Keith [Sherin, Vice Chairman & CFO, GE]—thank you for that kind introduction, and my thanks, as well, to Jeff Immelt for hosting this Veterans' workshop and for inviting me today. There are good things going on at GE for Veterans, and I am honored to be here. Let me also acknowledge:
Let me thank GE for what it's doing here today—renewing its support for the Guard and Reserve, joining the Chamber's "Hiring Our Heroes" initiative, and, especially, pledging to hire 1,000 Veterans and Reservists every year for the next five years. GE knows the business value of military service, with some 10,000 Veterans and reservists already on its rolls. Now, it's stepping up to hire 5,000 more—that's good for America, good for Veterans, and good for GE. Congratulations, and thank you!
President and Mrs. Obama greatly appreciate your efforts and applaud your successes. They have both led on issues of caring for our men and women in uniform, their families, our Veterans, and our survivors. As the President remarked during 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."
Nearly three million Americans have volunteered for military service since the attacks of 9/11—knowing full well they could be headed to combat. Their accomplishments have been extraordinary. You've heard them before, but let me review their stunning achievements—they unseated the Taliban, pushed al Qaeda from its sanctuaries, captured Saddam Hussein, delivered justice to Osama bin Laden—and are now training Iraqi and Afghan forces to defend their own countries, and rescuing hostages from the hands of petty criminals, pirates, and terrorists.
This is what warfighters do—they take on the tough missions, no matter how difficult or dangerous, without fanfare or complaint. They are no admirable examples of selfless service. They stepped forth in time of need, to serve our country after it had been attacked on our home soil. In my book, they are the face of American exceptionalism.
Throughout our military's near 237-year history, missions have changed, but our people have not. Fundamentally, the character, courage, creativity, and determination of our Nation's warfighters—and the leadership and teambuilding skills they learned by being on the very best teams in the world—are what they have to offer when the uniforms come off. The skills, knowledge, and attributes that made them prudent yet decisive, and practical yet dominant on battlefields where uncertainty reigned, are what they bring home to help us stoke our economic engine.
Over 316,000 good people come to work at VA every day. 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 at VA today. We hire 40,000 people annually. We are committed to taking our 30 percent Veteran-workforce and increasing it to 40 percent. We will achieve 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 this country: 152 medical centers, each affiliated with at least one of the top 104 medical schools. Additionally, there are over 800 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 300 Vet Centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics that reach the most remote of our rural Veterans—all tethered to one of our 152 medical centers. But here's what's also true about VA:
In size and scope, VA looks like a Fortune 15 company, and our Veteran-heavy workforce is a large factor behind our performance. Nearly three-quarters of our cemetery employees are Veterans [73.5 percent], and for the past 10 years they have been, hands down, the top-rated public or private organization in customer service, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index—outperforming Google, Lexus, Apple, all the others.
Some wonder, how much can there be to burial operations? Well, if you abide by the philosophy that our cemeteries are shrines honoring our Nation's heroes and you commit to getting it right on the one, most painful day for families—you strive for perfection over 117,000 times a year, every year, for 10 years to earn ACSI's top ranking. That's what Veterans deliver for us.
Three years ago, we were meeting only 30 percent of our IT delivery milestones—huge investments with little to show for it. So we beefed up our IT operations with qualified Veterans—people who know how to "get on the objective at 2:00 in the morning in the driving rain." We also reached out to Veteran-owned IT businesses to partner with us. And today, nearly two-thirds of our IT developmental work is done by Veterans. Their discipline, teambuilding skills, and leader instincts have helped our IT product development group meet nearly 90 percent of its delivery targets last fiscal year. I am told the industry average is 32 percent.
VA's Veteran-heavy workforce also performs well in our Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy, which filled over 111 million prescriptions last year. J.D. Power and Associates recognized it as one of their 2011 customer-service champions—one of only 40 organizations that earned of more than 800 evaluated.
And in 2009 our Clinical Research Pharmacy Coordinating Center received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige quality award—America's highest honor for innovation and performance excellence presented annually by the President—only the second federal agency to be so recognized in the last 23 years.
Historically, we know that Veterans hire Veterans—they know their value. So VA encourages Veteran entrepreneurship. To bolster Veteran-owned small businesses, we follow a "Veterans first" contracting policy for verified Veteran small business owners. Last year, we awarded seven out of 15 major IT contracts to Veteran-owned small businesses. The eight other contract awardees were also required to meet aggressive subcontracting goals for Veteran-owned small businesses.
Last month, VA sponsored a major job fair here in DC, connecting Veterans to some 6,400 job opportunities in the public and private sector. More than 20 major private-sector employers participated, in addition to seven federal agencies—VA, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Agriculture, Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency. In June, we will host a similar job fair in Detroit, in conjunction with our Veteran-owned small business exposition.
The Obama administration is committed to moving Veterans quickly from the battle space into the workplace, using tax incentives in the Vow to Hire our Heroes Act and other salary reimbursements for employers who hire our unemployed Veterans.
The president and the congress have also provided us the Post-9/11 GI Bill—the largest student aid package of its kind since the original GI Bill in 1944, which only lasted for 12 years. Historian Milton Greenberg wrote 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."
In the second half of the 20th century, those graduates went on to provide 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 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 classroom can gain the crucial skills needed to transition their military experience into civilian occupations.
On occasion, I sense concerns about the fragility of Veterans coming home from the current conflicts. To be sure, they are carrying loads, none of the rest of us had to carry. I am proud and confident that they will transition home just as others before them have. It's a matter of time, patience, and support.
I want to tell you about one such soldier and why it inspires me. His name is Evan Cole—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."
Many years ago, as a young officer in Europe, I listened to one of our senior officers use a quotation in a speech—one that I've remembered all these years and used myself from time to time. It goes like this: "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." Standing then only miles from the Iron Curtain, I realized that I had been taking a lot for granted. You see, I could utter those words, and you can as well—it is the legacy of all free people everywhere. Because we share that in common, our children and grandchildren have that legacy—the right to make the same statement boldly. As free people, we bequeath that legacy to them. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath it to others. The shackled cannot, and the free who are not willing to fight cannot. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath it to others.
My thanks to GE for its commitment to hiring thousands of Veterans, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it. I congratulate you for your dedication and devotion to them.
Veterans are among the finest people I know—among them walk the Evan Coles, and the Veterans in this room—all of whom have so much to offer, not just to corporate America, but to all of America.
God bless those who serve and have served the Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.