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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

11th Annual Student Veterans of America Conference, Orlando, Florida
Orlando, Florida (Remote-In from Washington, D.C.)
January 4, 2019

Welcome. I am here in a studio in Washington, D.C., and you are in beautiful Orlando. So I apologize for the exigencies of the last few weeks. I would have much rather been with you, Jared and Pete, and my friend General Casey. I want to thank you in advance for the warm welcome I know I would have received. And I also want to acknowledge Sergeants Ryan Pitts and Kyle White for everything that they have done to remind us why all of us put on the uniform. Thank you for your courage and your selfless service to America.

I just embarked on the first of a long list of commencement addresses that will carry me to May and April. And I’m always reminded of Winston Churchill’s three admonitions when it comes to public speaking: be bold, be brief, and be gone. And Churchill had a great rhetorical antagonist, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. And when Shaw wrote his play Pygmalion, which Lerner & Loewe later turned into My Fair Lady about thirty years later, he sent a note to Churchill that said, “Dear Winston, here are two tickets to the opening night of my play Pygmalion. Please bring a friend, if you have one.” And Churchill responded almost immediately by saying, “Dear Shaw, I’m occupied with the business of government. I will come to the second night of your play, if there is one.”

But Shaw ended up with the last word. He was walking across Parliament Square, and approaching him was the Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a fellow named James Ramsey McDonald, whom Churchill had called a sheep in sheep’s clothing. And McDonald was very distressed. He said [that] Balliol College in Oxford had just asked him to give the commencement speech, but had only given him 15 minutes to speak. And he looked at Shaw and said, “Shaw, how can I impart everything that I know in fifteen minutes?” And Shaw said, “Please, speak very slowly.”

But I hope I can impart something about the state of your VA and the contribution that student Veterans have made not only to our organization, but to the country. I do want to give you an update on what has happened in the four or five months since I have been privileged to be the secretary of the department.

We have a changed department. This department is calmer. It’s in a better place than it has been in the last few years. Recently, we received two wonderful reports – the first from Dartmouth in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which said that “VA healthcare is as good, or better, than any care our American people receive in any part of the country.” That was an endorsement.

The second thing was from the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit think-tank that values the work of our federal agencies. And it said for the first time that “VA is now one of the best places to work in the federal government.” No longer are we 17 out of 17, or 16 out of 17. And that reflects, in part, a change in philosophy here. A philosophy born from military experience that means we walk the post. But it also is a harbinger of the changes that are coming that actually do represent, for the first time since the fall of Saigon in May of 1975, more than half of our Veterans are now under the age of 65. That means they are computer savvy. They want service that is closer to home. They have very different expectations from those who have come before.

We also have, for the first time, a Veterans population that is now 10 percent women. When I was under Secretary of Defense, 17 percent of the force was made up of America’s females. When my father was commissioned two months before the inauguration of President Kennedy, less than one half of one percent of the force [were] women. . . . One of my promises to you was that I would open the aperture for those who are at the table of the Department of Veterans Affairs when it comes to discussing the situation that we have here, that we encountered, and also the changes that are needed for Veterans across the board.

In my short time, I’ve met with Student Vet Centers at Ole Miss and Clemson and here in Washington, D.C. And you are now a permanent part of the table.

I have said, on many occasions that I have seen this military life from many angles: as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer in two services – first the Navy and now in the Air Force Reserve – as a senior leader at the Pentagon, and, sadly, seen the service through the eyes of my classmates at Fort Bragg and Fort Sill and elementary school and preschool whose fathers did not come back from Vietnam. And it is probably strange for someone with my background to constantly contemplate the meaning of service.

And I think General Eisenhower had it about right. In 1953, when he had been – he was inaugurated in 1953, and about five or six months after that – he assembled 40 Korean War Veterans on the presidential yacht Williamsburg. Some of them were missing limbs. The rest were horribly disfigured. And the president walked among them. And he asked those who could to stand at attention. And those who could, did. And he gave them a charge. He said, “You never put your uniforms away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.” And I can think of no better testament to the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and no better testament to what student Veterans mean, than to remind out fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.

And I say that not to change the debate when it comes to who is a Veteran and what Veteran service means. I say that to remind Americans that for those in uniform there is no greatest generation. There is no special generation of warriors. All of us who put on the uniform – that had the same hopes, same dreams, same fears – all of us want to come back to a country that is proud of our service and honors us for what we have given to America.

So where are we in the VA? We are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in our history . . . actually, history going back to the time when General Omar Bradley occupied the desk that I now have. And VA is better. The state of our VA is better. It’s better because of the attention paid to us by the president. It is better because of the bipartisan support of the Congress. And, it is better because we now have a functioning experienced leadership team in place. And it is better because we have a workforce dedicated to you.

So, 2019 will be a busy, exciting, and productive year for VA and, by extension, for all Veterans we serve. It has [not] been business as usual for a while, now. And I want to talk to you about my four priorities.

