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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

MOAA-NDIA 2014 Warrior Family Symposium
Washington, D.C.
September 10, 2014

Good afternoon.

Over the next several years, more than a million Servicemembers will take off the uniform for their last time. These men and women—supported by families—have displayed extraordinary strength and resilience.

They sacrificed personally for the greater good. They demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we enjoy daily. They worked with others—often very different from themselves—to accomplish great feats. They showed care and compassion for those in need—sometimes at the risk of their own lives. And they lived by the core values of duty, honor, and country and, in doing so, earned our trust.

When I think of them transitioning from their military ranks to join the ranks of our Nation’s Veterans, I think about the three areas where—like so much else—VA will never be the only answer, where VA alone will never meet their needs—that’s Veteran Homelessness, Mental Health care, and transition support. Success in these three areas can only be a collaborative success.

Now, the word collaboration sounds nice. But the fact is that productive, effective collaboration is not nice—it’s hard. It means not always getting along; it means not always agreeing. It takes hard skills, like conflict resolution. You have to have organizations principally focused on those they serve. That’s what I found when I arrived at the USO in 2008—great people working hard and doing their best to achieve the right outcomes and impact: troops’ and families’ spirits lifted. They weren’t about USO for USO’s sake.

On a business spectrum that measures input, activity, outputs, outcomes, and impact, organizations have to push themselves as far right as possible to outcomes and impact.

Here’s an example of productive collaboration geared to outcomes and impact. This morning, Judge Robert Russell joined your panel on education, employment, and justice. I’m sure you’ve heard—Judge Russell created the very first Veterans’ court in Buffalo, New York. Back in 2009, there were four or five Veterans’ courts in existence. Now, five years later—thanks to some monumental work—there are some 266 Veterans’ courts across the country.

If I talked about activity and outputs, I’d tell you that in collaboration and support of that effort, VA funds nearly 250 Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Specialists. I’d tell you that every VA medical center has at least one VJO Specialist—many have two or more—who have served nearly 83,000 justice-involved Veterans since October 2009. Over 20,000 of those Veterans were served in courtroom settings.

But the metrics that matter are outcomes and impact.

Here are outcomes and impact. Two thirds of Veterans in front of treatment courts successfully complete treatment regimens. When they receive VA services, they experience an 88 percent reduction in arrests from the year prior to the year after treatment court admission. They benefit from a 30 percent increase in stable housing in the year after.

Here’s another example of great collaboration and outcomes—the Online Veterans Employment Center. The Veterans Employment Center is an outgrowth of First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative. The Veterans Employment Center represents collaboration among the Departments of Defense, Education, Commerce, Labor, the Small Business Administration, the Office of Personnel Management, and Veterans Affairs.

It’s a web-based, integrated employment tool that brings together job seeking, transitioning Servicemembers, Veterans, and families with public and private employers.

Outcomes and impact? Here are a few from the Center’s more than 2,200 registered employers: Blackstone committed to hiring 50,000 Veterans—they’ve hired 10,000 so far; United Parcel Service committed to hiring 25,000—13,000 hired; Xerox committed to 10,000—nearly 3,000 hired; YRC Freight committed to 7,000—chalk them up for 26,000. And General Electric is halfway to its goal of 5,000. Altogether, over 131,000 Veterans hired—so far.

This morning I joined a group of national leaders at the White House for an Accelerated Learning for Veterans Roundtable. Accelerated learning is a non-traditional approach to education engaging multiple learning styles and tapping into potential more efficiently. I met with representatives from industry leaders like TriWest, YRC Freight, AT&T, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft. I met educators from institutions like New York’s Flatiron School and San Francisco’s Hackbright Academy.

We’re asking these experts what makes the accelerated approach right for Veterans and how we can ensure that the skills Veterans would develop will lead to careers. We want to get beyond Veterans just landing jobs and, instead, equip them for longer-term economic mobility. We’re going to see how we can work together to effectively support accelerated learning to make the most impact for Veterans and the employers hiring.

These kinds of collaborations, teaming, partnerships, and alliances are essential to business in the 21st century, essential to bridging from military service to civilian employment. At VA, ramping up partnerships is a strategic priority. We estimate that we’re affiliated, one way or another, with about 225,000 non- and for-profit organizations in the private sector.

