John [Sanders, Vice Chair, Board of Trustees, John A. Logan Community College]—Thank you for that kind introduction. Let me also acknowledge:
Good morning—I'm very honored to be here. Every day I gaze out of my office window at the north portico of the White House and can see, in the background, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. It's a rare view of Washington. I am reminded that we live in a great country, and we are truly blessed to be Americans. As President Obama said recently in the State of the Union Address, "Our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it. . . . We must serve them as well as they served us."
One initiative specifically designed to serve this latest generation of Veterans is the new Post 9/11 GI Bill. My first task as Secretary of Veterans Affairs was to implement that new GI Bill "on the fly" in the fall of 2009. I felt like a parent again—hoping my children would get into the best schools, hoping they would be happy and confident with their choices, hoping that the faculty and staff of the schools chosen would be nurturing and supportive—and praying mightily that my children would graduate on time.
After three years at VA, these Veterans are like my children, and they are special. Nearly three million have volunteered for military service since the attacks of 9/11, knowing full well they could be headed to combat. In my book, they are the face of American exceptionalism. We have asked a lot them, and they have carried the load magnificently. Ten years is a long time to be at war.
That's what our troops do—they accomplish their missions, no matter how difficult or dangerous, without fanfare or complaint. Our men and women in uniform are some of the brightest, most agile, and innovative people I have ever met. They have what it takes to succeed—not just in the military, but in school, in business, in any endeavor they choose to pursue. A quick story:
In the late 1990s, I was commanding the Peace Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina—long before Afghanistan and Iraq. It wasn't a hot war, but it had been one, and there were still bad actors and difficult decisions to be resolved. One of those decisions concerned the strategically important town of Brcko. The Serbs desperately wanted Brcko because it linked together the two halves of the Serb republic, which extend like jaws around the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As you might expect, the other two former warring factions—Croats and Muslims—also wanted Brcko specifically because it would keep the Serb Republic divided.
Shortly before the 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 three former warring factions—with the Peace Stabilization Force, SFOR, my command, caught in the middle. We were headed to crisis, so we began preparing for the worst.
As we approached the scheduled announcement, a young psyops—psychological-operations—team went to Brcko to videotape man-in-the-street interviews about a possible delay. They filmed many subjects but narrowed their video 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 all 35,000 or so of us out of the country.
Well, the decision was to delay, and just before it was announced, these videotapes were hand delivered to every Serb television station in the country, none of whom 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 agile creativity you can expect from America's Veterans.
Over 316,000 good people come to work at VA every day, and one third of them, over 100,000, are Veterans. The courage, determination, initiative, perseverance, and leadership they demonstrated in uniform continue to define their performance and enable our successes. We have increased our Veteran employment goal to 40 percent of our workforce, and we will meet that goal.
Most people see VA as a large healthcare provider, and for the most part that is true—the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, serving 8.4 million Veterans in our 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: We provide:
We look like a Fortune 15 entity, and our Veteran-centric workforce has been largely responsible for our successes. Nearly three-quarters of our cemetery employees are Veterans [73.5 percent], 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.
Three years ago, we were meeting only 30 percent of our information technology delivery milestones. So we beefed up our IT operations with qualified Veterans. We also reached out to Veteran-owned IT businesses to partner with us. Today, nearly two-thirds of our IT developmental work is done by Veterans. Their discipline, teambuilding skills, and leader instincts helped our product development group meet nearly 90 percent of its delivery targets last fiscal year. I am told the industry average is 32 percent.
President Obama has encouraged private industry to leverage this kind of talent and experience, with tax incentives and salary reimbursements for employers, that hire Veterans who have been unemployed for six months.
This is an important moment in our Nation's history. Our troops have returned home from Iraq, and their numbers in Afghanistan are likely to decline over time. The educational opportunities available to Veterans can make a huge difference in the future of our Nation.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill in 1944, which only lasted 12 years. We are three years into this one. Historian Milton Greenberg writes 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 provided the leadership that catapulted our economy to world's largest and our Nation to leader of the Free World and victor in the Cold War.
Lightning is about to strike a second time. At the end of 2011, we had over 950,000 Veterans and eligible family members enrolled in college. On 1 October 2011, the GI Bill was expanded to include non-college degree programs, on-the-job apprenticeships, correspondence courses, and flight training programs, so Veterans who don't want to sit in a college classroom can gain crucial work skills that transition military experience into civilian occupations.
The Nation's community colleges have been at the forefront of the new GI Bill, providing high-quality and innovative college courses to over 235,000 Veterans and servicemembers—more than a third of all beneficiaries of the new GI Bill [678,261 to date].
A few great examples—the Lansing Community College offers a "military medic program" that puts former medics on the fast track to become civilian paramedics or registered nurses. Cuyahoga Community College has opened a distance-learning lab at the Cleveland VA Medical Center to give Veterans a head start on their educations while still recovering from their injuries. Many other community colleges have reached out similarly to Veterans assisting them to access their benefits, excel in school, and land good jobs following graduation.
But I want to ask more of you. I want you to embrace your Veteran-students. Encourage them to organize themselves—that'll be good for them and good for your schools. Provide them a meeting place where they can gather to peer-mentor each another, and let them know they are valued members of your institutions. They will be superb students and add to the education of your non-Veterans students and faculty, as well. Track their graduation rates, and let me know how we can better support you. I'm not asking for any gimmes here. They must go to class and complete their academic projects. I just need your help in transitioning this new generation of Veterans from battlefield to college campus. They want an education. Let's insure they get one. Our country needs them.
Some of them bear the signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan—traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—but such wounds do not stop them from achieving academic success. The vast, vast majority of them work through it on their own. But they can help one another. They know what others are going through. It's transitory, and they learn by helping others navigate a rough spot.
Case in point: Sergeant Evan Cole, US Army retired. In his application essay to Catholic University in 2009, Evan 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 . . . 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 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."
Given a chance, Veterans will prevail as your best students—mature beyond their years and accustomed to working hard to succeed. They work well in teams and with others from diverse backgrounds. Their greatest need in making the transition from combat to classroom is the company of other Veterans—men and women like Evan Cole who know what they've been through. Whenever I have a chance to speak with them, I have a one-word speech—"graduate." Otherwise, there's no payoff to them, this program, or to the Nation. Graduate! If I sound like Dad, I am Dad. I'm paying most of their bills. I tell them, if they handle things right, they might get a new car out of this. Graduate!
God bless those who serve and have served the Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.