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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Paralyzed Veterans of America Mid-Winter Conference
Arlington, VA
March 2, 2009

Doug, thank you for that kind introduction.

My name is Shinseki. I am a Veteran, and I am most honored to be serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. It’s a calling that offers me an opportunity to give back to those who have served with and for me in uniform and to those heroes of World War II and Korea on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.

It’s good to be here with the PVA. Some of us share some things in common—we have served in combat, we have experienced the stings of battle . . . and we are the lucky ones. We now share the mission of getting things right for all Veterans because there is legitimacy to our voices— legitimacy fired in pain, forged on the anvil of struggle, and made “stronger in all the broken places.” Through our partnership, we have a unique opportunity to answer President Lincoln’s call to action—“. . . to care for him, who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Sadly, it is also a duty that we have sometimes failed to meet. But we have the opportunity to answer Lincoln’s call during our watch.

It’s been more than a month since I was sworn in, and the transition has been fast-paced, stimulating, and spirited. I have been seeking counsel from many quarters, but especially from the men and women of the Nation’s Veteran’s Service Organizations—what better source of information than Veterans themselves?

The PVA’s counsel is essential. Your accomplishments in, and contributions to, spinal-cord disabled Veterans are legend. From the PVA Research Foundation to the Consortium for Spinal Cord Medicine, the PVA is a critical organization in the quest for cures and treatments of spinal cord injuries. Through the PVA Education Foundation, you are making America aware of the daily challenges facing all Spinal-Cord-Injured and Disabled (SCI-D) citizens—while illuminating innovative programs which are helping the SCI-D community meet and overcome those challenges. Through centers of care like the new San Antonio Vocational Rehabilitation Center in the Audie Murphy VA Medical Center, PVA is again opening doors to success for Spinal-Cord-Injured and Disabled Veterans.

One of PVA’s most important—and nationally visible—contributions to public awareness of SCI-D is the National Wheelchair Games—now in its 29th year. I know this year’s event—“Rollin’ on the River”—in Spokane will be nothing less than the re-affirmation of the power of the mind, the adaptability of the body, and the strength of the human spirit, to compete full-up in the arena of athletic endeavor, regardless of disability. I am proud that VA is your partner in the wheelchair games, and I commend PVA for sponsoring this important event.

And I salute PVA for your advocacy for all Veterans. Though your focus remains on spinal-cord disabilities, you have embraced the broader mission of well-being for all Veterans. With your help and support, and with leaders like Randy Pleva, Homer Townsend, and Doug Vollmer, VA will establish the right priorities and execute them.

Those who know what it’s like to sustain life-altering injuries, know what it takes to rebuild one’s life afterwards. To be sure, our lives have been changed—but we have not. Our dreams and our hopes are real. We transform ourselves to meet our new conditions, and in the process, we evolve our thinking to accommodate our capabilities—but, we never quit. In the words I used to recite from the Soldier’s Creed:

I will always place the mission first;
I will never accept defeat;
I will never quit;
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Four simple declaratory sentences. Each is a promise from one warrior to others. It assures others that you can count on me. More than most, we have insights into what it takes to change, evolve, and transform when times are toughest.

President Obama has a vision for change at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I am fully committed to helping him achieve it. That vision requires transforming the VA into an agile, adaptive organization that is capable of leading change, not waiting to be dragged into it. We will review the fundamentals in every line of operation we manage. To begin, I’ve asked for a review of every large meeting and conference we sponsor to insure that we are focusing on training to better serve Veterans rather than merely gathering socially. I am your advocate, and I intend to represent you forcefully.

I appreciate your support of the good people at the VA. A large percentage of them are Veterans themselves, and many are disabled. To a person, they are committed to our mission, and devoted to our clients. I am proud of them all.

But, as dedicated and loyal as they are, 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 GI 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 ideation requires quick and effective solutions for all affected Veterans;
  • And the need to expedite access to high quality benefits and services in a timely, consistent, and equitable manner remains a constant. Better and faster will be our focus.