The first commandment, my prime directive, is customer service. It is not up to you to employ a team of lawyers to get into the system. It is up to us to say yes to you who have borne the battle.

Most of you know what happened with the post-9/11 Forever GI Bill. I suspect that you’ve all been following it very closely. Like many of you, I was raised in the system where we were told and taught how to make command decisions. I made that command decision when it became clear to me after I stepped into this office that the system was not working. The bottom line is [that] we owe you every penny that you’ve earned and that the nation has promised you. And that is what you deserve.

Every post-911 GI bill beneficiary will be made whole based on the rates established under the Forever GI Bill. And if any of you were overpaid due to the changes in the law or because of our challenges in implementing that law you will not be held liable for our mistakes in overpaying you.

Let me update you on where we stand. We updated housing rates, like we’ve always done. So you will see that change in your first payment this year. Through the end of December, we processed over 450,000 rate corrections. In most cases, those rates will either stay the same or increase. But don’t let your eyes get too wide. On average, the 2018 rate increase was less than one percent over the 2017 rates. If you have been underpaid for the fall 2018 term, you will get a separate payment for the difference by the end of this month.

On average, in December, the processing time for education claims was right at 23 days for original claims and nine days for supplemental claims. At the end of December, we had about 117,000 education claims in the working. About 400 of those – less than one percent – are more than 60 days old. We are monitoring and prioritizing those. About 6,000 are between 30 and 60 days. The remaining 110,000 are pending for less than 30 days.

So, looking ahead, you can find daily updates on your GI bill website and Facebook page. We’re providing weekly webinar updates to school certifying officials and to Congress each month and each quarter. And this month we’re starting our regular VSO updates. We’ve asked schools to submit as soon as possible – to help get ahead of the spring enrollment bow wave – their information, as well. And we’ve resourced to meet our timeliness and accuracy goals.

So, next month, we expect to award the right contract to provide the right implementing solutions for Sections 107 and 501 of that bill. It will be a solution that meets our goals for processing in payment accuracy. It will not be a solution that further burdens America’s student Veterans. By next December, we will have 107 and 501 fully implemented.

But here’s an important request from me. If you or any fellow Veterans you know get into this hardship where their payments are not being made and they’re having trouble with their homes, their rent, or with their tuition, tell us. We process each hardship case and expedite payments for those Veterans who tell us they are in the greatest need. We want to be there to help.

So, as I mentioned, customer service – there is no more important principle. Everything goes back to customer service.

That’s why we established TED, our office of Transition and Economic Development, late last year. TED’s about the seamless transition to civilian life, and accelerating your march to economic success and empowerment. It’s about helping you leverage every resource to achieve your goals and live a fulfilling life. And stay tuned, you will be hearing more about how TED will be improving the military-to-civilian transition and economic outcomes for all Veterans.

Customer service is what our Veterans Experience Office team is about – our VEO. VEO is about listening to Veterans like you and then making improvements based on your feedback. VEO is here at the conference handing out its welcome kits. They’re designed specifically for student Veterans. We tested them last year at the conference in San Antonio. We redesigned them based on your feedback. The welcome kits can help guide you, whether it’s time to go to school, to get a job, to buy a house, get healthcare, retire, or make plans for your own care as you age.

In addition, you’ve heard about the MISSION Act, the most transformative piece of legislation in the history of this department. Implementing the MISSION Act is my second highest priority. It is emblematic of a new, operationalized, robust governance and management structure we’ve established across the department. It is landmark legislation. It expands VA’s family caregivers program to provide must-needed assistance to the people who care for our most needy Veterans day-in and day-out.

My third priority is replacing an aging electronic health record system with a system that is in use by the Department of Defense. I have a personal stake in this. When I was six years old, I received word that my father had been badly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia. He spent a year in an Army hospital in Hawai’i and came back to us weighing about half of what he did when he went to Vietnam. After three years of recovery, he was allowed to go back to the 82nd Airborne Division. But when he finally retired, he left service with two bad knees, needing two new hips, and had lead in his body leftover from that conflict in Southeast Asia. And he took with him for the rest of his life an 800-page paper record.

Those days are going to be over. We are connecting with DoD. We are connecting with private healthcare companies. And we are connecting with private pharmacies to create, for the first time, an interoperable holistic record that begins the day that an American citizen walks into that MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station] to begin her service in uniform. This new system will allow us to share not only best practices, but it will reform VA by making scheduling and appointment times more convenient and make them worthy of those of you who come to us in the 21st century expecting 21st century service.

I will conclude by once again saying thank you for allowing me to do this remotely. As I said earlier, I wish I could have been there with you. But I want to thank you. I want to thank you for being part of the team here at VA, being at the table with me and the leaders as we chart a new course for this, the most noble of federal departments.

And I’m going to conclude at the place where I started, with General Eisenhower on that yacht some 60-something years ago when he said that your mission is to never put your uniform away. You are here to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.

We at VA are here to serve you.

I thank you for everything that you do. I look forward to seeing you in the future.

God Bless, and have a successful convention. Take care.