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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust
Washington, D.C.
September 26, 2014

One hundred years ago, the first shots were fired that would lead our Nation into World War I. One meaningful outcome of that war was creation of the Veterans Bureau in 1921. That was a first step in beginning to more fully embrace President Lincoln’s charge to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and their families and survivors. It was the start of new and better resources and benefits for Veterans.

On April 6, 1917, the Nation called, and Henry Lincoln Johnson and thousands like him answered. Johnson left his family and his job as a redcap porter in Albany and enlisted. His unit would be re-designated the 369th Infantry Regiment. They’d come to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

In May 1918, just a month after the 369th was assigned combat duty with the French 16th Division, Private Johnson and his battle-buddy Private Needham Roberts found themselves in the Argonne Forest guarding a lonesome outpost on the Western Front, very near enemy lines. By sun-up, Johnson and Roberts—by themselves—had killed four attacking German soldiers and wounded somewhere between 10 and 20 in hand-to-hand combat. Private Johnson suffered 21 combat injuries, and a grenade wounded Private Roberts in the arm and hip.

I won’t attempt to recite details of that fight, but their valor earned them the Croix du Guerre—the first American privates to ever receive France’s highest military honor.

That was one of many tough fights for the 369th. They saw more combat than any other American unit in WWI and lost a third of their soldiers . . . defending freedom they didn’t fully enjoy back home.

Few details are recorded about Needham Roberts after the war. We understand that his physical and emotional wounds were eventually more than he could bear. He died in an asylum in 1949.

We know more about Sergeant Henry Johnson—his great-grandson Marine Sergeant DeMarqus Townsend, an Iraq War Veteran, is here this morning. When Henry Johnson transitioned from service, discharge records failed to account for his severe wounds—no Purple Heart, no pension. Debilitating injuries cost him his job—there was no vocational rehabilitation, no job training. He lost his job, lost his family, and died destitute in 1939, only 32 years old. We were not there for him.

Even 75 years later we find that still shocks the conscience, prompting the question the Veterans Braintrust asks: a century after sending our national treasure “Over There,” are we doing any better supporting their transitions over here?

First—and this has to be a given—in any effort, we have to make sure every Veteran, regardless of social or economic circumstances, has the opportunity for a happy and fulfilling life.

Second, to really do better, VA has to look at everything we do through the eyes of those we serve—our Veterans. That’s where Secretary McDonald is leading us—to a Veteran-centric organization that measures performance by Veteran outcomes and impact, not by inputs, activity, outputs, or good intentions.

Here’s an example. Five years ago Judge Robert Russell created the first Veterans Court—a court conceived specifically to help Veterans struggling with the justice issues that may arise after combat experience. Today, there are 266 Veterans’ courts across the country. If I talked just about input and activity, I’d tell you that VA funds nearly 250 Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Specialists, that every VA medical center has at least one VJO Specialist, and those Specialists have served over 83,000 Veterans since October 2009.

But the metrics that matter are Veteran outcomes and impact. Two-thirds of Veterans in treatment courts successfully complete treatment regimens. After receiving VA services, they experience an 88 percent reduction in arrests from the year prior to treatment court admission, and they benefit from a 30 percent increase in stable housing.

Here’s another example. In FY2014, VA input over $1 billion to strengthen programs to end Veterans’ homelessness. We have committed to input an additional $300 million in grants to fund a fourth year of VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.

But here are Veteran outcomes and impact—since 2010 we’ve seen a 33 percent decline in the number of homeless Veterans and a 40 percent drop in the number of Veterans sleeping on the street.

Now, some unfortunate facts.

Far too many Veterans are homeless, and homelessness for Veterans of color is disproportionately high. While only 20 percent of Veterans are minorities, nearly half of homeless Veterans in temporary shelters are minorities.

Unfortunate fact—too many Veterans find themselves involved with the justice system and appearing before Veterans Court. A disproportionate number of justice-involved Veterans are minorities.

These and similar disparities are why Barbara Ward’s Center for Minority Veterans works hand-in-hand with the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans to help ensure all Veterans can receive equal service, regardless of race, origin, religion, or gender. Congressman Rangel helped establish the Center for Minority Veterans. It celebrated its 20th anniversary this week.

These disparities are why we also stood-up our Office of Health Equity in 2012—a direct response to recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans. Working in collaboration with the Health Equity Coalition and under the leadership of Dr. Uchenna Uchendu, OHE’s singular mission is to help ensure all Veterans receive effective and equitable health care—regardless of race, gender, age, geography, and cultural or sexual orientation.

So today, VHA is a national leader in health equity. We are developing a better understanding of where health and healthcare inequities exist. We are identifying factors contributing to inequities, and we’re intervening to eliminate these inequities. We are committed to weaving health equity discussions into all levels of policymaking, decision-making, resource allocation, and operations. We need your continued help.

