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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

D.A.R. National Defense Night
Washington, DC
June 18, 2016

Good Evening.

Lynn Young, thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of this distinguished and really important organization. To the members of the Daughters of American Revolution: Your enduring commitment to our military and our Veterans for over 125 years now is remarkable and inspiring. On behalf of all Veterans, thank you for your hard work, for your compassion and devotion, and for joining VA in honoring those who have served our Nation.

I’m pleased to be here with a group of people who really understand what it means to serve: J.D. Crouch, USO President; Major General (Retired) James Jackson, Director, Vietnam War Commemoration; and Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, Director, Women in Military Service Memorial.

Tonight we’re going to honor our Vietnam Veterans. You’ll hear more about the commemoration in a few minutes, but I’d really like to personally and publicly thank them once again for their service and sacrifice. About two months ago, I was standing with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and some Vietnam Veterans at their memorial on the Mall in Washington. We’d just laid a wreath to honor and thank all Veterans of Vietnam.

Similar ceremonies have taken place at more than 400 other locations across the country.

Now, if you stand at the center of the Wall and look to your left and right, down those huge pieces of polished black granite, you begin to get a sense of the magnitude of the price that generation of patriots paid for our freedom.

That’s just the beginning. Behind more than 58,000 names chiseled in stone are those who served and sacrificed alongside them. There are the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, and the sons and daughters who sacrificed, too. When the Nation called, they answered.

Dr. Linda Schwartz, Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, is a Vietnam Veteran and a retired flight nurse. She is with us this evening. Linda, would you stand. In fact, let me ask all Vietnam Veterans here tonight to stand along with her.

You shouldered the heavy burden of a long and unpopular war with immense courage and dignity. Thank you. Welcome home. Please join me in a round of applause.

The honorees and organizations receiving awards tonight are wonderful examples for all of us, and they’ve been making profound differences in the lives of so many Servicemembers and Veterans who have served so selflessly.

Let’s not forget—at this very moment, our Armed Forces are on the front lines. Like generations before them, they display extraordinary strength and resilience in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily. They’ve been at that tough, demanding work for nearly 15 years. When these men and women return home, we have the opportunity to show our gratitude by serving them.

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln charged us to care for those who have “borne the battle.” It’s a noble mission—one that’s very personal to me. My wife, Diane, and I come from families with strong traditions of military service. Diane’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a P.O.W. My father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II. Diane’s uncle served in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. He still receives VA care. And today, my nephew has returned from flying missions over the Middle East and now commands a fighter squadron in North Carolina.

For myself, I graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1975 with my good friend and our Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. My time at West Point and, then, as an Airborne Ranger with the 82d Airborne Division instilled in me strong values and a lifelong sense of duty to country. Over four decades later, still, simple words from West Point’s Cadet Prayer guide me—“choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” That’s my commitment to every Veteran and to their families.

When the President appointed me—and the Senate confirmed me—to make dramatic changes at VA, I made a commitment to transform VA into a world-class, customer-focused, Veterans-centered enterprise. We began by reinforcing the importance of our inspiring mission. Then we re-emphasized our exceptional I-CARE Values: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence. Everything we do is built on this rock solid foundation of mission and values to provide quality, timely care and benefits for Veterans.

The investments we’re making allow us to meet our obligations to Veterans with the same degree of dignity and fidelity with which they put their lives on the line for our country.

We’re putting the needs, expectations, and interests of Veterans and their families first, putting Veterans in control of how, when, and where they wish to be served. We call our transformation MyVA, which is our framework for modernizing our culture, processes, and capabilities. Our five strategies are about customer-service excellence:

  • First, improve the Veteran experience;
  • Second, improve the employee experience;
  • Third, improve our internal support services;
  • Fourth, establish a culture of continuous improvement;
  • And fifth, expand strategic partnerships. Two of those strategies—improving Veterans’ experience and enhancing strategic partnerships—involve all of you.

Serving Veterans is a collaborative endeavor. VA was founded on partnerships in the aftermath of World War II. In 1946, General Omar Bradley, then the VA Administrator, established VA’s Voluntary Service as part of modernization efforts. He understood the benefits of collaboration at every level to improve care for Veterans.

General Bradley reached out to medical colleges and universities across the country to enlist them in the cause of caring for the Veterans returning from Europe and the Pacific.

Today—seventy years later and in the same spirit of General Bradley—strategic partnerships continue to help VA do for Veterans what no single agency or organization could ever do alone.

 

It takes the strong support of Congress, the dedication of Veterans Service Organizations, and the coordinated efforts from the federal to the grassroots level. It’s capitalizing on strategic partnerships with external organizations and leveraging their goodwill, resources, and expertise aimed at providing Veterans with improved outlooks, opportunities, and outcomes. It’s operating as part of a community of care to better serve Veterans and help address a wide variety of Veteran needs—from employment to homelessness to mental health, among others.

Let me give you an example of the immense potential and power of partnerships. In June 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama reminded us, “Tens of thousands of Veterans who risked their lives for our country are sleeping in their cars, or in a shelter, or next to a subway vent.” “We should be horrified,” she said, “because that’s not who we are as Americans.”

She’s right. It’s not who we are.

As part of her Joining Forces Initiative, the First Lady announced the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness in June 2014. Today, that coalition numbers includes 869 governors, mayors, and other state and local officials who are committed to ending Veteran homelessness in their communities. These are powerful partnerships—Federal agencies working with states, counties, and cities in true inter-governmental collaboration with local leaders on the ground.

I especially want to acknowledge the work of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who’s worked closely with us to find homes for Veterans in the Greater Los Angeles area. There’s no better example for other mayors and community leaders across the country than Eric and his devotion to solving this national problem. Homelessness is a national problem, to be sure, but Eric will tell you that homelessness is a local issue that has to be solved locally. Los Angeles, home to roughly 10 percent of all homeless Veterans in this country, saw a 30 percent decrease in the number of Veterans experiencing homelessness even as their overall numbers increased by 6 percent.

I believe Eric would tell you how important strategic partnerships were to achieve this success—local organizations coordinating at the state and national levels. That’s why VA is working with HUD and the Department of Labor at the national level, in addition to enhancing local partnerships and collaborations, in order to bring an end to Veteran homelessness.

Overall, Veteran homelessness has declined 36 percent in the last five years. We’ve seen a nearly 50 percent drop in unsheltered Veteran homelessness. Since 2010, more than 360,000 Veterans and their family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness.

In 2015 alone, in partnerships with communities, VA provided services to more than 365,000 homeless, at-risk, and formally homeless Veterans through our homeless programs. More than 36,000 Veterans and their family members—including over 6,500 children—were prevented from becoming homeless.

So far, 26 communities and two states have put the systems in place to successfully meet the challenge to end Veteran homelessness. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced an effective end to Veteran homelessness on Veterans Day last year. Now that’s collaboration and partnership at its very best. I think it’s exactly what President Lincoln meant when he charged the nation to care for those who have “borne the battle,” and their families.

For almost two years, I have been blessed to work on behalf of our Veterans. I take great pride in leading an organization that has the noblest mission in government. And I’m privileged to serve with my VA colleagues as we move forward to strengthen and renew the sacred covenant between America and her Veterans. Thanks for making this year’s National Defense Night so special. God bless you, our Veterans, and our great Nation.