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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Uniforms to Mortarboards: Florida's Colleges and Universities Serving Veterans
University of South Florida
November 6, 2009

I am most honored to be here today, the week before Veterans Day, when the Nation will pause to honor its men and women who have contributed greatly to preserving our way of life. Great potential resides in the hands of young Veterans, who are, today, in school here at the University of South Florida under one of VA’s education programs, especially the new Post 9/11 GI Bill. My thanks, once again, to the Congress for giving us this wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to today’s Veterans just how much the country respects and appreciates their service and their sacrifice.

The Sunshine State is home to 1.7 million Veterans, and the University of South Florida has a long history of welcoming Veterans into its educational programs. For more than a half-century, USF has helped thousands of military men and women achieve their educational goals—men and women who protected our Nation in time of peace and who defended her in time of war—always at great risk, sometimes at great personal sacrifice.   

USF was there when Veterans came home from Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. It now welcomes today’s magnificent men and women, who are safeguarding the Nation through their service in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

I spent 38 years helping to raise America’s young people, from my days in the draft Army of the 1960’s to the all-volunteer force of the 1970’s to today’s professional military. I couldn’t be more proud than I am of today’s remarkable, uniformed cohort. They are talented; they are tough; they are experienced, and they have such great promise. Many have been tested on the battlefield. Some have suffered injury, visible and invisible.   

In the wake of another war, the American Civil War, which generated more than 600,000 casualties, president Abraham Lincoln singled out the enormous contributions of Veterans by calling on Americans, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” These words, from Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, today adorn the main entrance of VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where I go to work every day. They are also posted in every one of our 153 medical centers. His words have become our mantra.

Lincoln understood that service to Nation came at a price; that freedom is purchased and maintained through the service and sacrifice of those who protect our country and fellow citizen with their own commitment and time and energy, and who assume the burdens of personal risk in safeguarding the Nation. In return for such devotion, the Nation owes its defenders tangible evidence of its respect, regard, and gratitude. By his words, our 16th President set the trajectory for what is, today, the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the 44th President has directed that we, the 21st century steward, deliver on Lincoln’s 19th century promise.   

President Lincoln’s promise is fulfilled, in part, by the opportunity for an education. Today, VA annually helps pay for the education or training of more than 342,000 Veterans and active duty personnel, 106,000 reservists and national guardsmen, and 81,000 survivors.

In 1944, Congress enacted what is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of legislation in our Nation’s history—the original GI Bill. Until then, only a small fraction of high school graduates went on to college. Higher education was, for the most part, available to only a few outside the ranks of the wealthy and well connected.   

The first GI Bill, and the Veterans of World War II who put it to use, changed all of that. Every Veteran, rich and poor, was able to attend the best schools to which they could gain admittance. The provisions of that legislation, combined with Veterans’ drive, determination, and talent, profoundly transformed our Nation economically, educationally, and socially.   

By the time the original GI Bill of 1944 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 by the early 1960’s, more than half the members of the United States Congress.   

Incredible!  They and a million other college-educated Veterans went on to provide the leadership that catapulted our economy to world’s largest, and our Nation to global leader and victor of the Cold War, without firing a shot, lifting the threat of nuclear holocaust off the shoulders of the free world.   

That first GI Bill, and the educational revolution it spawned, saw our Veterans as ‘point men’ in bringing to bear the vast infusion of federal dollars into higher education, and the far reaching effects of VA’s post-war affiliation with America’s medical schools. This ground-breaking alliance radically changed not only medical research, but medical education in America.   

Today, VA medical centers are affiliated with 135 of our top medical schools in the country, and two-thirds of all practicing physicians received at least part of their training in the VA health care system. Thanks to the scope of our academic affiliations, last year, alone, we trained 34,000 medical residents, 20,000 medical students, 32,000 nursing students, and 22,000 other health professionals. I’m proud to say that the University of South Florida’s nursing school, one of the Nation’s finest, and Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, form one of 15 premiere academic nursing partnerships in the country.

