Thank you, General President Schaitberger.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
Let me first begin by thanking the I-A-F-F for its leading-edge work in advancing our nation's fire and emergency services and advocating for the courageous men and women who deliver them.
It's an honor to be here; thank you for inviting me.
There's no question that you are part of a trust that spans centuries—a public trust woven tightly into the fabric of our society. A trust that attracts people grounded in personal values, human values, service values.
On behalf of Secretary Shinseki and the Department of Veterans Affairs, let me thank you for what you have done over almost a century of service, and for what you continue to do for our communities and our country.
As I say that, I can recall in vivid detail the selfless service, the raw heroism, of our fire fighters and EMTs on 9-11. That was the day that—among many extraordinary acts—they managed to organize the evacuation of 900,000 people from Manhattan in just nine hours. Compare that action with 1940 at Dunkirk, when it took the Allies nine days to evacuate 338,000 troops across the English Channel.
Like America's Veterans, America's first responders have 'borne the battle.' Not only at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but in the relentless daily fight against fire, crime, medical emergencies, and both national and neighborhood crises.
It, too, can be a life-or-death battle.
That's the salient reason that, after their tours of duty, many Veterans exchange their military uniforms for the uniforms worn by our country's close-knit communities of first responders. Like the men and women of I-A-F-F, they chose to continue to serve a noble purpose in life.
This feeling creates a natural affinity with firefighting and fire fighters. It's a calling. A mission that matters. A mission to save lives as well as one that shares in the community and camaraderie of the firehouse.
However, we all know that Veterans are facing employment challenges right now. The numbers tell the story. America has 21.6 million Veterans; of that number, 2.4 million served since 2001. From this post-9-11 cohort, the unemployment rate remains too high.
The month of February, however, brought some good news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan era dropped, as did the rate for our youngest Veteran population of 18-to-24 year olds.
As you just heard the President say in his video remarks a moment ago, we are cautiously optimistic, but we need to continue to press the message that hiring Veterans is important.
One of the reasons employment is important is because these men and women put their lives on the line to defend our country. They 'raised their hand' to serve, and they have been tried, tested, and trained. They have seen the alternatives to our way of life and appreciate our blessings in ways some may take for granted. They are mature beyond their years and eager to live productive, meaningful lives.
Taken together, their skills, talents, and experience—their leadership instincts—are the bedrock of high-performing teams.
They're mission-oriented and place a high value on teamwork and self-discipline, integrity and initiative, commitment and compassion—the same attributes that are the hallmark of professional fire fighters.
I speak about the value of Veterans to an organization from first-hand experience. More than one-third of my department's workforce is made up of Veterans; that's over 100,000 employees who have worn the uniform. Our goal is to increase that figure to 40 percent.
Why? Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because they make a qualitative difference. They can make split-second decisions and follow-through with decisive action. They are the people who know how to get on the objective at two o'clock in the morning in the driving rain. They have what it takes to get the job done—whether that job is in Kandahar, or Kansas.
Representing just one-percent of our population, our active military counts among our nation's most valuable resources. And when its members take on the title of 'Veteran,' we need to treat them with care and tangible appreciation.
We're doing just that through the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill of 1944, thanks to President Obama and the Congress.
I'm sure you've heard of it: tuition, books, and living expenses to just about any college or university in the United States. Also, thanks to the President and Congress, it now covers vocational training and other non-degree job training programs.
It's a game-changer for Veterans. There's no other cohort in the country that has the advantage of being able to rapidly bridge the gap between the supply of workers and the demand for needed skills.
Today over 900,000 Veterans and family members are enrolled in the Post-9/11 and other educational programs. A number are getting the credentials they need from community colleges and training academies to eventually become fire fighters and EMTs. We expect that 40,000 additional Veterans will take advantage of this educational opportunity next year, alone.
It's just one of many initiatives introduced by the President to support, develop, and ensure that Veterans are able to find a job and start—or re-start—their civilian careers once they leave military service.
President Obama has stated that, 'We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America.'
The I-A-F-F can help renew and strengthen that covenant—particularly for the men and women who've shouldered the heavy burden of defense in the last decade.
It's time to do more for Veterans seeking employment in this still difficult labor market.
It's time to give our Veterans the opportunity to transition from warriors to workers.
General President Schaitberger has met with President Obama and with me at VA, and we have listened to your message.
The I-A-F-F can help ensure that our returning servicemen and women are fully integrated into the economic system they have pledged to defend.
Secretary Shinseki and I are available to you to discuss how we can work together to leverage opportunities that will allow them to serve our nation twice-over—once in a uniform of our armed Services and, once again, in the uniforms of our professional fire fighters and emergency medical personnel.