It’s great to be back in San Juan and especially to be here for this discussion on a topic which is so important to our country … that of “Empowering Veterans”!
Let me begin by saying “Thank you” to every man and woman present who has worn the uniform of our nation in time of conflict…or in time of peace. To our newest Veterans who have returned from the frontlines in Iraq or Afghanistan … or from other military assignments around the world … a special welcome home. We cannot tell you enough how deeply our nation appreciates your service.
Today I represent the 16-hundred employees of the National Cemetery Administration. Among our 130 national cemeteries is Puerto Rico National Cemetery. Like all VA national cemeteries, it is operated as a national shrine in honor of those who have worn the uniform of our country.
I’d like to express my appreciation to the cemetery director, Mr. Steve Fezler, and to all of the dedicated employees who staff that beautiful cemetery. Could I ask the cemetery employees to please stand?
These are the people who care for the grieving families who arrive each day, and who maintain the cemetery in a manner that honors each Veteran who is laid to rest in those sacred grounds. I thank them – and I ask you to thank them – for their devotion to duty.
These employees are part of a much larger team – the 260,000 employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs who are charged to promote the health, welfare and dignity – and to honor the memory – of all Veterans in recognition of their service to this Nation.
VA employees are committed to care for our youngest Veterans while also keeping faith with older generations who for decades have relied on VA for their care.
That commitment is reflected in the many programs and initiatives that we are discussing here today – to include the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill that takes effect in just two weeks – on August 1st.
The “New GI Bill” allows eligible Veterans who served at least 90 days active duty since September 11, 2001, to receive an in-state, graduate or undergraduate education at a public institution at no cost.
Certain members of the armed forces may transfer benefits to a spouse or dependent children, as well.
Other benefits may include:
VA is working hard to spread the word to eligible Veterans, and you are going to hear much more about this in the coming days. But this bears repeating: the Post 9/11 GI Bill is the most extensive educational assistance program since the original GI Bill was passed in 1944. It is part of a continuum of opportunity and care that demonstrates to our servicemen and servicewomen – as President Obama has said – that “When you come home to America, America will be here for you.”
VA’s commitment to Veterans is total, it is complete. It extends throughout the Veterans’ lifetime, and then beyond, to the final promise of care which we are so honored to provide at VA’s national cemeteries.
Let me tell you a little about my organization, and then talk more specifically about VA’s plan to serve the future burial needs of Veterans and their family members here in Puerto Rico.
I consider it a great privilege to work at our national cemeteries where every day families entrust their loved ones to our care … to supervise the operations and maintenance of these national shrines … to help the Nation express appreciation for the service of our Veterans and gratitude for the great sacrifices that they have made.
I’m proud of our memorial programs that benefit deceased Veterans and their family members. This includes the government headstone or marker which can be placed at the gravesite of a U.S. Veteran who has been interred in virtually any cemetery, anywhere in the world.
We also provide the Presidential Memorial Certificate which bears the signature of President Obama. The Presidential Memorial Certificate is available for any family member who wishes to honor the memory of a deceased Veteran.
There is also a new benefit that is under design – a medallion that can be affixed to privately purchased headstones and markers in private cemeteries, to signify the grave as that of a US Veteran. This benefit will be available in lieu of a Government furnished headstone or marker, for Veterans in privately marked graves that died on or after Nov. 1, 1990.
I want to say a word about the NCA workforce, which is unique in many respects.
First, 71 percent of NCA employees are Veterans themselves. 71 percent … That is by far the highest percentage of Veteran employment of any federal agency.
And we want to hire even more Veterans. We have a booth here at the LULAC convention – and we are encouraging Veterans to log on to “USAJOBS.GOV” to watch for – and to apply for – future openings at our National Cemeteries.
Not only are most of our employees Veterans, most of our leaders and supervisors – like myself – have come from the rank and file of cemetery operations.
When our employees meet a family for a funeral service, they understand that everything must go exactly as planned. Nothing is overlooked.
We do this more than 100,000 times a year – every burial is conducted as if it were the only service that is scheduled for the entire day.
Our employees know about the grief that family members are enduring; and they know how to interact with care and compassion that is so important at the family’s time of need.
In fact, NCA has built a culture of service that is – literally – second to none.
Every three years, we participate in the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey, the nation’s leading survey in this area – which is conducted by the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business. In 2007 NCA earned an overall customer satisfaction score of 95 out of 100 in the ACSI survey. That is the highest score that has ever been recorded by the American Customer Satisfaction Index for any organization – public or private.
It’s important to note that we provide this level of service while also administering an historic expansion of the national cemetery system.
This year so far, in 2009, we have opened five new national cemeteries. The most recent to open was Bakersfield National Cemetery in the Central Valley of California.
These new cemeteries are very important to the communities they serve. However, our highest priority projects are those which allow us to continue service at existing cemeteries, such as Puerto Rico National Cemetery.
We know that the Veteran community here is very concerned about the limited burial space that remains at Puerto Rico National Cemetery. We share your concern. I am here to restate VA’s commitment – VA’s 100 percent commitment – to provide uninterrupted service in meeting the burial needs of the Veterans and their families here in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
In fulfillment of that commitment, VA is investing $33 million to provide 7,000 additional gravesites at Puerto Rico National Cemetery. This major construction project, which is now under design, will also feature a columbarium with 3,000 niches for cremated remains.
The project will provide extensive repairs and upgrades for the administration building, committal shelters, maintenance complex, as well as other infrastructure improvements throughout the cemetery.
When this project is complete, Puerto Rico National Cemetery will be able to provide full-casket gravesites until 2019 and an option for inurnment of cremated remains until approximately the year 2030.
We are also looking at other, future options for continued service to the Veterans of Puerto Rico. We are actively looking for land – including options in the commercial real estate market – that would be suitable for additional cemetery development. Be assured that VA will continue in its strong support for the Veterans of Puerto Rico – and for all who have worn the uniform – today and into the future.
May we continue to work together and do great things for those who sacrificed so greatly for us. Muchas gracias.