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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Veterans Civic Health Index Release
Washington, DC
April 30, 2015

Chris Marvin, thank you for the introduction—and for your years of service to the Nation and its Veterans.

At VA, we’re reminded every day of Veterans’ outsized contributions to our country. It’s our pride and privilege to care for those who have “borne the battle.” Without question, it’s the best, most inspiring mission in government.

Nowadays, the Nation does a much better job of honoring our Veterans than it used to, but Veterans are still a minority in this country. Less than 7 percent are Veterans, and less than point-7 percent are currently serving—2.2 million out of 318 million.

Some communities and occupations have even fewer Veterans, so it’s important to remind people of the sacrifices Veterans make. It’s especially important that our policy-makers, opinion-leaders, and employers understand what it means to be a Veteran. They need to know what Veterans have experienced, what they’ve accomplished, and what they can accomplish as leaders, laborers, and citizens.

So I applaud Got Your Six and the other sponsors of the 2015 Veterans Civic Health Index for raising the issue publicly. Their efforts, and all of yours, can make my job of serving Veterans a lot more successful.

One thing I’ve learned since my confirmation as Secretary is that there is no substitute for VA … Veterans need VA, and Americans everywhere benefit from VA—from VA research leading to major breakthroughs in medical science (3 Nobel Prizes, 7 Lasker Awards, implantable cardiac pacemaker, first successful liver transplants, nicotine patch); from VA training of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, including 70% of the Nation’s physicians; and from VA’s highly specialized expertise in delivering clinical and rehabilitative care to wounded warriors.

But remember: Health care is just one of nine VA lines of business. Our other lines include life insurance, mortgage insurance, education, pensions, disability compensation, memorial affairs. We’ve got reasons to be proud of those areas, as well. We’ve cut the disability claims backlog by 70% in the past 24 months. For the past decade, the American Customer Satisfaction Index has ranked our cemetery system the top customer-service organization in the Nation, public or private, and since 2004, the same index has also shown that Veterans give VA health care higher ratings than patients at most private hospitals.

One third of VA employees are Veterans, and with the right strategies and support, there’s no reason why we can’t scale that performance excellence VA-wide.

But we can’t do what needs to be done without public and private partners—especially on the jobs front. We need to educate employers on the value of Veterans as leaders and team-players.

I’m often asked to talk about leadership, and I have a standard pitch based on 10 principles of what I call “Value-Based Leadership.” We don’t have time for all ten, but let me tell you about the first principle—a sense of purpose.

Living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction. My life’s purpose has always been to improve lives. That’s why I became a Boy Scout, a West Point Cadet, and a U.S. Army officer. It’s why I joined Procter & Gamble, where I worked to improve the lives of 5 billion people worldwide who use P&G products. And it’s why I joined VA, where we work every day to improve the lives of 22 million Veterans.

In every one of those roles, I found my sense of self-worth in living for others—living for something greater than myself. That’s what draws a lot of people to the military. Deep down, we all feel some sense of inadequacy, which we overcome by associating with others we respect.

Among Veterans, there’s always someone who commands more respect. If you’re a clerk, it’s the infantryman. If you’re an infantryman, it’s the combat veteran. If you’re a combat veteran, it’s the wounded warrior. And if you’re a wounded warrior, it’s the fallen soldier, who has given his “last full measure of devotion.”

I was an infantry officer, a paratrooper, but back in February I was on the Charlie Rose show with two young combat Veterans I could only look up to. One was a Jake Wood, founder of Team Rubicon, who was a Marine sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other was Jacob Schick, a Marine who lost most of his right leg below the knee as well as part of his left hand and arm.

During the show, Schick told of lying in a hospital bed, worrying about the guys in his unit who were about to deploy to Fallujah. He’s badly wounded, but he knows there’s an even higher price that some of his squad mates may have to pay.

There’s always someone who has given more of his or her life than you have … and you can’t help but feel a sense of debt to those who have. You owe them something: respect, honor, service, devotion.

That sense of debt is a powerful motivator. It’s why warriors risk their lives for each other. It’s also why many Veterans feel a strong need for a new purpose in life when they leave the military.

Those of us who are Veterans know this. But many who aren’t Veterans don’t. That’s why the Veterans Civic Health Index is so important. It documents the civic-mindedness of Veterans and their potential for continued service. They have learned to put service before self, bridge differences to accomplish shared goals, persevere in the face of obstacles, choose “the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” and set the example for others to follow.

What they now need is new purpose.

At a time when our country faces so many challenges, we need to make the most of what Veterans have to offer. And they need and deserve our help in making the sometimes difficult transition to civilian life.

By investing in Veterans, we’re investing in America. It’s both the smart thing to do and the right thing to do.

Thanks again to Chris Marvin of Got Your Six and the other sponsors of this event, to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and the other participants in today’s discussion, and to the new generation of Veteran activists and organizations here today, bringing new voices and new ideas to the public square.

I value your insight, and I look forward to continuing our work together on behalf of Veterans.

Thank you.