This is clearly a time of great challenge, but it is also a time of great opportunity—perhaps even greater opportunity. It provides us an interval to re-set the VA’s key vectors for the 21st Century, and we are going to leverage it. Teamwork, initiative, innovation, and the highest levels of integrity, transparency, and performance are what are needed to transform the department. I intend to seek best performances out of the VA during this transformation. And I will leave no dollar on the table that could be, should be, and will be used to meet the needs of America’s Veterans.

There was a time when I used to remind folks to “take care of our people—they will take care of the mission.” It will be our people who will generate change, keep us relevant, and exceed our expectations—not technology or processes. So transformation is, ultimately, a leadership issue. I am proud of our people, and I intend to lead them through transformation.

Where we lead, we will continue to do so; where we do not, we will regain a position of preeminence. From delivering cutting-edge medical care to answering a simple benefits inquiry, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce. Training and continuous learning, communications and team-building—these will be the attributes of a culture of achievement.

At the end of each day, our true measure of success will be the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of the services and support we provide. We will be measured by our accomplishments, not our promises. Veterans, Congress and the American people expect that, and I do, as well.

Finally, we will continually challenge ourselves to find ways of working smarter and more efficiently. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base, and emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.

To begin addressing these issues, I have developed a credible and adequate 2010 budget request. The long-term priority will always be to transform the VA into a 21st Century organization, but we must begin from where we are and build momentum quickly.

In closing, we serve some very special people. Out of my generation came a very special, young Midwesterner. Tall, lean, and ramrod straight, he looked every bit the Soldier that he was. As a young Captain in 1966, he took command of a company in An Khe, Vietnam. Weary and disillusioned, the men of the unit were cautious about their new, energetic commander. He quickly restored their morale, reinforced their confidence, and instilled pride in them. In short, he led them, inspired them, and earned their respect.

Scheduled to relinquish command in late 1966, the captain requested to stay with his company an extra month. On 27 January of 1967, his men planned a surprise party for his 27th birthday. But the party had to be cancelled—orders came for his company to lead an air assault on a North Vietnamese regimental headquarters. As his helicopter touched down on that mission, machinegun fire raked his aircraft. Bullets shattered both his left ankle and right leg. Another round struck him in the head—a devastating wound.

Months of surgery and years of recovery and rehabilitation, beginning in military hospitals and continuing in VA facilities, followed. Left blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, he carried a noticeable depression on his head and was racked with terrible headaches. His leg wounds were horribly painful, and he had only partial use of one arm—confining him to a wheelchair most of the time.

With the care and love of a strong family, coupled with his indomitable spirit, this young man persevered. Re-introduced to a high school sweetheart, they married in 1972. They bought a small home and built a life together.

What was most remarkable about this young man was his refusal to see himself as unfortunate. He prayed at each meal, thanking God for sending him his wife and for making it possible to live at home in a free country. Once, when his wife mentioned his understating his sacrifices, he reminded her that, "I had friends who didn't come back . . . I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for." Of the indescribable pain he endured constantly, he said to his sister, when speaking of a wounded comrade, “I should never complain about the pain in my leg because . . . [he] doesn’t have [one].”

Many of us have unknowingly encountered this young man’s photograph. Prior to going to Vietnam, Captain Sam Bird was assigned to the Old Guard here at Fort Myer, Virginia. On 25 November, 1963, he was the officer in charge of the casket detail at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Historian William Manchester described him that day as “ a lean, sinewy Kansan, the kind of American youth whom Congressmen dutifully praise each Fourth of July, and whose existence many, grown jaded by years on the Hill, secretly doubt.”

Well, you and I know that such people do exist—we have the honor of serving them every day. Though Sam Bird passed away in 1984, other disabled Veterans, many of them paralyzed with spinal cord injuries, show the same courage, determination, and confidence to rebuild their lives, maintain a sense of humor through unspeakable pain, and demonstrate compassion for others. They deserve the help we would have shown Sam Bird.

You have my respect and admiration for all that you do. I look forward to working with the PVA and helping you meet your goals of forging better lives for all Spinal-Cord Injured and Disabled Veterans. God bless our Veterans, and God bless America.

Thank You.