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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Air Force Sergeants Association
Daytona Beach, FL
August 15, 2012

President Ledoux, many thanks for that kind introduction, for your many years of service to the Nation, and for your leadership of the Air Force Sergeants Association. Let me also acknowledge:

General Mark Welsh—congratulations to you, Chief, and Mrs. Welsh. All best wishes in your leadership of our Air Force.

General Gary North, my thanks to you and Shelly and your family for 36 years of outstanding service to our Nation and the men and women of the Air Force. Congratulations on a well-earned retirement, and best wishes to you both as you turn this page.

Lt. Gen. Jack Klimp.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Roy, and command chiefs of the major air commands.

AFSA CEO "Doc" McCauslin and your leadership.

AFSA members, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

First, let me congratulate the enlisted leadership, active, guard, and reserve, serving and retired, of the United States Air Force. Yours is the finest air force in the world, and it is your professionalism as noncommissioned officers that makes that air force possible, day-in and day-out.

My own time in uniform was shaped by noncommissioned officers. Like other Soldiers of my generation, I grew up in Vietnam. My instincts about what is important to the profession of arms were born there. We, too, were part of a "surge," President Lyndon Johnson's surge. Prior to April of 1965, there were 16,000 Americans in Vietnam. A year and a half or so later, Johnson's surge had taken us to roughly 540,000 Americans.

When you deploy forces that quickly, you are bound to break some rules. We did. Many of us, second lieutenants, were sent into combat mere months after commissioning, without the benefit of our branch officer basic courses. The same was true for some young NCO's.

The army of 1965 was largely a draft army—no Sergeants Major Academy and no robust Army NCO education system.

So, we lieutenants went to war on the hard-learned skills of our noncommissioned officers, and they grew us into company commanders. In my case, Sergeant Ernie Kingcade was my officer basic course for the two weeks that we deployed to Vietnam by troopship. He sought me out aboard the heavily loaded USNS General Nelson M. Walker, and took the time to teach me what I would have learned in officer basic, drilling me until we were competent as a fires team. You can appreciate why this has remained a warm memory for me for over 46 years now. Had it not been for Ernie's own competence, his skills, knowledge, and attributes, I would not have survived my first combat test.

I am here today because Ernie Kingcade was a professional noncommissioned officer who was competent at his tasks, cared for his soldiers, and took the time to develop his lieutenant. NCO competence and leader development became important priorities in every unit I commanded thereafter.

I didn't grow up in VA, and I am not a clinician. During my 38 years in uniform, I had little to no contact with VA—not out of the ordinary for the active force. There should be a closer working relationship between our departments, but two large and proud departments have not made that a priority. So, when I accepted this appointment, there was much to learn about running a fortune 15 equivalent operation.

You don't get many "do-over's" in life. Serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a "do-over" for me. I get to take care of the kids, like Ernie Kingcade, with whom I went to war 46 years ago. I get to take care of the youngsters I sent to war as a service chief, and I get to take care of those giants of World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders I, and my generation of Soldiers, stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.

Most people see VA as a large healthcare provider, and for the most part that is true—152 medical centers, each affiliated with at least one of the top 104 medical schools in the country, powerful teaching and research affiliations. Each medical center serves as flagship to a cluster of Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (817), Readjustment Counseling VetCenters (300), and mobile clinics (70), reaching out to the most remote of our rural Veterans—over 1,300 healthcare access points nationwide.

But here's what's also true about VA:

  • VA is the second largest educational assistance program in the country, providing $10 billion annually.

  • VA guarantees nearly 1.7 million home loans with an unpaid balance of $250 billion. Our foreclosure rate is the lowest in all categories of mortgage loans at 2.25 percent, and we are the only zero-down lender in the Nation.

  • VA is the Nation's eighth largest life insurance enterprise with $1.33 trillion in coverage, over seven million clients, and a 95% satisfaction rating. For active-duty personnel covered by Service Members Group Life Insurance (SGLI), VA is your insurer.

  • VA operates the country's largest national cemetery system—131 cemeteries. Nearly three-quarters of our cemetery employees are Veterans, and for the past 10 years, they have been the top-rated public or private organization in the Nation in customer service, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, outperforming Google, Lexus,
  • Apple, and all others.

Over 316,000 good people come to work at VA every day. One third of them, over 100,000, are Veterans. The determination, initiative, and leadership these Veterans demonstrated in uniform continue to define their performance at VA today, as we transform VA into a 21st century organization—my charge from the President three and a half years ago.

In 2009, o¬f the over 23 million living Veterans in this country, only 7.4 million of them were enrolled in VA healthcare, and only 3 million were receiving compensation and pension benefits. We had an outreach problem. Many didn't know about VA. We had an access problem because even if they knew about us, some couldn't get in. And even then, we were carrying a backlog in compensation claims.

Three-and-a-half-years ago, we were still grappling with some unresolved issues from past wars, the Gulf War, over 20 years ago, and the Vietnam War, nearly 50 years ago now. We didn't take care of business decades ago, when we should have, and some Veterans were dying without benefits.