I want to share a few more examples of what we are doing to ensure our combat Veterans like Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts get the support they deserve.

Veterans and family members with any questions about benefits and services can call the Veterans Combat Call Center. That’s 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387). The phones are answered 24/7/365 by combat Veterans. They’ve been there. They understand the challenges of readjusting to civilian life. And they’re committed to getting Veterans and families to the right resources. If they sense a crisis, they do a warm handoff to one of our Vet Centers, to the National Caregiver Hotline, or to the Veterans Crisis Line.

The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). They’ve made more than 39,000 life-saving rescues, fielded over one-and-a-quarter million calls, the last seven years. We are making a difference, but we have more work to do.

We’ve learned that early access to readjustment counseling helps reduce suicide risk, promotes successful recovery from combat, and eases reintegration into communities. For those very purposes, our 300 community-based Vet Centers are one of our most important resources—for Veterans, and for families.

Vet Centers provide broad social and psychological services and readjustment counseling.

Thanks to authority Congress granted in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Vet Centers also provide readjustment counseling to active duty military who served in combat zones, who experienced Military Sexual Trauma, who provided direct emergent medical care or mortuary services to casualties of war, or who served on unmanned aerial vehicle crews providing direct support to combat operations. These populations often face mental health challenges on return and in transition.

That means Vet Center resources are available even before Servicemembers transition to Veteran status—before they’re enrolled in VA care, before they have a disability rating or service connection for injuries, even if the discharge is other-than-honorable.

Since families are key to Veterans’ success in meeting these challenges, Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling to military families for military-related issues. In terms of activity, in 2013 Vet Centers served 200,000 Veterans and family members with 1.6 million visits.

What are the outcomes and impact? When I visited the Vet Center in Orlando, Veterans from every era back to World War II repeatedly explained how their Vet Center had literally saved their lives. That’s impact.

We’re concerned Vet Centers are too often missed. We’re partnering with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative to increase awareness. We need you to help spread the word.

Geographic challenges prompt questions of equity in healthcare, too. About 36 percent of our enrolled population is rural Veterans. So 70 Mobile Vet Centers provide counseling and outreach to Veterans in remote and rural areas. For rural Veterans, we have five organizations participating in our Rural Veterans Coordination Pilot—a two-year pilot program, directed by Congress, to increase coordination of healthcare and benefits, availability of medical and mental health services, and outreach and assistance to transitioning Veterans and families—specifically in rural or underserved areas.

To head-off issues like homelessness and involvement with justice, we are doing everything we can to facilitate Servicemembers’ transition to the job market. The President’s Transition Goals-Plans-Success, or GPS, program is one example. GPS is cross-agency collaboration to give Servicemembers the time, resources, and opportunities to plan for civilian employment before they take off the uniform. They are introduced to earned benefits—healthcare, life insurance, home loans, disability compensation, and education benefits. Full time benefits advisors are stationed around the world to support these Servicemembers.

Another example: the Veterans Employment Center—a collaborative, web-based, integrated employment tool bringing together job seeking, transitioning Servicemembers, Veterans, and families with public and private employers. Outcomes and impact? More than 2,400 registered employers have already hired over 133,000 Veterans.

Let me talk about a non-traditional approach to education. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I co-hosted national leaders at the White House for an Accelerated Learning for Veterans Roundtable. We met representatives from industry leaders like AT&T, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft, and educators from institutions like New York’s Flatiron School and San Francisco’s Hackbright Academy.

We’re finding out if the accelerated approach to IT education and training is right for Veterans. We want to ensure that the skills Veterans would develop will lead to direct employment and long-term careers. We want to get beyond Veterans just landing jobs and, instead, equip them for lifelong economic mobility. We’re backing that commitment with $10 million of innovation funding for demonstration projects where there’s a high demand for Veteran employees.

All these initiatives are essential to bridging military service and that happy and fulfilling life after serving that I mentioned earlier.

In closing, let me shift gears.

Right now, in talking about VA, everyone talks about VA in crisis. But this singular focus on crisis obscures the immense opportunities before us. I told President Obama in the Oval Office—and told both the Senate and House during recent testimony—what I tell every Veterans Service Organization and every VA employee: it’s a historic opportunity for VA, but we must, all of us, seize this opportunity.

As Secretary Bob McDonald explained earlier this month, seizing this opportunity means moving quickly and decisively on three fronts—our 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.

So are we doing better in supporting warfighters’ transitions? The short answer is, yes, we’re doing better. But we still have lots to do. All of us, together.

Congressman Charlie Rangel, Congressman Sanford Bishop, Congresswoman Corrine Brown, thank you for your commitment. Today’s conference is one more example of your deep devotion and advocacy. Veterans surely have great friends in the three of you.