mix of talents, experience, compassion, and determination to succeed at VBA's tremendously complex portfolio.
The Under Secretary for Benefits has to increase access to benefits for Veterans, while at the same time ensuring highest quality and timeliness in our decisions. All this needs to be done with greater efficiency than ever before and with good stewardship of resources, while leading the continuing transformation of VBA.
As I said at Steve Muro's investiture last week, there are no easy jobs at VA, and Under Secretary for Benefits is about the most demanding. There is so much at stake that's of critical importance to Veterans. VBA must ensure the timely receipt of high-quality benefits and services to Veterans.
The Under Secretary for Benefits manages a $72 billion budget—one that provides benefits and programs for more than four million Veterans and survivors. Under Secretary Hickey will lead and manage a workforce that handles over a million Veterans claims each year; that administers the second largest educational assistance program in the Nation—over $9 billion; that manages the seventh largest life insurance enterprise in the Nation, $1.4 trillion worth of coverage for 7.1 million clients; and that controls almost 1.5 million mortgages with an unpaid balance of $230 billion dollars.
Her focus will be on eliminating the disability claims backlog by 2015 and accomplishing that goal while processing all Veterans' claims in less than 125 days with a 98 percent accuracy rate.
These are not small tasks. Allison Hickey is used to handling big, messy projects. She knows people, how to motivate them, how to get every bit of performance out of them. She also understands the critical importance of investing in their training and development; you have to spend money to make money.
This was important to her, both in her distinguished Air Force career and as an executive at Accenture, where she focused on human resources and customer relationship management, call-center best practices, and the latest IT systems to speed the delivery of services to clients and customers. She understands the critical importance of quick, high-quality, compassionate, client-centered services to VA.
Allison is not afraid of change and is used to breaking molds and stereotypes. She's a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy's Class of 1980—the first class to include women—"the 80's ladies."
We will depend on her experience, her advocacy, and her mentoring experience as we seek better ways of serving an ever increasing population of women Veterans.
Allison’s ability to lead change was a hallmark of her service in the Air Force, and those same qualities will serve her well in leading transformation within VBA.
She spent 17 of her 27 years in the Air Force in leadership roles focused on transformation planning, program implementation, and organizational management.
Her work as director of the Air Force’s Future Total Force office resulted in a comprehensive shift in the business plan and operations for 500,000 Air Force personnel worldwide. This significant transformation resulted in new capabilities for joint warfighters and redesigned the Air Force Future Force Structure Plan.
As Assistant Deputy Director in the Directorate of Air Force Strategic Planning, she provided oversight and leadership for key staff divisions focused on future concepts, transformation, strategic planning, and Quadrennial Defense Review initiatives.
While in uniform, she also served as Chief of Air Force Future Concepts and Transformation; Chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Strategic Initiatives Group; and Chief of Operations for the Air National Guard’s Productivity and Quality Center.
She’s also a pilot and aircraft commander with over 1,500 flight hours.
The child of a military family, she understands the special demands placed on the families of our men and women in uniform. And her experience in the National Guard will provide great insights into how we can best serve Veterans of the Reserve component.
She knows what it is like for the thousands of men and women transitioning out of uniform. She is a Veteran herself. She is married to a Veteran. She is the daughter of a Veteran, and she currently has family members serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of our top priorities at VA is to eliminate Veteran homelessness, and Allison has a great, personal dedication to helping the homeless. She volunteers regularly with her church and family to provide services for those in need, demonstrating the compassion that is central to everything we do.
Secretary Hickey, we could not have found someone more qualified, more compassionate, more understanding, and more determined to rise to the challenge of addressing the benefits needs of our Nation’s Veterans. We are thrilled that you have chosen to join us in serving your country, once more, at VA. Thank you for answering this call to serve.