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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

U.S. Chamber of Commerce “Hiring Our Heroes” Gala
Washington, DC
November 10, 2011

As prepared:

Thank you. Thank you very much. It's nine o'clock, and according to the program we should be finishing up about now. So I'm going to depart from my prepared remarks and tell you a couple of stories and a little about VA.

For the most part, VA is a large healthcare provider—the largest integrated healthcare system in the country—152 medical centers, over 800 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, nearly 300 Vet Centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics. But here's what's also true about VA:

  • VA guarantees nearly 1.6 million home loans with an unpaid balance of $248 billion. Our foreclosure rate is the lowest in all categories of mortgage loans.

  • VA is the Nation's eighth largest life insurance enterprise with $1.3 trillion in coverage, 7.1 million clients, and a 95 percent satisfaction rating.

  • VA is second only to the Department of Education in providing educational benefits of $10 billion annually, with over 920,000 Veterans and family members in college.

  • VA also operates the country's largest national cemetery system—131 cemeteries.

  • Over 315,000 good people come to work at VA every day. One third—over 100,000—are Veterans.

  • In size and scope, VA is on par with Fortune 15 companies. Our 2012 budget request, currently before the Congress, is $132.2 billion, thanks to the President's strong leadership and congressional support.

That's VA. So how are we doing? A quick story:

In the late 1990s, I was commanding the Peace Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina—long before Afghanistan and Iraq. There were still many difficult decisions to be resolved, one of which concerned a key, strategically located town called Brcko. The Serbs desperately wanted Brcko because it strategically linked together the two halves of Republika Srpska, which extend like jaws around the rest of Bosnia.

Shortly before a planned announcement on the fate of Brcko, quiet rumors began that the UN High Commissioner might delay his decision to keep the Serbs from taking control of Brcko. The Serbs were adamant that Brcko was sovereign ground and that any other decision, even a delay, would spark an outbreak of hostilities among the former warring factions—with my command, SFOR, caught in the middle. We were headed to crisis—I began preparing for the worst.

As we approached the scheduled announcement, a young psyops team went to Brcko to videotape man-in-the-street interviews about a possible delay. They filmed many interviews but narrowed their product down to two bookend interviews—an older, grandmotherly looking woman and the town drunk. The grandmother said on camera that a delay would be unfortunate, but it was more important to get the right decision for Serbs and that Serbs should behave themselves so as not to jeopardize the right decision later. The town drunk said under no circumstances should the decision be delayed, and if it were, he and three buddies—all of them clearly inebriated early in the day—would go after SFOR, my command, and throw us out of the country.

The decision was, in fact, to delay, and just before it was announced, these videotapes were provided to all the Serb television stations, none of which had a spot to show following the announcement. As the announcement was made, this tape was broadcast all over Republika Srpska. The grandmother's voice of reason won the day. The town drunk was laughable. Not a single incident occurred that night when the delay was announced. Everyone stayed home—even the town drunks.

That psyops team saved us a fight—dealing in uncertainty, working under time pressures, highly creative, exercising initiative, determined in convincing some very suspicious TV stations to take their tapes. That's the kind of talent you can expect from America's Veterans, and that's the kind of talent America needs to compete in today's marketplace.

There is no doubt that we are facing tough economic times—the toughest in my lifetime. We will only achieve full recovery through the productivity and ingenuity of American businesses, like yours. Your success depends on having tough, hard-working people who can think on their feet, make decisions, and act decisively. And I can tell you from personal experience that the best people with those traits are found among the ranks of our Nation's Veterans.

VA's Veteran-heavy workforce is a large part of our success. As I mentioned, one third of our workforce are Veterans, and our goal is to raise that 40 percent.

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 customer service, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index—outperforming Google, Lexus, Apple, all the others.

Two years ago, we were meeting only 30 percent of our IT delivery milestones—huge investments with little to show for it. So we beefed up our IT operations with qualified Veterans—people who know how to get on the objective at two o'clock in the morning in the driving rain. We also reached out to Veteran-owned IT businesses to partner with us.

Today, nearly two-thirds of our IT developmental work is being done by Veterans. Their highly disciplined approach to work, teambuilding skills, formal and informal leadership instincts have all helped our IT product development group meet nearly 90 percent of its delivery targets this fiscal year. I am told the industry average is 32 percent.

