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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Disabled American Veterans Mid-Winter Conference
Washington, DC
February 22, 2009

Rita—thank you for that kind introduction;

My name is Shinseki. I am a Veteran, and I am most honored to be serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. It’s a calling that offers me an opportunity to give back to those, who have served with and for me in uniform, and the heroes of World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession.

It’s been a month since I was sworn in, and the transition has been fast-paced, stimulating, and spirited. It’s good to be here with the DAV. Some of us share some things in common—we have served in combat, we have experienced the stings of battle, and we are the lucky ones. We now share the mission of getting things right for all Veterans because there is legitimacy to our voices that’s different from everyone else’s. Through our partnership we have a unique opportunity to answer President Lincoln’s call to action, “. . . to care for him, who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Sadly, it’s a duty that we have sometimes failed to meet, but we have the opportunity to answer Lincoln’s call during our watch.

Your counsel will be important, so I welcome your advice on how to reinforce the time honored covenant between America and her Veterans. The accomplishments of DAV are legend:

  • Your National Transportation Network volunteers drive millions of miles to VA health care facilities;
  • Through the DAV / VA Voluntary Services Program, tens of thousands of your volunteers donate millions of hours on behalf of Veterans;
  • Your National Service Officers (NSOs) represent hundreds of thousands of Veterans and families in submitting claims for benefits;
  • Your Transition Service Officers (TSOs) provide free benefits counseling and assistance to service members filing initial claims at military installations nation-wide;
  • Your volunteers save millions of taxpayer dollars through the care they provide to hospitalized Veterans;
  • Your NSOs, TSOs, and mobile services staff assure that disabled Veterans can access VA services, wherever they live;
  • And your volunteers selflessly serve the most disabled Veterans. Whether comforting Veterans in VA hospitals or driving vans across rural America, DAV volunteers provide a crucial link.

Captain Robert Marx’s tireless advocacy for World War I Veterans, 89 years ago, laid the foundation for an organization that is known, today, for its advocacy for all Veterans. Though your focus remains on the disabled, you have embraced the broader mission of well-being for all Veterans. With your help and support, and leaders like Ray Dempsey, Art Wilson, and Dave Gorman, the VA will establish the right priorities and execute them. I’m counting on them to provide me their views and constructive criticisms, so I have a chance to address them. They can always take them to others, if I can’t or won’t deal with them.

In March, I’ll be attending “The Miracle on the Mountain” in Aspen, Colorado. I’m looking forward to celebrating the triumph of human spirit over physical adversity and the fear of failure. Your volunteers transform Aspen into one of the premier sports clinics in the country. They give so many young Veterans a glimpse of what’s possible, if they would only keep hope alive. I know of few greater gifts one can bestow on others.

Those of us who know what it’s like to sustain life-altering injuries, know what it takes to rebuild one’s life afterwards. To be sure, our lives have been changed—but we have not. Our dreams and our hopes are real. We transform ourselves to meet our new conditions, and in the process, we evolve our thinking to accommodate our capabilities—but, we never quit. In the words I used to recite from the Soldier’s Creed:

I will always place the mission first;
I will never accept defeat;
I will never quit;
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

More than most, we have insights into what it takes to change, evolve, and transform when times are toughest.

President Obama has a vision for change at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I am fully committed to helping him achieve it. That vision requires transforming VA into an agile, adaptive organization that is capable of leading change, not waiting to be dragged into it. We will review the fundamentals in every line of operation we manage. To begin, I’ve asked for a review of every large meeting and conference we sponsor to insure that we are focusing on training to better serve Veterans, rather than merely gathering socially. I am your advocate, and I intend to represent you forcefully.

I appreciate your support of the good people at the VA. A large percentage of them are Veterans themselves. We have over 280,000 employees—they work in 153 medical centers, 755 outpatient clinics, 230 VetCenters, 128 National Cemeteries, 57 Regional Offices, and the Central Office in Washington, D.C. To a person, they are committed to our mission and devoted to our clients. I am proud of them all.