Three and a half years ago, an estimated 107,000 Veterans were homeless in this rich and powerful country. The President has said, we won't "be satisfied until every Veteran who has fought for America has a home in America." Veteran homelessness was a problem long before 2009. The economic downturn of 2008 threatened to drive it up to a whole new level. In spite of the somber outlook, the President was resolute, clear, and unwavering; it is immoral for anyone who has defended this country to be homeless in America. Fix it.

Well, that was the landscape in 2009. After consulting with key stakeholders, we settled on three key priorities, which remain unchanged today:

  • Increase Veterans access to VA benefits & services;

  • Eliminate the backlog in compensation claims in 2015;

  • And end Veteran homelessness, also in 2015.

None of these are achievable without the Department of Defense because very little of what we do in VA originates in VA; most of what we do originates in DoD.

So, our first order of business had to be establishing closer, more collaborative working relationships with DoD, at all levels. It takes both departments to create a seamless transition so that separating Servicemembers return home ready to study, to train, to work, and to strengthen our economy.

Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta and I have personally met nine times in the last 18 months. Three weeks ago, Secretary Panetta and I testified, for the first time, together before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and the House Veterans Affairs Committees. We are focused on making the transition from DoD to VA as seamless and as productive as possible.

Our second priority was to fix VA's budget process. Creating change requires resources, and if you want to go faster, it will take more resources. For the past three and a half years, VA has been forceful in arguing its resourcing requirements, and the President has been stalwart in supporting us.

In 2009, the VA budget totaled $99.8 billion; congressionally enhanced, it was a good budget. In 2010, the President increased that budget from $99.8 billion to $127.2 billion—spectacular—a near 30 percent increase in a single year. Even better, the President's 2013 budget request, currently before the Congress, is for $140.3 billion, a 40 percent increase since 2009.

I was once asked, "Mr. Secretary, what do you value?" And before I could answer, I was lectured: "Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." This 40 percent increase to VA's budget demonstrates that the President values Veterans, their families, and our survivors. He understands our obligation to Veterans, and to Servicemembers as well, and he won't let them down.

So, what have we put into motion at VA in the past three and a half years? First, to increase access, we have added 57 new Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 20 more mobile health clinics, and a fifth polytrauma center in San Antonio, Texas. We have three new hospitals under construction in Denver, Orlando, and New Orleans. We just opened the spectacular, state-of-the-art VA medical center in Las Vegas last week, the first new VA hospital in 17 years. This is about promise making and promise keeping. It's taken us years, but as President Obama remarked recently, "we keep our promises."

We have also invested heavily in new telehealth-telemedicine initiatives to overcome the tyranny of distance. Enhanced information technologies are also beginning to make it easier for Veterans to make appointments, access their medical records, and find out about available benefits and services.

We've placed full-time women Veterans' program managers at 144 medical centers to advocate for women Veterans, and named women Veterans coordinators at all 56 regional offices to assist women Veterans with their claims. Since 2009, we've opened 19 clinics specifically designed to serve women, and trained more than 1,200 healthcare providers in women's health.

We've also increased access to our national cemeteries, opening three new national cemeteries and 14 state cemeteries—much needed burial access.

Besides these initiatives to increase Veterans access to VA services, we also took care of some long-overdue business, cleaning up the battlefield:

  • For Vietnam Veterans, we granted presumption of service connection for three new agent-orange–related conditions: Parkinson's disease, hairy cell and other chronic b-cell leukemias, and ischemic heart disease. It's been 45 years. It was time.

  • For Gulf War Veterans, we granted presumption of service connection for nine diseases associated with Gulf War Illness. It's been over 20 years. It was time.

  • Finally, PTSD is as old as warfare itself. For all combat Veterans with verifiable PTSD—World War II, Korea, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Operation Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others—we granted the presumption of service connection.

These three decisions alone have dramatically expanded access to VA care and benefits for nearly a million Veterans. Understandably, they also led to an increase in the number of compensation claims. Veterans, who previously had no access, are now enrolling in VA and submitting claims. Growth in the number of claims and the backlog is what happens when we increase access. But it was the right thing to do, for Vietnam Veterans, for Gulf War Veterans, and for combat Veterans of all wars; and, we would do it all over again.

It's a big numbers process, and we do most all of it on paper. Paper is what we receive from DoD today. With the planned draw-down of up to a million troops over the next five years, the number of new claims will continue to grow. It will take both DoD and VA to enable VA to achieve paperless processing. Hence, my close working relationship with Secretary Panetta. He and I are pulling our departments into the future.

VA has spent the past two years developing a new automation tool called VBMS, a paperless Veterans Benefits Management System. It's being piloted at two regional offices for over a year now. We'll have VBMS up and running at 16 regional offices by the end of the year, and at all 56 regional offices by the end of 2013. VBMS is key to that strategy. It's here; it's about to be fielded. And in 2014, we will expect DoD to begin providing all transition documentation in electrons. Because of the President's strong support, VA has the resources it needs. We'll end the backlog in 2015.

