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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

25th Anniversary of the Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, DC
March 21, 2014

Good afternoon, everyone.

Matt [Webb, VBA], thanks for that kind introduction and for emceeing today’s cake-cutting ceremony. Let me also acknowledge:

  • Representatives of our Veterans Service Organizations: Bob Wallace, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Marc Burgess and Garry Augustine, Disabled American Veterans; Roscoe Butler, American Legion. Without the support of our VSO’s, we wouldn’t be celebrating this 25th anniversary with the same sense of accomplishment. I don’t think our partnership has ever worked better. So, thanks to all three organizations for being a part of today’s celebration;
  • Members of the VA leadership team—Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson; Under Secretary Steve Muro; Chief Of Staff Joe Riojas; our superb assistant secretaries;
  • Cynthia Leach, Mahdee Sabir, and Chaplain Mike Pollitt, who graced us with our national anthem, led us in the pledge of allegiance, and invoked today’s blessing—Thank you for adding so much meaning to today’s ceremony;
  • VA colleagues, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

We are here to celebrate a 25th anniversary, but it could just as well be a 150th anniversary celebration. Our story, as an institution dedicated to caring for our Nation’s Veterans, really begins at the end of the Civil War, the most devastating war in our history—by some estimates 750,000 killed, an average of over 500 deaths a day, every day, for four years. In his 2nd Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, at war’s end, President Abraham Lincoln called on all Americans to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and for their survivors. These words became both mission and conscience for this agency. To this day, they adorn our buildings as a quiet reminder of a war that created so many widows and orphans and of a time of enormous sorrow and suffering.

After the Civil War, 11 soldiers’ homes became the first of our VA hospitals. Now we have 151. Five of the originals remain in operation today. National cemeteries were also established to honor the fallen, and pensions were granted to the living. We still care for a child of a Civil War Veteran as one of our beneficiaries. The promises of President Lincoln are being kept by President Obama, a century and half later.

There is grandeur in what we do for this great Nation. No other department or agency of the federal government is as tied to both its past and the future as VA is, guaranteeing that the promises of the past will not be forgotten but be kept well into the future.

Over the early years, our predecessor agency, the Veterans Administration, made many outstanding contributions to healthcare in America—but the future needs of Veterans were often absent from deliberations at the highest levels of our government.

So, 25 years ago, in 1988, Congress legislated changing the Veterans Administration into the Department of Veterans Affairs. Upon signing the act into law, President Ronald Reagan said, “It gives those who have borne America’s battles, who have defended the borders of freedom, who have protected our Nation’s security in war and in peace—it gives them what they have deserved for so long: a seat at the table of our national affairs.”

Thanks to those who worked hard to get Veterans their “seat at the table,” Veterans are no longer forgotten in our deliberations over national affairs. They can have their say, not just on their own behalf, but on the behalf of all those who came before them and all those who will come after them in the next 150 years. Better advocacy, better oversight, more support, and more and better care and benefits—that’s what a seat at the table has meant for Veterans, who now have the opportunity to live a better life in the country they fought to defend.

I wasn’t here for the first 20 years of the Department, but some of you were, and in those first 20 years you made remarkable contributions to caring for Veterans—contributions that keep Lincoln’s promise to those who have stood in the white heat of battle and sacrificed for all the rest of us:

  • You pioneered electronic medical records [1996] and the bar-coding of medications. [1999]
  • You created a concept for community-based outpatient clinics and built over 750 of them. [begun in 1997]
  • You also established VA’s first specialized treatment programs for homeless Veterans. [1989]
  • You piloted the Transition Assistance Program. [1990]
  • You stood up the Center for Women Veterans [1994] and the Center for Minority Veterans. [1994]
  • You launched VHA’s My HealtheVet [2003] and NCA’s Nationwide Grave Locator. [2004]
  • You opened a dozen new national cemeteries, while maintaining the highest customer-service ratings in the country;
  • And you created the Veterans Crisis Line [2007]—which has taken over one million phone calls and interrupted roughly 35,000 suicides in progress—lives saved, hope restored.

You did all that and so much more, and used those accomplishments to move forward, when this 44th President of the United States described his vision for a 21st century VA. In the last five years—

  • More than two million additional Veterans have enrolled in VA healthcare;
  • We have opened over 55 new CBOCs, 70 new Vet Centers, and our first new hospital in 17 years;
  • More than one million Veterans and family members have received education assistance or vocational training through VA;
  • Nearly 90 percent of all Veterans now have a burial option within 75 miles of home;
  • More than 330,000 Veteran home mortgage holders who defaulted on their home loans have been kept from foreclosure;
  • We fielded our new Veterans Benefits Management System, VBMS, and now 82 percent of our claims inventory is electronic;
  • The claims backlog peaked last year, as we projected it would, and in the past 12 months VBA has steadily reduced it by over 40 percent;
  • Veterans homelessness is down 24 percent since 2010, and we expect another reduction when this year’s point-in-time count is tallied.

All these achievements, and more, we have done together—led by the President, supported by the Congress, with the advice and assistance of Veterans Service Organizations, inspired by the sacrifices of the Veterans we serve, and also by the dedication of our fellow VA employees and our selfless volunteers.

Thank you for all you do, each and every day, to accomplish our sacred mission—keeping the promises of presidents and meeting the obligations of the American people. I am so very proud to serve with all of you, here in this room and watching from distant locations.

God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform, God bless those who care for them, and God bless this great country of ours.

Happy birthday, VA! Happy 25th birthday! Let’s cut the cake!