I’m honored to join you, once again, for your mid-winter conference. With your help and support, we’ve had a good year for Veterans. There’s still much to be done, but we have momentum in key areas with clear directions for the future. The need for us and our programs continues to grow, and we have plans on how to respond to that need. A case in point:
On 26 March 2010, Marine Corporal Todd Nicely led his squad on a foot patrol near Lakari, Afghanistan. Walking point, he tripped a 40-pound, pressure-detonated, improvised explosive device, which ripped off his body armor and helmet, and tore off his right leg and left hand. Badly shredded, his left leg and right arm were subsequently removed.
Todd Nicely is one of our Nation’s three surviving quadruple amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan. He has remained resilient through innumerable surgeries. Late last year, the Washington Post told his incredible story of survival, adjustment, love, and support—but at its core, that front-page article described a Marine with the heart of a lion.
What shines through in the article are his resilience, humility, strength of character, and an incredibly positive attitude from deep within.
“I remember screaming once or twice. You know, those blood-curdling screams they do in the movies,” he recounted of the moments immediately after the IED went off, “and I remember thinking to myself. ‘Don’t do that again, because this is the last image that these boys are going to have of you in their heads. So stay strong.’ After that, I just shut up.”
At Bethesda, in his first meeting with his 24-year old wife, Crystal—a wonderful woman every bit as tough as her husband—she asked him if he knew his legs were missing. He said he did. She then asked him if he knew that his hands were also missing. He said, “No.” He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Did anybody else get hurt?” Crystal said, “No.” His response was one word—“Good.”
During an awards ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with members of his unit present, Lieutenant Colonel McDonough, Todd’s battalion commander, said that he hoped that his own children might one day have the courage of Corporal Nicely. When it was his turn to speak, Todd said simply, “I’d just like to thank everybody. I’d like to thank my platoon for getting me back. If it wasn’t for you guys, I don’t think I’d be alive today.” Other than that, I really don’t have much more to say. I love you guys.”
Todd Nicely’s toughness, his courage, concern for squad mates even when his own life hung in the balance, and his quiet humility are hallmarks we have witnessed time and again amongst this generation of warriors. Whatever service we come from, all of us can see in Todd Nicely and his actions the essence of the Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis—Always Faithful.
On 14 February, President Obama submitted his 2012 budget and 2013 advance appropriation requests, and in doing so, kept his promises to Veterans. Today, I’d like to address what we must accomplish this year, and next, with these resources.
Each document is important enough as a separate budget, but taken together, they are powerful in terms of energy, opportunity, and continuity—thanks to the advance appropriations for which you fought so hard. While VBA and NCA and others all across government are dealing with a continuing resolution, VHA is delivering healthcare to Veterans without interruption for the rest of 2011.
Less than 1% of Americans serve in our military. In doing so, these men and women allow the rest of us to do what Americans do best—and that’s out-think, out-create, out-work, and out-produce the rest of the world. In protecting us against outside threats, they enable the rest of the Nation to stoke our powerful economic engine into doing what we Americans have historically done. And that’s win.
Now, look—I know the economy has lost a bit of sparkle for the moment, but I will always trust the instincts, the energy, the creativity, and the intellect of the American people to get us back on course. President Obama has challenged us to win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our competition.
Today, our military remains operationally deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan—conflicts that have been underway for most of the past decade. The burden on our magnificent all-volunteer force, and their families, to accomplish every mission—without failure, fanfare, or complain—has been enormous.
As our troops redeploy home, shed their uniforms, and return to their communities, the Nation needs to find ways of offering them the opportunity to add their substantial skills, knowledge, and attributes to that powerful economic engine.
VA’s mission is crucial to their transition home. As President Lincoln reminded us 146 years ago, “We care for [those] who have borne the battle and [their spouses] and [orphans].”
Those requirements and responsibilities have grown as we addressed longstanding issues from past wars—Agent Orange, Gulf War illnesses, generational combat PTSD, for example—and watched the injuries and illnesses tied to the current conflicts grow significantly. These numbers will continue to rise for many years, perhaps decades after the last American combatant departs Iraq and Afghanistan. You know this because you have lived our history, but not everyone appreciates that historical reality. It’s been true for every war—and we need to make this point.
As you know, VA is a large organization with a correspondingly large budget and a diverse and complex mission—care and benefits. We provide healthcare, disability benefits and pensions, home loans and life insurance, robust education programs, and run the Nation’s largest cemetery system, which has outperformed every other enterprise in our country for the past decade—public or private, profit or non-profit.
Some ask, why is the VA enterprise so large and complex? Why is the federal government doing so many things for Veterans? Simple. Because in times past, those who wore the Nation’s uniforms were often unable to either acquire, or afford, these services on their own. No one would provide them—too much risk.