But, as dedicated and loyal as they are, we face significant challenges in the months and years ahead:

  • The economic downturn stresses Veterans and their families, in turn, straining local, state, and federal resources for Veterans’ care;
  • Implementing the new G.I. Bill, the Outreach Improvement Act, and the re-authorization of VA benefits to Priority Group 8 Veterans challenges our own agility as an organization;
  • Budgetary pressures, given the state of the economy, will likely collide with increasing demand for our services and benefits;
  • The connectivity between TBI, PTSD, mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide ideation requires quick and effective solutions for all affected veterans;
  • And the constant need to expedite access to high quality benefits and services in a timely, consistent, and equitable manner remains a priority.

This is clearly a time of great challenge, but it is also a time of great opportunity—maybe even greater opportunity. It provides us an interval to re-set the VA’s key vectors for the 21st Century, and we are going to leverage it. Teamwork, initiative, innovation, and the highest levels of integrity, transparency, and performance are what’s needed to transform the department. I intend to seek best performances out of the VA during this transformation.

There was a time when I used to remind folks to “take care of our people—they will take care of the mission.” It will be our people who will generate change, keep us relevant, and exceed our expectations—not technology or processes. So transformation is, ultimately, a leadership issue. I am proud of our people, and I intend to lead them through transformation.

Where we lead, we will continue to do so; where we do not, we will regain a positive preeminence. From delivering cutting-edge medical care to answering a simple benefits inquiry, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce. Training and continuous learning, communications and team-building—these will be the attributes of a culture of achievement.

At the end of each day, our true measure of success will be the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of the services and support we provide. We will be measured by our accomplishments, not our promises. Veterans, Congress, and the American people expect that, and I do, as well.

Finally, we will continually challenge ourselves to find ways of working smarter and more efficiently. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base, and emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.

To begin addressing these issues, I am developing a credible and adequate 2010 budget request. The long-term priority will always be to transform the VA into a 21st Century organization, but we must begin from where we are and build momentum quickly.

In closing, we serve some very special people. Out of my generation came a very special, young Midwesterner. Tall, lean, and ramrod straight, he looked every bit the Soldier that he was. As a young Captain in 1966, he took command of a company in An Khe, Vietnam. Weary and disillusioned, the men of the unit were cautious about their new, energetic commander. He quickly restored their morale, reinforced their confidence, and instilled pride in them. In short, he led them, inspired them, and earned their respect.

Scheduled to relinquish command in late 1966, the captain requested to stay with his company an extra month. On 27 January of 1967, his men planned a surprise party for his 27th birthday. But the party had to be cancelled—orders came for his company to lead an air assault on a North Vietnamese regimental headquarters. As his helicopter touched down on that mission, machinegun fire raked his aircraft. Bullets shattered both his left ankle and right leg. Another round struck him in the head—a devastating wound.

Months of surgery and years of recovery and rehabilitation, beginning in military hospitals and continuing in VA facilities, followed. Blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, he carried a noticeable depression on his head and was racked with terrible headaches. His leg wounds were horribly painful, and he had only partial use of one arm—confining him to a wheelchair most of the time.

With the care and love of a strong family, coupled with his indomitable spirit, this young man persevered. Re-introduced to a high school sweetheart, they married in 1972. They bought a small home and built a life together.

What was most remarkable about this young man was his refusal to see himself as unfortunate. He prayed at each meal, thanking God for sending him his wife and for making it possible to live at home in a free country. Once, when his wife mentioned his understating his sacrifices, he reminded her that, "I had friends who didn't come back . . . I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for." Of the indescribable pain he endured constantly, he said to his sister, when speaking of a wounded comrade, “I should never complain about the pain in my leg because . . . [he] doesn’t have [one].”

Many of us have unknowingly encountered his photograph. Prior to going to Vietnam, Captain Sam Bird was assigned to the Old Guard at Fort Myer. On 25 November, 1963, he was the officer in charge of the casket detail at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Historian William Manchester described him that day as “ a lean, sinewy Kansan, the kind of American youth whom Congressmen dutifully praise each Fourth of July, and whose existence many, grown jaded by years on the Hill, secretly doubt.”

Well, you and I know that such people do exist—we have the honor of serving them every day. Though Sam Bird passed away in 1984, other disabled American Veterans show the same courage, determination, and confidence to re-build their lives, maintain a sense of humor through unspeakable pain, and demonstrate compassion for others. They deserve the help we would have shown Sam Bird.

You have my respect and admiration for all that you do. I am proud to be a member of the DAV. I look forward to working with you. God bless our Veterans, and God bless America. Thank you.