For this latest generation of Veterans, history is poised to repeat itself in the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It has every potential to have an equally, resounding impact on our Nation. This year, we expect roughly 150,000 Veterans to take part in this fully-funded, degree-producing program, many of them here at the University of South Florida. By 2011, we expect to have placed nearly a quarter-million Americans into colleges and universities.   

This investment in our country’s future will reap dividends for decades to come, as it did after World War II. There are differences,  however. We are at the intersection of a new century, a new generation of Veterans, and a new national leadership team. VA is changing accordingly; the times demand it; our Veterans expect it; and our President directed it.

Much of VA’s transformation is about building our capabilities so that we can do more for Veterans in an age that is digital, mobile, and virtual. We are leveraging the power of existing and emerging technologies so that we may realistically talk about delivering 21st century services to 21st century Veterans and their families, especially in our education services.   

There is a lot at stake; at $9 billion annually, VA’s education programs are second only to the Department of Education in providing education benefits. And while the Post 9-11 GI Bill offers serving military and our newest Veterans expanded opportunities, it has also challenged VA’s paperbound processes.   

We are aggressively transitioning from paper to electrons in order to automate all our systems. We are pulling out all the stops to minimize delays and maximize delivery of education benefits to Veterans as quickly as possible. But we are playing catch up here, and I regret the delay in getting some checks out initially—but the pace is increasing. We hope to close the gap shortly. Because our reach arcs from our benefits processing centers to college campuses across the Nation, we are seeking new and better ways to serve Veterans. The emphasis is on innovation.

Here at USF, we are piloting our VetSuccess on Campus program. It is designed to support new Veterans as they transition from the rigors of military operations to the responsibilities of civilian life and the rewards of student life. It’s an idea whose time has come as thousands of new Veterans undergo reintegration and adjust to campus life after experiencing the highly-structured, high-risk, hyper-stress environments of military operations.  

By providing on-campus benefits assistance and adjustment counseling, VetSuccess on Campus is at the leading edge of VA’s drive to provide Veteran-centric care and services to all Veterans, especially those who are coming off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan—they, who have ‘borne the battle.’   

This will be good for Veterans who have ready access to on-campus VA support services; for our college and university partners, as they gain the benefit of counselors and additional personnel to serve their Veteran-students; and for VA, itself, as we broaden our scope of advocacy for Veterans in practical and meaningful ways.

As we understand the success achieved here at the USF, VA is committed to expanding VetSuccess to Cleveland State University and San Diego State University. Our goal is to directly assist Veterans during their initial transitions to college life, and just as importantly, to support them throughout matriculation to help ensure the highest graduation rates on schedule. Still under study is the degree to which VetSuccess might play a role in job placement following graduation. 

To our student Veterans—you have a role to play here. To those of you who are taking advantage of this educational opportunity—make it count. There are no company commanders or first sergeants on station. Pick up the slack, and make this count for all of us and for our country. As you succeed, help those Veterans who follow you to succeed. In the coming years, men and women, some of whom are still in combat zones today, will attend USF and other colleges and universities following in your footsteps. Prepare the way for them. Establish the proper processes to bring them aboard. Help recruit the most promising Veterans for your institutions and mentor them upon arrival. Get them quickly into a structured environment that assures high performance and high graduation rates. Make them as successful as I know you are going to be. Unless you all graduate on schedule, there is no payoff for the country. We need your talent, your energy, your discipline, and your dedication back at work for the Nation as soon as possible.   

President John F. Kennedy once observed, ‘our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.’ Just as I believe that individual Americans are, and always will be, America’s most powerful resource, I also know that the young men and women who stood in our military formations will always be America’s measure of courage, perseverance, and patriotism. Few have given more in devotion to country and service to fellow citizens. They will be terrific additions to your classrooms and greatly helpful to their classmates.

On behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I want to, again, thank President Genshaft, the University of South Florida, and all attendees for reaffirming your commitment to these young Americans who have so ably served all of us.

May God bless those who serve the cause of peace around the world. May God bless our Veterans. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.  Thank you.