At present, about 8.3 million Veterans depend on VA for medical care and benefits, and over 800,000 Veterans and family members depend on us for educational benefits. But over 22 million Veterans and another 35 million spouses and adult children see themselves as Veterans or part of Veterans’ families, whether or not they visit our medical centers or apply for benefits. They all expect us to get things right for the Veterans we serve.
We will not curtail Veterans’ support when missions are declared, “Accomplished” and the troops come home, as has happened on occasion in the past, leaving at least one generation of Veterans to struggle in anonymity for 40 years. We owe them all better, and we will need your continued advice and support in serving them.
To keep his promises to Veterans and meet the obligations of the American people, the President’s budget requests approximately $132 billion in 2012—nearly $62 billion in discretionary funding and roughly $70 billion in mandatory funding. Our discretionary budget request represents an increase of $5.9 billion, or 10.6 percent, over the 2010 budget.
Both funding requests allow VA to concentrate on five of our highest-priority goals in the coming two years:
Let me quickly make a few key points:
President Obama strongly supports our mission to end Veteran homelessness by 2015. We have made major progress. Six years ago, there were approximately 195,000 homeless Veterans on any given night. Today, we estimate there are about 76,000. We intend to get to 59,000 by June of next year.
The 2012 budget includes $939 million for specific programs to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans—an increase of 17.5 percent, or $140 million over 2011.
A comprehensive review is underway to use VA’s inventory of vacant or under-utilized buildings to house homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. VA has identified 94 sites that will potentially add another 6,300 units of housing through public-private ventures using VA’s enhanced-use lease authority. This authority is scheduled to lapse at the end of calendar year 2011, and its reauthorization by Congress is needed to continue increasing housing for homeless Veterans and their families. We are counting on Congress to help us here.
The most flexible and responsive housing option remains the HUD-VASH voucher, on which we work closely with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both Secretary Donovan and I endorse the importance of this joint effort. HUD-VASH vouchers are our only option, at the moment, for housing Veterans with families.
Claims Backlog and GI Bill
In 2009, we produced 977,000 claims decisions—and received another million claims in return. In 2010, for the first time, we produced a million claims decisions—and received 1.2 million claims in return. We expect 1.45 million claims to be submitted this year and know that we will produce another record in claims decisions—and still fall short. This is a big numbers game and merely hiring more people to handle claims won’t let us get ahead of the incoming surge, let alone cleave the size of the backlog.
We must automate—and fast. The 2012 budget request for VBA is $2 billion, an increase of $330 million, or 19.5 percent, over the 2010 budget. These funds are needed to get us out of paper and into electronic processing, where we should have gone years ago. As we automate, we must also increase accuracy—today, 84 percent, 2015, 98 percent. We have good direction. It’s just time to get it right before this assignment ends.
The President’s budget request for VBA provides $148 million to complete pilot testing and field our paperless Veterans Benefits Management System. In the short term, the budget funds an increase of 716 fill-time employees.
The budget request also supports expanded eligibility for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits by including non-college degree programs such as on-the-job training, flight training, and correspondence courses. It also allows us to fully automate the payment process to speed tuition and housing payments to all eligible Veterans by the end of this calendar year.
Through October 2010, VA issued over $7 billion in tuition, housing, and stipends for more than 423,000 student-Veterans and eligible family members. This program is working—need to work graduation rates next.
The budget request seeks nearly $51 billion for medical care—including $6.2 billion for critically-required mental health programs, $68 million directly for our suicide prevention initiative alone. Our focus is on treatment for post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and other psychological and cognitive health requirements as well as greater collaboration between the Departments of Defense and VA in providing mental healthcare.
In addition to those major initiatives, the new budget:
In all of our efforts, DAV has been critical to the successes we’ve enjoyed—and no one has contributed more to our efforts than your executive director, Dave Gorman. Let me conclude by making a small presentation to recognize his service to his country and to his fellow Veterans for the past four decades.
Let me invite Dave to join me here at the podium and, as he makes his way up here, let me just say that since his service and sacrifice in Vietnam as a “Sky-Soldier,” since joining DAV in 1970 and taking on ever-increasing leadership responsibilities from the local to the national levels, and finally, to service as executive director since 1995, Dave has been a tireless advocate for all Veterans.
It’s been a pleasure to partner with him and a privilege to call him “friend.”
All of us at VA wish you and Paula the very best as you begin the next phase of your lives together. This small token is of a Soldier knelt in prayer before a wall inscribed with Lincoln’s timeless challenge to all of us “to care”—not just talk—but “care for those who have borne the battle,” and for their spouses and orphans.
Dave, thank you.