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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Veterans of Foreign Wars Mid-Winter Conference
Louisville, KY
February 20, 2009

Commander-in-Chief Glen Gardner—thank you for that kind introduction, and congratulations on your leadership of the VFW. Good morning everyone—I’m honored to be here. Thank you for inviting me to Louisville.

My name is Shinseki. I am a Veteran, and I am honored to be serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. For me, this is a noble calling, one that offers me an opportunity to give back to those who have served with and for me in uniform and those Veterans from World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in the profession of arms.

Today is exactly one month since my confirmation as secretary, and it has been fast-moving, stimulating and spirited. I am honored to be speaking to the VFW on my first official engagement—one of our most respected and influential Veterans Service Organizations. We share the same mission—partnering to ensure that America’s Veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned. President Lincoln’s charge to all of us remains a trumpet call to action, “. . . to care for him, who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” It is also a duty that we have, on occasion, failed to meet. We intend to answer Lincoln’s call fully. Your counsel will be important to me, so I welcome your advice, as I do the advice of others, in reinforcing the time honored covenant between America and her Veterans.

Your history is a distinguished legacy of service stretching back 110 years to the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. What began as a handful of Veterans, today numbers 2.4 million members—almost 10% of America’s living Veterans. Your membership extends from coast to coast and overseas in all directions. Size and diversity provide you strength to better meet the evolving needs of Veterans.

The willingness to change and a requisite agility to adapt quickly to what’s occurring around you is essential to remaining relevant. And if you fail to remain relevant, you will not be around to create the 110-year legacy, as you have. So my congratulations, once again, for your agility and your endurance, and all the good things you have been able to accomplish as a result of such longevity.

President Obama has a vision for change at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I am fully committed to helping him achieve it. That vision will require transforming VA into an agile, adaptive organization that is capable of leading change, not waiting around to be forced into it, or worse, risking irrelevance. Transformation will require a comprehensive review of the fundamentals in every line of operation that we perform. I look forward to the candid, constructive advice from all our stakeholders as we take on transforming the department. The focal point of our efforts will be our nation’s Veterans and the fair and just treatment they deserve. I am your advocate, and I intend to represent you forcefully.

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Glen and Bob about VA and the VFW. What resonated in that discussion was the VFW’s unwavering support of all our Veterans and of the good people, who come to work at the VA every day, to serve them. A large percentage of those VA workers are Veterans, themselves.

We have over 280,000 employees—they work in 153 Medical Centers, 755 Outpatient Clinics, 230 VetCenters, 57 Regional Offices, 128 National Cemeteries, and the Office in Washington, D.C. To a person, they are committed to our mission and devoted to our clients. I am proud of them.

As dedicated and loyal as that workforce is, we still face persistent challenges in several areas:

  • The downturn in the economy stresses Veterans and their families and, in turn, strains local, state and federal Veterans’ care resources;
  • Implementing the new GI Bill, the Outreach Improvement act, and the re-authorization of VA benefits to priority group 8 Veterans challenge our own agility;
  • Budgetary pressures, given the state of the economy, will likely collide with increasing demand for our services and benefits;
  • The need to quickly and effectively address the connectivity between TBI, PTSD, mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide ideation requires quick and effective solutions for both our newest Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those from previous conflicts;
  • The ongoing, largest expansion of our VA cemetery system since the end of the Civil War -- as much a success story as a challenge;
  • And finally, the need to continue delivering high quality benefits and services in a timely, consistent, and equitable manner—each and every day.

Clearly, this is a time of great challenge and even greater opportunity, a time to re-set VA’s vectors for the 21st Century. I intend to encourage teamwork, reward initiative, seek innovation, and demand the highest levels of integrity, transparency, and performance in leading the department through transformational change.

I used to remind folks in the Army that, “units don’t train; they don’t stay ready; they don’t grow and develop leadership; they don’t sacrifice and they don’t take risks on behalf of the Nation—people do.” As a result, it will be out people who produce the changes that will keep us relevant to Lincoln’s charge—not technology or processes. So transformation is ultimately a leadership issue. We have a capable and dedicated workforce, and I am prepared to lead the department through transformation.

