Many thanks for inviting me to be here today. This has been a memorable week. Yesterday, I was honored to join President Obama at Arlington to celebrate the service and sacrifices of our Nation’s Veterans. Despite the rain, it was a magnificent celebration. On Tuesday, I travelled to Fort Hood to attend the memorial service of the Soldiers lost in a senseless act of violence. Among the fallen and wounded were three VA employees whose Guard and Reserve units had been activated. And though the service was heartbreaking, something else was evident at Fort Hood—the unwavering strength and resilience of our Armed Forces and their family members—a sense of community and common cause in a time of great tragedy.
In this season of Thanksgiving, we ask the Almighty’s blessings on those who serve and have served the cause of peace—including those Veterans in our audience today.
My compliments to the Chamber for including Secretary Hilda Solis on this program. The Department of Labor is aggressively pursuing work opportunities for Veterans, and we are collaborating with them. It’s an important and robust partnership, and we are proud to share the mission.
In fact, on Monday, the President unveiled a new Veterans’ employment initiative—requiring the federal government to establish itself as the model employer of America’s Veterans. Secretary Solis and I will co-chair the interagency Council on Veterans Employment that will implement this initiative, and OPM Director, John Berry, will serve as vice-chair and chief operating officer. Good things will come out of this initiative and this partnership.
There are numerous Veterans’ stakeholders in the room today. Let me acknowledge all of you as a group, and thank you all for your support and assistance. We are better at our mission because of your insights and experience. We are also certainly recipients of your critiques, but also beneficiaries of your suggestions and encouragements. So, thank you.
Now, rarely does anyone get a chance to revisit one’s past with a fresh opportunity to make a difference. I am privileged and honored to have such an opportunity in this appointment. It enables me to give back to those with whom I went to war in Vietnam 40-plus years ago; those I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff; and those on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in the profession of arms—Veterans of World War II and Korea.
There are roughly 23 million Veterans in this country today. Only about a third of them, 7.9 million, are enrolled in VA—5.5 million of them see us for health care at least once a year, and 3.5 million see us routinely—often weekly.
In purely business terms, Veterans represent our market—so we enjoy 30 percent market penetration. Caring for Veterans and providing them the services and benefits they have earned is our sole reason for existence, yet 70 percent of our market chooses to get those services and benefits elsewhere—or they choose to go without.
Thirty percent market penetration also means that 70 percent of the market remains out of reach at a time when Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides. They also rank up there in joblessness, as well.
One hundred thirty-one thousand Veterans are homeless on any given night, sleeping on the streets of this wealthiest and most powerful Nation in the world. That’s the current estimate, and my guess is that it could be half again as much. additionally, 40,000 Veterans are released from prison each year—part of a turnstile system of re-institutionalization or homelessness.
What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing much makes sense here. I don’t know why 15 million veterans have chosen not to enroll in VA, especially during these difficult economic times, but we are increasing our outreach to them. We want them to know we are here, and we will ramp up our efforts to reach them.
I’m not a clinician, and I didn’t grow up in VA, so these snapshots do not come together very well for me. They may define an organization that cannot speak to the needs of all its clients very well. We think we do, but in reality, we probably speak for the third of the population we know best—the third enrolled with us.
President Lincoln’s charge in his oft-quoted Second Inaugural Address to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan…” adorns every one of our facilities and appears repeatedly in our publications. We repeat that quotation whenever we are trying to define ourselves and what we do. It has become our mantra.
Since care is the operative word in that mantra, most see us as a health care system. For the most part, that is true—153 medical centers which are affiliated with the best medical schools and colleges in the Nation, 774 community-based outpatient clinics, 232 Vet Centers, outreach clinics and mobile vans that reach even further into rural America where Veterans live, with tele-health and tele-medicine as the next likely major step in health care delivery this century. But here is what is also true about VA:
Now, President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a twenty-first century organization. Our intent is for VA to adopt advocacy on behalf of Veterans as both our culture and our overarching philosophy.
Much of the transformation at VA involves adapting to the demands and pace of a digital, mobile, and virtual world. We are committed to using the latest technologies to reach our youngest Veterans, and also to ensure faster delivery of services to our oldest Veterans. We will focus relentlessly on our Veterans, putting them first in everything we do.
Two weeks ago VA initiated the first ever, joint, VA-DoD Mental Health Summit. We are marshalling our talent, our knowledge, our energy, and our resources—including over 19,000 VA mental health care professionals—to redouble our efforts on behalf of service members and Veterans who are dealing with the effects of combat.
Last week we initiated the first ever summit on ending Veteran homelessness. We intend to take 131,000 homeless Veterans off of our streets in the next five years. To end homelessness, we must attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness—we must offer education and jobs, treat depression and fight substance abuse, prevent suicides, and provide safe housing.
This year VA will spend $3.2 billion on homelessness. Eighty percent of it will be spent with a focus on medical services—depression, substance abuse, suicides. The remaining $500 million will be distributed through our 600 local partners who provide the creative energy in ending homelessness within their communities. We are partnering, as well, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide safe housing for Veterans. In 2008, HUD provided 10,150 HUD-VASH vouchers for homeless Veterans—each voucher capable of housing Veterans, an entire family, or a Veteran with children. Thanks to Secretary Donovan’s continuing support, HUD-VASH II, approved in 2009 for implementation in 2010, provides another 10,290 vouchers. Our collaboration with HUD continues to grow in scale and measurable benefits.