I’ve been at VA for seven months now, but I still tend to look at some things as an outsider. And when I think of what the American public expects of government, I think the public expects governmental departments engaging each other rather than functioning as silos, federal agencies working with states and counties and cities in true inter-governmental collaboration, processes engaging NGOs and the private sector in meaningful public-private partnerships, programs tackling significant challenges and providing appropriate support to those among us in greatest need, goals and objectives based on measurable outcomes for those served, and reporting that shows steady progress year-by-year. In my view, those are the characteristics of best in class governance, best in class collaboration.

A great example is the work being done to end Veteran homelessness. We have strong, productive collaboration among the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Veterans Affairs, partners at state and local government, and both non-profit and for-profit organizations in the private sector. Since 2010 we’ve seen a 33 percent decline in the estimated number of homeless Veterans. There’s been a nearly 40 percent drop in the number of Veterans sleeping on the street. But it’s only because of a concerted effort toward a best in class governance ideal that we’ve gotten as far as have.

In FY 2014, VA input over $1 billion to the Eliminating Veteran Homelessness Initiative to strengthen programs helping prevent and end homelessness among Veterans. In early August, we announced an additional input of $300 million in grants to fund a fourth year of VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. These are funds for private non-profits and co-ops providing services to very low-income Veteran families living in—or transitioning to—permanent housing. But, we won’t rest until we have the right impact—the end of Veteran Homelessness.

One of the areas I mentioned earlier where we have to collaborate to succeed is in transition support and, particularly, employment transition. To address employment challenges, we’ve partnered with the Departments of Defense, Labor, Education, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management. The program is called the Transition Goals, Plans, Success program—that’s Transition G-P-S, and it’s for Guard and Reserve Servicemembers and families, too.

With this cross-agency collaboration, Servicemembers have the time, resources, and opportunities to plan for civilian employment while in uniform. Servicemembers are introduced to earned benefits—healthcare, life insurance, home loans, disability compensation, and VA education benefits. Right now, we’ve got over 300 trained and deployed VA Benefits Advisors—95 percent of them Veterans; 4 percent spouses—permanently staffed at 105 military installations and supporting nearly 170 other sites around world. This is about giving Servicemembers and families the tools to succeed in gaining employment and providing them every opportunity to take full advantage of VA benefits.

In my old job at the USO, people asked what kept me awake at night. My answer was always challenges meeting the mental health needs of Servicemembers, Veterans, and their families. That challenge is still at the forefront of my mind and VA’s efforts.

It’s National Suicide Prevention Month, so let me remind about two important resources. First, our Veterans Crisis Line—that’s 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Over the last 7 years, they have fielded over one-and-a-quarter million calls, over 175,000 chat connections, and over 24,000 text messages. Over 185,000 callers were referred to VA Suicide Prevention Coordinators, and we estimate over 39,000 life-saving rescues.

One Veteran suicide is too many. Until we reach every Veteran in crisis, we still have work to do.

Another important, accessible resource is the Veterans Combat Call Center that Tom McCabe manages out in Denver, Colorado. That’s 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387). Tom’s people answer the phones 24/7/365. They are all combat Veterans, except one: she’s the spouse of a 100 percent disabled Vietnam Veteran. So, they’ve been there. They understand the challenges of readjusting to civilian life. And they’re committed to getting Veterans to the right resources.

And if Tom’s folks sense a crisis, they do a warm-handoff to the Veterans Crisis Line, to the National Caregiver Hotline, or to one of our 300 Vet Centers.

One of the things we’ve learned is that early access to readjustment counseling in safe, confidential settings helps reduce suicide risk, promotes successful recovery from combat, and eases reintegration into communities. One of VA’s most important resources for Veterans, active duty Servicemembers, and families are Vet Centers.

Our 300 community-based Vet Centers provide a wide range of social and psychological services and readjustment counseling. Thanks to authority granted in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling to active Servicemembers—including Guard and Reserve.

That’s right, VA serving active Servicemembers who served in combat zones during Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn; who experienced Military Sexual Trauma on active duty; who provided direct emergent medical care or mortuary services to casualties of war; or who served on UAV crews providing direct support to ops in combat zones or areas of hostility. These are populations that often face mental health challenges on return and in transition.

When are these resources available? Even before Servicemembers transition to Veteran status. Even before they are enrolled in VA care. Even before they have a disability rating or service connection for injuries. And even if the character of the discharge is something other than honorable.

And since families are key to Veterans’ success in meeting these challenges, Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling to military families for military-related issues if that is what Veterans need.