Leadership, innovation, and initiative—those qualities are important, if we are going to change the culture of any department which has the long and proud history that the VA has. We do many things well, but there are areas where improvements are warranted. These we will undertake by transforming VA into a 21st Century organization—one that’s anchored on three bedrock principles. We will be people-centric; we will be results-driven; and, by necessity, we will be forward-looking.

First, people-centric—Veterans are the centerpiece of our organization and of everything we do as we design, implement, and sustain programs that serve them. Through their service in uniform, they have invested themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our Nation.

Veterans are our clients, not merely our customers. Customers exercise options and shop where they get the best deal. Most Veterans do not have other options. They made their down payment to retain our services when they put on the uniforms of our Nation. They are our clients, and they have every right to expect timely delivery of high quality health care and services. We are obliged to deliver, and we shall.

People-centric also includes the dedicated and loyal members of the VA workforce. VA has raised the bar high across many fields and functions. Where we lead, we will continue to do so; where we do not, we will regain that position of preeminent leadership. From delivering cutting-edge medical care to answering a simple benefits inquiry, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce to serve the millions of Veterans who seek our care and services. Training and continuous learning, communications and team-building—these will be components of a renewed culture of achievement.

Second, results-driven. At the end of each day, our true measure of success is the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of the services and support we provide. Veterans, Congress, and the American people expect that, and I demand it. We will set, meet or exceed objectives in each of these performance areas. Our performance standards will be clear. Our processes will remain accessible, responsive, and transparent to ensure we address the needs of a demographically diverse and geographically dispersed Veteran population. Our success must encompass cost-effectiveness—we are stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we will include appropriate metrics to accurately gauge the quality of our care and the effectiveness of our management processes.

Finally, forward-looking. We will seek out opportunities for delivering the best services with available resources. We will continually challenge ourselves to find ways of working smarter and more efficiently. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base, and emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.

In the near-term, I am focused on developing a credible and adequate 2010 budget request. However, the long-term priority will always be to make VA a 21st Century organization, singularly focused on the Nation's Veterans as its clients.

The VFW is noted for its history of unwavering commitment to its Veterans—VA’s and VFW’s goals are largely the same. Your dedication is apparent in the wide range of successful services, initiatives, contributions and achievements which benefit the men and women who have kept our Nation free:

  • From your leadership in enacting the new 21st Century GI Bill;
  • Your innovative support for needy Veterans, Veterans’ children, and Veteran travel through the Kahle Fund;
  • Your 1.3 million hours of volunteer work;
  • Your assistance in crafting and leveraging passage of critical, Veteran-centric legislation;
  • To the myriad good deeds residing in your military assistance programs for active and reserve component personnel, raising unit cohesion, individual morale, and providing a lifeline to those in distress.

The list of good deeds is longer than I can adequately recount here. Your generosity and graciousness have touched many and served President Lincoln well. You have my greatest respect and admiration for all that you do each day.

VA’s and VFW’s interests are complimentary. Our collaboration will generate significant and positive outcomes—quickly—and I look forward to strengthening our partnership.

120 years ago, one of our Nation’s great heroes reminded us about the power of people working together—and the astounding feats they are capable of when they dedicate themselves to an important cause. Years before he made these remarks, his regiment had held off repeated assaults and defeated the final attack with a bayonet charge, securing the far left flank of a long battle line.

Standing on that hallowed ground 26 years later, where he had rallied his young men to stand and deliver, an elderly Joshua Chamberlain said of his Soldiers’ valor and sacrifice, “The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests far and wide, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before . . . and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality . . . reaches we know not where, in space and in time, [and] greatens the heart to the limits of the soul’s ideal.”

General Chamberlain’s words ring just as true today as they did nearly 120 years ago. They capture the indomitable spirit and resolve of a band of brothers—America’s Veterans. They capture, as well, the essence of what we can accomplish, together, for the good of our Veterans and our Nation. That spirit of cooperation in a common cause will assist us at VA in fulfilling the covenant with our Veterans made by President Lincoln. And it affords yet another opportunity for the VFW—as it has so well, for so long—to "honor the dead by helping the living."

You have my respect and admiration for all that you do. I look forward to working with you. God bless our Veterans and God bless America. Thank you.