Bob, thank you for that kind introduction, and many thanks for this invitation to join you here in Jacksonville.
Let me also acknowledge National Commander Steve Zeitz and Executive Director Herb Rosenbleeth. Thank you for your leadership of this great organization;
David Magidson, thank you as well for helping to preserve the many contributions of Jewish Veterans to our nation's military;
Two West Point classmates, Mike Leibowitz and Len Green;
Fellow Veterans, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
Good morning, I am honored to join you at your national convention for my first visit. As the oldest Veteran service organization, you have, for over one hundred years, promoted the principles on which our great Nation was founded.
By opposing bigotry in the United States, and indeed by being the only Veteran service organization to march alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington in 1963, Jewish War Veterans has helped create a society in which all of America's children and grandchildren can flourish. Your commitment to the next generation is also evident in your unwavering and longtime support for the Boy Scouts and your college scholarship program.
I am thankful to President Obama for giving me this opportunity to serve Veterans. You don't get many do-over's in life, and for me, this is a do-over. I get to care for the folks I went to war with 40 years ago in Vietnam. I get to care for the youngsters I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff. And I get to care for true giants who saved the world during World War II and who marched to the guns in Korea in 1950.
Like some of you, I grew up in Vietnam. I went to war with a generation of patriots who were equally tough, determined, courageous, and capable of unbelievable acts of courage and sacrifice. It is sometimes said that we honor the fallen by how we care for the living—the ones who made it home. And that's what President Obama and VA have been committed to for the past two-and-a-half years.
These are tough economic times, and that's especially true for Veterans. As of June of this year, one million Veterans were unemployed, and the jobless rate for post-9/11 Veterans was 13.3 percent—a particularly hard-hit generation. And, as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, an additional one million servicemembers are projected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016.
So, last Friday, the President again, in demonstrating both his unwavering commitment to those who have defended our Nation and his deep concern about the unique challenges facing them, took action and announced four new initiatives to directly address these conditions:
President Obama handed me two priorities when he offered me this appointment: First, make things better for Veterans—that's what Friday's job announcement was about—and then, transform the Department of Veterans Affairs so that it better serves Veterans throughout the 21st century.
Pretty strategic guidance: Serve Veterans, do it better, transform for the future. He didn't say what or how or when. He expected me to figure that out.
Well, I didn't grow up in VA, and I'm not a clinician, so there was a lot of learning that first year. You watched me struggle a bit in implementing the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, without any automation tools for what was, in 2009, a massive, brand new program. The new law directed VA to implement it on the fly—and we did.
Everything had to be done by stubby pencil, but we put 173,000 youngsters into college that fall—the hard way. At the same time, we fast-tracked development of IT tools that have arrived and are today in operation administrating the education of over 518,000 Veterans and family members under the new GI Bill program. And when VA's other educational assistance programs are added, that number of Veteran and family member students exceeds 840,000.
This fall, we will expand that GI Bill program to provide vocational training and other non-degree job opportunities for Veterans who want to work but who aren't necessarily interested in spending four years in a college classroom—another opportunity for Veterans to add value to their communities.
There are clear lessons from implementing the new GI Bill: First, VA is tough and agile enough to implement a new program on the fly. Second, as it does that, it is also innovative enough to simultaneously develop new tools to better administer that new program for the long haul.
What that told me is that we have good, dedicated, and creative people who come to work at VA every day. My job is to grow and develop them for long-term leadership responsibilities to this important department and to provide them the right tools, which have been lacking.
Now, the President provided not only strategic guidance—he also provided his personal support; he assured the availability of much needed, scarce resources to address longstanding issues; and then he allowed me, as secretary, the freedom to make decisions and to act.
Well, two-and-a-half years ago, here were some of the things I started to work on: Too many Veterans could not access VA's services and benefits, and when they tried, the claims process was difficult to navigate—some said "near impossible"—creating a massive backlog in disability claims. In fact, some Veterans suggested that VA was waiting for them to die so it wouldn't have to pay them their benefits. Pretty strong stuff for a new secretary to hear. But OK, I got the picture. I asked you to give me a chance to try to fix a backlog that had been years in the making. I just needed resources and a little time.
