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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

AMVETS's 65th Annual National Convention
New Orleans, LA
August 11, 2009

Let me congratulate you on 65 years of service to American Veterans and the nation. Your founders met in Kansas City, Missouri, on 10 December 1944, to establish this Veterans service organization, the American Veterans of World War II.

What superb vision! Even before anyone could have predicted that the war against tyranny and oppression would be ending in Europe five months later and in the Pacific three months after that, Marines were still engaged in bloody battles like Iwo Jima, where Corporal Tony Stein earned the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry on 19 February 1945.

Hitting the beach with Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, fifth Marine Division, Cpl. Stein was the first Marine from his company on station. Armed with a personally improvised aircraft machine-gun, he provided covering fire for his platoon’s move into position. When they stalled in the face of concentrated machine-gun and mortar fire, Stein stood upright, drawing the enemy’s fire. That enabled him to pinpoint locations of enemy pillboxes. He, then, boldly charged them, one by one, killing twenty enemy in a furious one-man assault. When he expended his ammunition, he ran back to the beach for more, taking off his helmet and boots to run faster in the sand. Cpl. Stein made eight runs back to the beach for more ammunition, each time under intense enemy fire. Despite the unrelenting savagery and confusion of battle, he remained clear-headed and fearless, protecting his fellow Marines, even directing a half-track against a stubborn pillbox until it was destroyed. Although his weapons were twice shot from his hands, he single-handedly covered his platoon’s move to the company position.

Medal of Honor recipients are not the only heroes on battlefields. You and I know that in every battle there are many more Cpl. Steins who are never recognized, let alone awarded the Medal of Honor. But they also put service to country and sacrifice for comrades before their own safety and well-being. Some give their last full measure of devotion in battle, but many who are spared in combat never stop serving. They came home to join organizations, like AMVETS, to continue serving others, their communities, and their country.

Since 1944, AMVETS has been serving those who served—helping Veterans get the benefits and services they have earned, carrying their concerns to the nation’s capital, and volunteering millions of hours to help Veterans and other Americans across the country—over 172,000 hours at VA facilities last year alone.

You have also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, the National Memorial Carillon at Arlington National Cemetery, and more than 60 others like it at home and abroad.

The range of your good works is impressive, and AMVETS makes an ideal service partner for VA. You see, like AMVETS, VA is also about service. every day, 288,000 people come to work at VA trying to do the right thing—serving Veterans to the best of their ability—good people, who work hard at our 153 hospitals, 768 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 232 Vet Centers, 57 regional benefits offices, and 128 national cemeteries. They have but one mission—to care for our nation’s Veterans, wherever they live, and provide them the high-quality benefits they have earned.

Any organization our size is bound to have occasional disappointments, and we have not been spared in recent months. Some disappointments resulted from someone cutting corners. Others were failures in leadership. And still others were systemic—again, a leadership issue.

President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a high-performing 21st century organization—one that adapts to new realities, leverages new technologies, serves a new demography of Veterans with renewed commitment. It will be a different organization from the one that exists today.

How different, you ask? Well, five years from now, we want to be the provider of choice for Veterans—in insurance, in healthcare, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.

If we are to achieve such status amongst Veterans, we must improve access—make it easier for Veterans to know their benefits and simpler for them to receive their entitlements.

To be the provider of choice for healthcare, we must be seen as the laboratory for the U.S. in bio-medical research and engineering. We have had this role in times past, and we still have the edge in some fields. But, we must lead in future research, so that Veterans are always assured of being at the cutting edge of high-quality healthcare. Where we lead, we will sustain and extend our advantage. Where we do not, we will revitalize efforts to gain such leadership.

To be the provider of choice five years from now requires fundamental and comprehensive change inside VA. That kind of change requires determined leadership with all the skills, knowledge, and attributes to lead VA through a transformation. That leadership team has begun coming together. It’s a leadership team whose members have had to go through an exhausting vetting process. The last and only meaningful question I ask each nominee is, "Do you love Veterans? If you don’t, there are lots of other places in government to serve, but this one requires that you love Veterans—who they are, what they stand for, and what we can do to serve them better."