In 2009, I observed that Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and they rank right up there in joblessness, as well. We've had a full-court press on to rescue Veterans from the streets. As I indicated earlier, the estimated number of homeless Veterans in this country in 2009 was 107,000. By 2011, that estimate had dropped to 67,500. When the Department of Housing and Urban Development announces its 2012 estimate of homeless Veterans, we expect that the number will be below 60,000, keeping us on track to break 35,000 in 2013 and end the "rescue phase" of Veteran homelessness in 2015.

The "prevention" phase of Veteran homelessness is ongoing and will continue indefinitely, requiring VA to focus its significant capabilities on keeping "at risk" Veterans from slipping into that downward spiral that ends in homelessness.

For example, we have roughly 800,000 Veterans and eligible family members in training and education today at universities, colleges, community colleges, tech schools, and in the trades. They must graduate; anyone who flunks out in this economy is at high risk of homelessness. Prevention—stay in school; complete your studies. So my one-word speech to student Veterans, as I did at Boise State University last month, is "Graduate! Graduate! If I sound like your dad, I am. I'm paying most of your bills—so graduate!"

Mental health: In 2005, at the height of operations in Iraq, we had 13,000 mental health professionals handling the healthcare needs of our Veterans. Today, that number is greater than 20,000, and we recently announced that we're hiring 1,600 more clinical staff to address the growth in mental health requirements spawned by a decade of tough, high risk, high stress, repetitive, combat deployments.

We know that when we diagnose and treat, people get better. Among the 8.6 million Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare, mental health treatment is up. At the same time, for Veterans receiving VA treatment, our suicide rates are down. Treatment works.

However, too many Veterans still leave the military with mental health issues we never find out about. Most Veterans who commit suicide, perhaps as many as two-out-of-three, were never enrolled in VA. So, as good as we think we are, we can't help those we don't treat—another reason increasing access and developing a seamless transition between DoD and VA is so important. These are magnificent young people, and we are not going to let them down.

One of our most successful outreach efforts is our Veterans' crisis line. DoD knows it as the military crisis line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, no cost to DoD. Since 2007, over 640,000 people have called in, including over 8,000 active-duty Servicemembers. We've made over 99,000 referrals for care and rescued over 23,000 from potential suicide. Younger Veterans are more comfortable with chatting and texting, so in 2009 we added on-line chat, and in 2011, a texting service. We always reach out to Veterans in need of support.

We have worked at greater collaboration between VA and DoD, especially in that critical phase before Servicemembers leave the military. We simply must transition you all better. We do this best with warm handoffs between the departments; that is key to preventing the downward spiral that often leads to homelessness and sometimes to suicide.

Secretary Gates and I worked these initiatives hard, and Secretary Panetta and I have worked them even harder. For example, we have committed both our departments to a single, common, joint, integrated Electronic Health Record (iEHR)—open in architecture, non-proprietary in design. We expect initial operating capability in 2014; final operating capability in 2017.

Good jobs are essential for Veterans, and we are proud to have partnered with the First Lady's Joining Forces initiative and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring our Heroes campaign. The President challenged private companies to hire or train 100,000 Veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013. 2,100 companies have committed to 175,000 hires, and 90,000 Veterans and spouses have already been hired.

VA has held its own hiring fairs in Washington, DC, and Detroit in the first six months of this year. Over 12,000 Veterans showed up, over 8,000 interviews were conducted, and more than 1,700 job offers were made on the spot. Job offers continue to flow.

We have also conducted two Veteran-owned small-business training expositions in the past 12 months—our opportunity to educate Veteran small business owners on our procurement requirements and allow the 3,500 who showed up to demonstrate their capabilities and improve their preparation of competitive proposals for government contracts. Bottom line: Veterans hire Veterans; so, the more successful Veteran entrepreneurs we cultivate, the better the opportunities for Veterans' employment.

A little history—as a young battalion commander serving in Cold War Germany, I heard one of our senior generals declare in a Memorial Day speech: "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." Then he pointed east and said, "and not far from here, there are people, a whole nation, who cannot say that and would not really understand the fundamental importance of those words."

Well, his words struck me. I realized that I had been taking the privilege of my American citizenship a bit for granted. You see, those words are my legacy, as well. "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." And those words are your legacy also. And because we share that legacy, our children and grandchildren inherit it from us; they are able to make the same unequivocal statement.

Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath such a legacy to others. The shackled cannot. And the free, who are not willing to fight and die for it, cannot. Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath the gift of freedom to others, as our ancestors did for us, and as you, in uniform, are doing today.

We've been at war for about a decade now. It takes a superb, disciplined fighting force to handle that kind of strain. The men and women who wear our Nation's uniforms are magnificent. Thank you for your service and for preserving my legacy as a free man.

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

Thank you.