You also told me that it was wrong for any Veteran in this country to be homeless, and I agreed with you. In fact, the President was ahead of both of us on this, based on his insights from his time on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. And he decided to do something about it.
Some of you also told me that VA had an attitude problem—that we didn't always treat Veterans with dignity and respect—and that women Veterans, in particular, were not being well served in many cases. It was not that we were doing anything disrespectful, but that our entire system was heavily male-oriented, so women Veterans didn't feel comfortable or welcomed. OK, we needed to do something about both of these perceptions.
Finally, many felt we were too slow to react to real changes in Veterans lives. An example here might be the impact of rising gas prices or the cost of medications. Three-and-a-half-years ago, the beneficial travel rate was 11 cents per mile; today, it is 41.5 cents per mile, and we have controlled co-pay costs on medications to the benefit of all Veterans for the past one-and-a-half years.
In response to our budget proposals to address all these concerns, among others, President Obama increased VA's 2010 budget to $115 billion—a 16 percent increase over the $99.8 billion budget I inherited in 2009, the largest single-year increase in over 30 years. This year, the 2011 budget grew to $126.6 billion, and the President's 2012 budget request for next year, currently before the Congress, is for $132.2 billion. Very few organizations—public, private, profit, nonprofit—have had this kind of resourcing support over the past three budget cycles. And every bit of it is needed to fix longstanding issues in this department.
Thanks to the President, we have a clear direction, predictability in resourcing, and unwavering leadership support. Now it's up to us to deliver. While there will likely be some adjustment to the President's 2012 budget request currently before the Congress and our 2013 budget proposal, Veterans remain a very high priority with President Obama. I know that personally, and it goes deep with him. That commitment will be reflected in the care and benefits VA continues to provide the men and women who served us in our Nation's darkest hours—and their families and our survivors.
In keeping his promises to Veterans, the President's past budgets have enabled us to address some of the early concerns you asked me to take on when I arrived:
Access: To your concerns from 2009 that not enough Veterans could access VA's benefits and services, we have made measurable progress in outreaching to Veterans who did not know about VA or their earned benefits, or had lost faith in us some time ago. Streamlining initiatives to improve Veterans' access to healthcare has increased the number of enrolled Veterans by nearly 800,000 in the last two-and-a-half- years—a 10 percent uptick.
We will continue to press in this area and broaden our appeal to women Veterans. With women's program coordinators at each major medical center, with over 1,200 providers having received advanced training in women's healthcare, and with our efforts to give women Veterans their own larger voice through a national women's summit, we believe we are anticipating the coming surge in women Veterans.
And with two operational campaigns still underway and continuing economic challenges at home, VA's mission is clear and compelling for Veterans' long-term well-being. We, in VA, must be more demanding on ourselves to get every penny and every second of return on the investments we make on behalf of Veterans. And when the last combatant comes home from Iraq and Afghanistan in a few years, DoD's missions may be over, but VA's requirements will still be growing, something that is likely to continue for another decade or more beyond that point. We must be vigilant to not create another Vietnam generation, whose unaddressed medical needs continue to challenge its members, even today.
Homelessness: In 2009, you told me that no Veteran should live homeless in this rich and powerful country. Well, I've never been able to fix a problem that I couldn't see, so we have begun creating a registry of homeless Veterans. We cannot help them unless we know who and where they are and what they need, so we are working with HUD, Labor, Education, Defense, state and local governments, non-profits, and volunteers to get a reliable registry so we can attack the root causes of the homeless problem.
VA's progress has been significant. Since 2008, VA has helped permanently house over 29,000 homeless Veterans. Another 30,000 have been assisted through the homeless call center, and we have hired approximately 330 homeless or formerly homeless Veterans to provide peer support and to help ease the suffering of other Veterans who find themselves homeless. We intend to reduce the number of homeless Veterans to below 60,000 by June 2012, with the goal of ending this national embarrassment in 2015.
What we have learned over the past two-and-a-half years is that we cannot end Veterans homelessness through street rescues alone. We must develop robust prevention initiatives that protect an "at risk" population that is difficult to define and see. But we know this "at risk" population exists because Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and are well up there in joblessness, as well. Unless we are conducting a full-court press in all these areas, street rescues of the estimated 80,000 homeless Veterans alone will not be enough.