VA's Veteran-heavy workforce performs well in other areas, too. Our Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy filled over 111 million prescriptions last fiscal year and does such a good job that J.D. Power and Associates recognized it as one of their 2011 Customer-Service Champions. Only 40 entities out of 900 received that distinction this year. In 2009, our Clinical Research Pharmacy Coordinating Center received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige quality award—America's highest honor for innovation and performance excellence presented annually by the President—only the second federal agency to be so recognized in 23 years.

We have a responsibility to help prepare Veterans for the civilian workforce. The President and the Congress provided us the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill in 1944. Historian Milton Greenberg wrote that when the original GI Bill expired in 1956, "the United States was richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-educated individuals." Those graduates went on to provide the leadership that catapulted our economy to the world's largest and our Nation to leader of the free world and victor in the Cold War.

Lightning is about to strike twice. Today, as I mentioned, we have over 800,000 Veterans and family members enrolled in college.

Let me close by sharing the story of one of the outstanding young Veterans, who is going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and will soon be ready for employment. His name is Evan Cole—Sergeant Evan Cole.

In his application letter to Catholic University in 2009, Evan Cole wrote, "On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. My best friend and I talked to an Army recruiter right away. By December, we were both enlisted in the United States Army as tankers.

"Our parents had to sign for us since we were still only 17. I knew I wanted to eventually go to college, but decided to put it off to serve my country. I figured one of the benefits of joining—the GI Bill—would help me pay for a school that I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.

"After graduation, I completed basic training and was sent to Germany. In February of 2004, we deployed to Samarra, Iraq. I remember my first combat patrol, proudly heading into the city on our tank. I was 19 years old, thinking it was exactly like the photo in the book my dad had given me when I was seven. There were no pictures in that book of what came next. We were ambushed. Two roadside bombs and a landmine hit vehicles in which I was patrolling. Halfway through the tour, I accepted the fact I would be going home in a box. But the tour finally ended and I returned to Germany—alive.

"We refitted and trained, then deployed to Iraq for a second time to Camp Ramadi in the western Al Anbar province. Though the violence was nothing compared to the first tour, it only takes one blast. Six months into the tour, I was serving as turret gunner on a humvee when we drove over a roadside bomb. My truck commander, and another soldier running up from behind to help us, were both killed. I was thrown about 30 feet straight up into the air and flew about 50 feet away from the vehicle before landing, with a large piece of the truck on top of me.

"The initial radio report listed me as killed in action. Once they found me, I was immediately evacuated, eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I had broken every bone in my right leg, had a piece of it blown off, shattered my knee, cracked and ripped my pelvis open, had shrapnel punch through my left leg, shrapnel through my liver, broken my right arm, left hand, shattered most of my teeth, and had a traumatic brain injury. Two years and more than 15 surgeries later, I'm ready to start down a new path.

"I don't regret my decision to join the Army. I'm proud of my service and I know I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the friends who were with me in Iraq, and even more than that, if God had not been with me. I made a promise to God and my friends that I would succeed and make something of myself. I can never get my friends back, but I can honor their memory and sacrifice by doing something worthwhile and meaningful with my life.

"I do have trouble remembering things sometimes. All that means is that I will have to work harder to reach my goals. But I am no stranger to hard work. I manage to succeed at whatever I put my mind to because I absolutely refuse to give up, quit, or fail. I would like the opportunity to study architecture at Catholic University—for myself, to fulfill my potential—and to fulfill the promise I made to God and to my friends who never left the combat zone. I hope you will give me that chance." Signed, Evan Cole.

Sergeant Cole's college application essay carried the day—he was accepted to enter Catholic University in January of 2010. He completed his first semester with a 4.0 average. He continues to excel at the School of Architecture, maintaining a 3.92 cumulative GPA. He married a beautiful lady this past summer—life is good. I have no doubt that, together, they will meet every challenge life thrusts at them—and, in William Faulkner's words, "not merely endure [but] prevail."

Evan Cole is one of tens of thousands of stories unfolding on college campuses today. As you decide to hire heroes like Sergeant Cole, VA will do our part to ensure they are ready for you. So, spread the word to your peers, to your trade associations, and your human resource managers—not only about what the government is doing to help Veterans succeed in the workforce, but much more importantly, about what great employees the Evan Coles make. Thank you for your commitment to hiring our returning Veterans.

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

Thank you.