In terms of activity, in 2013 Vet Centers served nearly 200,000 Veterans and family members with nearly 1.6 million visits. In terms of outcomes and impact, when I visited the Vet Center in Orlando, Florida, I sat down with Veterans from every era—back to World War II. They repeatedly explained to me how their Vet Centers had saved their lives. That’s impact.

But, we’re still concerned that this resource is missed. So, VA is partnering with Joining Forces to raise awareness about Vet Centers. We need you to spread the word.

In addition, with 70 Mobile Vet Centers, VA also provides counseling and outreach to returning Veterans in remote and rural areas. We have about 3.2 million rural Veterans in the VA system—about 36 percent of our enrolled population. So we’ve modified Patient-Centered Community Care contracts to expand the care available through contracted providers when Medical Centers cannot readily provide needed care because of geographic inaccessibility or limited capacity. This is primary care, inpatient and outpatient specialty care, limited emergency care, limited newborn care for our female Veterans following child birth, and mental health care for eligible Veterans.

For our rural Veterans, just last week we announced selection of five organizations and state and local governments participating in our Rural Veterans Coordination Pilot (R-V-C-P). R-V-C-P is a two-year program awarding up to $2 million to help transitioning service members adjust to civilian life—increasing coordination of health care and benefits, availability of medical and mental health services, and providing outreach and assistance to transitioning Veterans and families, specifically those in rural or underserved areas.

I’ve talked some about mental health and jobs. Let me touch on healthcare services for returning Veterans. VA’s Care Management and Social Work Services are on the leading edge of the transition process. Partnering with DoD, VA Liaisons for Healthcare are stationed at 21 of DoD’s Military Treatment Facilities that have the highest concentrations of wounded, ill, and injured Servicemembers. These liaisons—VA social workers and nurses—give our wounded, ill, and injured Servicemembers and families a warm handoff from DoD facilities to VA Medical Centers.

Thanks to these VA Liaisons, in FY 2013 over 11,000 Servicemembers left DoD treatment facilities already registered for VA healthcare, with VA appointments scheduled, and they had often already spoken with the OEF/OIF/OND Care Management Teams welcoming them to their VA system. We are on track to facilitate transition for about 11,000 Servicemembers again this fiscal year, and right now these Care Management Teams tend to over 42,000 Veterans—nearly 7,000 severely wounded, ill, or injured. Care Management Teams also screen new Veterans for risk factors associated with homelessness, with unemployment, and with substance abuse—this can mean Veterans getting assistance before they are in crisis.

Let me shift gears for a moment. Right now, in talking about VA, everyone talks about VA in crisis. But a singular focus just on crisis obscures the immense opportunity the crisis represents—the historic opportunity for VA.

I told President Obama in the Oval Office—and told both the Senate and House during my recent testimony—what I tell every Veterans Service Organization, every member of VA’s staff, and every VA employee: we have before us the greatest opportunity in our history to change the Department and deliver better outcomes for Veterans and families. We're going to better serve and care for those who have borne the battle, their families, and survivors.

But we must all of us seize this opportunity.

As Secretary Bob McDonald announced Monday, seizing that opportunity means moving quickly and decisively on three fronts, and we’re calling it the Road to Veterans Day: first, rebuilding trust with Veterans and other stakeholders; second, improving service delivery focusing on better Veteran outcomes; and third, setting the course for longer-term excellence and reform.

While VA is an immense organization, the fact is that we can’t do it alone. Success in these three areas can only be achieved through effective collaboration. Whether we’re talking about recovering from the crisis in access, building the best healthcare provider in the Nation, or helping Servicemembers transition successfully to their civilian communities back home—we will never achieve all we can, could, and should without your help.

I talked at the outset about our Servicemembers taking off their uniform for their last time. At a time when our country faces so many challenges, can we imagine any situation where we don’t need more people who put service before self, who can bridge differences to accomplish great things, who will persevere even in the face of daunting obstacles, and who we can trust implicitly to choose a harder right rather than an easier wrong?

For them, let’s start building partnerships and collaborations we’ve not dared to imagine.

Senator Boozman, thank you for your support of Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs both in your time in the House and now in the Senate, and thank you for contributing your time to this important symposium today.

Judge Robert Russell, thank you for your example and continuing commitment to some of those Veterans most in need. You’re making a world of difference to them and their families.

General John Tilelli, Admiral Norb Ryan, and General Larry Farrell, thank you sharing this time with me, and thank you for all your great work for our service members, Veterans, and their families.