VA is leading the fight against homelessness with all of our substantial capabilities: primary medical and dental care; mental health; substance abuse treatment; education; case management; housing; and jobs counseling. Importantly, street rescues must continue, but they have never defined the entire problem. We are outreaching to states and communities to collaborate at the local level with nonprofit partners who know the homeless situation first hand.
We are also conducting justice outreach to support the creation of Veterans courts, which would remand Veterans—those facing minor charges, petty crimes, and repeated substance abuse offenses—to VA for treatment in lieu of incarceration. And we're working with state and federal prisons to afford Veterans being released from prison an opportunity to break the cycle of incarceration-homelessness-incarceration, which plagues many of them. We are committed to ending Veterans homelessness by 2015, and we are after it.
Claims backlog: You asked me to fix the backlog in disability claims, and I have committed to ending it in 2015, by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level. Of the things you asked me to take on, this one's taking longer to achieve momentum. But we have a host of promising options being piloted today and expect them to begin paying off in 2012, as we begin fully automating the disability claims process. Our success in automating the new GI Bill program on the fly gives us a measure of confidence that we will soon have the automation tools needed to begin beating the backlog in the short term.
Attitude: Two years ago, I heard that some in VA had an attitude problem. And so, since last December, with input and recommendations from a variety of panels, work groups, and VA senior leaders, we have settled on five core values that underscore the moral obligations inherent in VA's mission: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence.
In time, I hope you will see our core values demonstrably at work in our daily conduct of business. You have my assurance that these are promises VA has embraced with serious dispatch.
With your help and support, we've had more than two good years for Veterans. There's still much to be done, but we have momentum in key areas and clear directions for the future. We will not fail the men and women who have fought to keep us free, and next month will mark a decade since 9/11—a decade in which our country has been at war.
The 9/11 Generation includes more than a million spouses and two million children of service members, many of whom have lived their entire lives in a nation at war. More military women have served in combat than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed multiple times. They have all borne a heavy burden on behalf of the Nation. But despite the enormous strains of ten years of continuous operations, our military remains as strong as it has ever been. The 9/11 Generation is defined, just as every previous generation of America's Veterans has been defined, by the virtues of selfless service, sacrifice, and devotion to duty.
From the "greatest generation" came an Army dentist named Ben Salomon. The story of his heroism in battle is nothing short of epic. Regrettably, it took our country over 50 years to recognize his actions.
In 1944, Captain Salomon went ashore on Saipan with the 105th Infantry Regiment. Since there was little need for a regimental dentist, he volunteered to replace the second battalion's surgeon who had been wounded. Under orders to kill ten Americans each, several thousand Japanese soldiers began moving against the regiment's 1st and 2nd battalions. Salomon was attending to the wounded in his aid tent when Japanese soldiers began to enter. He shot the first one, who had bayoneted a wounded American lying near the tent. As he turned his attention back to the wounded, two more Japanese soldiers appeared at the tent entrance. As Captain Salomon killed them, four more crawled under the tent walls. Captain Salomon kicked the knife out of the hand of one, shot another, and bayoneted a third. He butted the fourth in the stomach and a wounded comrade shot and killed the enemy soldier. Captain Salomon then ordered the wounded to evacuate to safety, as best they could, while he held off the enemy.
Captain Salomon took control of a machine gun, the crew of which had been killed, and defended his aid station. The position was overrun, and when it was retaken two days later, Captain Salomon's body was found slumped over the gun with more than 90 wounds. At the gun's final emplacement, drag marks from the tripod indicated Captain Salomon had displaced the gun at least once, and collected enemy dead defined earlier fighting positions. Ninety-eight enemy soldiers' bodies were piled in front.
For his actions, Captain Salomon received the Medal of Honor in 2002. He joins 17 other Jewish servicemembers who have been awarded our Nation's top military honor.
We stand in awe of such courage, determination, and selflessness. Remembering Ben Salomon and the service of all Jewish Veterans is a privilege and an honor for all of us at VA.
God bless our men and women in uniform who serve the cause of peace; God bless our Veterans; and may God continue to bless this great Nation of ours. Thank you.