Talented and committed leadership is important, but so is a trained, capable, and motivated workforce committed to our principles: Veteran-centric, results-oriented, and forward-looking. We need to grow a workforce that advocates on behalf of Veterans and family members. Advocacy requires our instilling in each worker a high sense of commitment and personal accountability to our Veterans without sacrificing openness and transparency. Workers must be willing to report problems, and we must be willing to do something about them. This is the only way I know of for gaining momentum for change quickly. Is this hard to do? Near impossible—and that’s why we need the best leaders available, who won’t blink.

That’s our long-term target—getting everyone to think and act in the right way. For the short term, we have begun a top-to-bottom review of every aspect of VA operations. The review is still ongoing, but we’ve learned enough already to identify 22 transformational initiatives that have been funded in fiscal 2010. I won’t go through all 22 initiatives. Here are some examples:

  • VA Point-of-Service Kiosks: We want Veterans to have simpler, faster access to their electronic health records and take care of other VA business at the same time. We plan to install simple, user-friendly automated kiosks—similar to ATMs—at all VA health-care facilities. This will reduce lines—unless you get behind a slow reader—and increase privacy. Some folks tell me you’ll never use it and would prefer standing in lines anyway. Well, we’ll also have an information desk for those who like punishment, but the rest of us will try the kiosks out.
  • Readjustment counseling for women Veterans: Women will constitute 15 percent of the Veteran population in 10 years. They number about 1.8 million at 5.9 percent now. Over the next 10 years, VA must re-structure from the male-centric designs that have served us so well to reflect our changing demography. It’s time.
  • Virtual lifetime electronic record: In April, President Obama charged defense Secretary Gates and me to build a fully interoperable electronic records system that will provide each member of our armed forces a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record—called a VLER—that will stay with them from the day they put on the uniform to the day they are laid to rest. VA is already a leader in the development and use of electronic health records. With our leadership and experience, DoD and VA have the opportunity to drive the improvement of health care through interoperable records, not just for Veterans and service members, but for the nation as a whole. It will also speed up the claims process and eliminate delays in receiving care.

These are a few new initiatives covered in our 2010 budget request. We’re asking for $112.8 billion in total funding—15.5 percent more than our 2009 funding. Percentage-wise, this is the largest one-year increase requested by a president for VA in over 30 years. It includes additional funding for a number of initiatives, including specialty care in aging, women's health, mental health, rural health, homelessness, prosthetics, and vision and spinal cord injuries.

Even as we focus on the 2010 budget, there are close-in targets we can’t ignore:

  • We are in the process of placing 200,000 young Veterans into college this fall under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. the first tuition checks went out last week.
  • We are also working to expand services to 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans, who lost their entitlements in 2003. We expect to add about half that number in the first year.
  • We will be holding a mental health summit sometime before this year is out. Veterans lead the nation in substance abuse, depression, homelessness, and suicides—and they’re up there in joblessness, as well. 131,000 Veterans sleep on our streets every night. I intend to take that to zero in the next five years. I can’t do that without attacking the whole cycle in the downward spiral that ends in homelessness.
  • We’re also committed to reducing the backlog and processing times of disability claims so that Veterans don’t have to wait 6-12 months for their checks. I work this weekly, and the long-term solution here is business process redesign and information technology. But for now, the equivalent of the 82nd Airborne Division processes claims for us each and every day.

Further out, we’re looking for new ways of thinking and acting. We are asking why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for service-connected disabilities related to it. And why 20 years after Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of whatever causes Gulf War illness. Left to our present processes, 20 or 40 years from now, some future secretary will be adjudicating service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts.

If you haven’t already heard, the Institute of Medicine recently released a new study on a possible link between Agent Orange and heart disease and Parkinson’s. We have the study under review now, but I can assure you—we will do this right.

Thanks to you, we now have the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. Thanks to you, we also have an agreement with Congress on advance appropriations for VA’s three medical accounts. I know this has been a priority at AMVETS for some time, and I’d like to thank you and the Partnership for Veterans Healthcare Budget Reform for your leadership in getting us this far.

Much more remains to be done. This is a six-month progress report to you on the state of your department. We need your continued advice and assistance if we are to be the provider of choice. Our mission is to provide highest quality services and world-class healthcare to those who have borne the battle and respect and dignity as they are laid to rest—nothing less.

God bless our men and women who serve the cause of peace. God bless our Veterans, and God bless our wonderful country. Thank you.