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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

16th Annual Veterans Braintrust Forum
Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference
Washington, DC
September 25, 2009

Good morning everyone. My name’s Ric Shinseki. I grew up a Soldier, and I am most honored to be serving Veterans as their Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I’m equally honored to be attending my first Veterans Braintrust Forum, and I’d like to thank Chairman Rangel and the members of the Congressional Black Caucus for their invitation and their sponsorship of the powerful dialogue that’s occurring here this week. Your longstanding devotion to the well-being of Veterans is well known and much appreciated.

African-Americans have served in uniform with distinction throughout our military’s 234-year history in this country, often without much credit. This past June, the world commemorated the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France—an epic undertaking that ended World War II in Europe within a year. This summer also saw the 65th anniversary of the famed “Red Ball Express,” which fueled that Allied offensive across northern France. For 82 uninterrupted days—25 August to 16 November 1944 and thereafter—a steady stream of Red Ball Express trucks linked the Normandy beachhead to an ever-expanding advance, delivering food, ammo, repair parts, and most importantly, fuel for the thirsty tanks of Patton’s Third Army.

Three out of four drivers in those convoys were African-American. They drove around the clock, fighting off sleep at night and enemy aircraft by day. Without them, the Allied advance would have ground to a halt. Those drivers were instrumental to collapsing the Third Reich by keeping our tanks on the attack, our troops fed, and the Army re-supplied. In shortening the European campaign, countless lives were saved.

Today, 292,000 people come to work at VA—the Department of Veterans Affairs—to serve Veterans like those drivers of the Red Ball Express, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers, the “Go For Broke” 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the 23 million other Veterans who have served our Nation in peace and in war. Today, only about a third of them are enrolled with VA. We have a singular mission—to care for our nation’s Veterans, wherever they live, by providing them the highest-quality benefits and services possible. We must do this faster, better, and more equitably—and we will.

Out of my engagements with Veterans, three concerns keep coming through—access, the disabilities backlog, and homelessness. Let me touch on each of those topics.

Access: President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a high-performing 21st century organization. It will be a different organization from the one that exists today. Five years from now, we intend to be the provider of choice for more of our 23.4 million Veterans—in insurance, in healthcare, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.

To achieve this kind of status with Veterans, we must make it easier for them to understand their entitlements and then make it much, much simpler for them to access their benefits and health care services.

We are partnering with DoD to reach Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We are also expanding access to some 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans, who lost their entitlements in 2003. We began re-registering them in July, and we expect 266,000 enrollments during 2010.

Up until about a decade ago, we relied exclusively on our medical centers to deliver healthcare—traditionally long trips for most Veterans to come visit us. Today, we have 153 medical centers, but they serve as flagships for a broader array of 768 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, 232 Vet Centers, and other outreach and mobile clinics, like the Vet Center van that’s on display here this week. Today, we reach out to Veterans, where they live, to reduce those long drives and the frequency of them.

We expect that the next major technological leap in healthcare delivery will be an expanded use of telehealth and telemedicine, so that patients can consult healthcare professionals without having to be in the same room with them—an extension of our reach into the homes and communities where Veterans live.

The backlog: 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 military forces a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record that will track Veterans from the day they first put on the uniform until the day they are laid to rest.

For VA, this will revolutionize our claims process—faster processing, better decisions, no lost records, fewer errors. I am personally committed to reducing the processing times of disability claims. We have work to do here, and we have moved out.

Homelessness: Veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and they rank up there in joblessness, as well. About one half of homeless Veterans are minority Veterans. We estimate that 131,000 Veterans live on the streets of this wealthiest and most powerful Nation in the world. That’s down from 195,000 homeless Veterans six years ago, so we think we have the right partners, the right plans, and the right programs in place.

President Obama and I are committed to ending homelessness among Veterans. We intend to take those 131,000 homeless Veterans off the streets over the next five years. I know there are never any absolutes in life, but unless I set an ambitious target, VA would not be giving this our very best effort.

To do this, we will have to attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness. We must offer education and jobs, treat depression, fight substance abuse, and offer safe housing. We have to do it all—education, jobs, mental health, substance abuse, housing.

  • Education: Last month, we began providing enhanced benefits under the new, post-9/11 GI Bill. This year, we expect roughly 250,000 Veterans to take part in this fully funded, degree-producing program at a state college or university of their choice, including 1,100 private institutions. This investment in America’s future will go on for decades to come.

    The first time we did this, after World War II, our country ended up being richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and a million other college-educated Veterans. These men and women 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 for our country, and we are going to be privileged to watch.

  • Jobs: VA puts Veterans first in our contracting awards because we recognize the on-time, on-budget, quality solutions they bring to our contracting needs. In fiscal year 2008, our unique “Veterans first” buying program steered more than $2 billion to Veteran-owned small businesses—15 percent of our procurement dollars, up five percent from the year before.

    During that time, we also doubled our support to service-disabled Veteran-owned businesses—12 percent of our procurement dollars were invested there.

  • Homeless healthcare: We will spend $3.2 billion next year to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans—$2.7 billion on medical services and $500 million on specific homeless programs. That’s in addition to separately funding 18,000 mental health professionals. We know that if we diagnose and treat, people usually get better. If we don’t, they won’t. We understand the stigma issue, but we are not going to be dissuaded. We are not giving up on any of our Veterans with mental health challenges, and definitely, not the homeless.

  • Homeless housing: We have approximately 500 partners in nearly every major city across the country helping us get homeless Veterans off the streets. with 20,000 HUD-VASH vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and our $500 million to invest in 2010, we are going to reduce the number of homeless Veterans next year, and each year thereafter, for the next five.

So, education, jobs, healthcare, and housing: We have work to do here, but we have momentum, and we know where we are headed.

We deeply appreciate Congress’s 2008 and 2009 VA budget enhancements, providing VA the resources to begin making progress in resolving these issues. President Obama’s strong support of a 15 percent increase in 2010, from our 2009 resource level, allows us to increase the speed with which we continue our singular pursuit of his two goals for our Department: transforming VA into a 21st century organization and delivering high-quality care and timely delivery of benefits to Veterans.

Our mission at VA is to serve Veterans by increasing their access to our benefits and services, to provide them the highest quality of health care available, and to control costs to the best of our abilities. Doing so will make VA a model of good governance. That simply, ladies and gentlemen, is my mission, and I’m honored to have it. Thank you for allowing me to participate in this Veterans Braintrust Forum.

May God bless our men and women in uniform. May god bless our Veterans. May God bless our wonderful country.

Thank you.