Education: This past August, we mailed the first benefit checks as part of the new Post 9/11 GI Bill. The new bill is the most comprehensive educational benefits package offered to Veterans since 1944.
Following World War II, returning Veterans were able to leverage educational opportunity into sustained economic growth for the Nation. By the time the GI Bill’s eligibility for World War II Veterans 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.
They and a million other college-educated Veterans went on to provide the leadership that catapulted our economy to the world’s largest, and our Nation to be leader of the free world and victor of the Cold War. With the opportunities provided by the new Post 9-11 GI bill, history is likely to repeat itself with our latest generation of Veterans.
our Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service, or Voc Rehab, also prepares thousands of service-disabled Veterans for successful careers every year. There is a need to expand the new Post 9-11 GI Bill to provide similar training for Veterans who are not interested in spending four years in a college classroom.
So, all of these challenges—education, safe housing, depression, substance abuse—are receiving attention. VA can help Veterans to heal physically and mentally. We can help them get education or training. We can even hire some of them ourselves, and we do.
Jobs: In our contracting efforts, we have found that Veteran-owned businesses are excellent partners for us. They offer on-time, on-budget, quality solutions to meet our contracting needs. In fiscal year 2008, the “Veterans First” buying initiative resulted in VA’s spending more than $2 billion dollars on Veteran-owned small businesses—representing 15 percent of our procurement dollars, up 5 percent from the previous year.
Putting Veterans first in federal hiring and contracting is not only the right thing to do to honor their service, but it is also a smart business decision.
Veterans are proven performers. They are great employees and will help all of us, not just government, achieve our missions. Their leadership was essential in the military to successfully deliver the most difficult missions facing our country. They respond to crises at work with the same determination, teamwork, and selflessness that distinguished their military service. Veterans have lived in tougher times. There were missions in uniform where the risks and uncertainty were far greater than even today’s economic environment. What carried them on those tough missions is what will carry them through tough assignments on the job. They distinguished themselves in uniform and they distinguish themselves as employees.
Veterans deliver; they are results-driven, not clock watchers. They focus on solving problems and providing goods and services which work—on time. Clients and partners value their skills, knowledge, and attributes and are eager to work with them again. Employers benefit from the significant taxpayer dollars already invested in our Veterans.
Last year, in a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, over 90 percent of employers said they valued Veterans’ skills—in particular, their strong sense of responsibility and teamwork.
Veterans know what it takes to operate during the most dangerous, frightening, and painful moments in battle, when the risks are high and uncertainty reigns. They know what it takes to seize an objective at two o’clock in the morning in the driving rain. They know who’s negotiating the security environment with tribal sheiks in today’s ongoing operations—young people in uniform who will be returning to join our Veteran ranks. On operations, we valued bold, tough, clear-headed, risk-taking leaders who never misread the situation or overreached an opportunity, and who remained calm and innovative in the midst of crisis.
We are living in tough economic times and Veterans face stiff competition—just like everyone else these days. But our very freedom to live and work was secured by our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who were ready and willing to put their lives on the line for each of us. Whatever your histories, you can do your part for your country by bringing these men and women on board. I promise you won’t regret it.
I hope you will also strongly consider hiring some of our severely service-disabled Veterans just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have shouldered the heaviest burden of our Nation’s security and safety. They deserve our full measure of respect and devotion—always. Employers who hire Veterans are eligible for a tax credit and our Voc Rehab counselors across the country are ready to assist you in any way to accommodate these men and women at your company.
Our special employer incentive program assists disabled Veterans who need assistance in finding work due to a lack of experience or poor labor market conditions. As an incentive to hire a Veteran below the journeyman level, we’ll reimburse employers up to 50 percent of the Veteran’s salary. You see, we’re not interested in helping our Veterans simply get hired. We want them to be prepared for a successful career.
You also need to know about our Website: www.vetsuccess.gov. In addition to all the necessary information about the services and benefits we provide, it is also a place for employers to find Veterans to hire. Hundreds of employers have already registered on the site, have posted job announcements, and can peruse Veteran resumes—all at no cost to either the Veteran or the employer. I encourage the rest of you to register with us and post your job openings on the site.
It is the Chamber, and other groups like it, that holds the key to gaining much needed momentum in providing Veterans the structure and dignity they need and seek, which comes from either entry into a training or education program, or even better, a steady job. You offer an economic future—the opportunity to work, to support themselves and their families, and to be productive members of their communities.
Some of you already partner with us. You have, and will continue, to hire Veterans. Thank you for being here today and offering to do your part to repay our Veterans for the incredible sacrifices they have made to secure our freedoms. As you step up to hire our heroes, I can assure you that VA will do our part to make sure our Veterans are ready for you.
President John F. Kennedy once said that, “a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
VA intends to alter the observation that Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides—and rank up there in joblessness as well. We look forward to your help in changing those statistics. Thank you for helping to honor and remember our Veterans.
May God bless the men and women who serve the cause of peace today. May God bless all of our Veterans. And may God continue to bless our great Nation.