First, let me say that I am personally indebted to the Veterans of Vietnam. You trained me as a cadet, you served alongside me on active duty, and you taught me most of what I needed to know to get me through a 30-year career. For all that you’ve done for me and for the country, you have my deepest respect and gratitude.
On behalf of Secretary Shinseki and the Department of Veterans Affairs, I would like to commend John Rowan, Rick Weidman, and the officers and board members of Vietnam Veterans of America for their outstanding leadership these past four years.
I’d also like to commend Dr. Tom Berger of the Veterans Health Council and Elaine Simmons of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America for their service to Veterans. In addition to its many other works, AVVA recently applied for recognition as a provider of accredited representatives for Veterans’ claims, and earlier this month Secretary Shinseki was pleased to grant that recognition. Congratulations, Elaine.
I’ve been at VA just a couple of months now, but I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Secretary Shinseki over the past 8 years and have learned some valuable lessons from him. The first lesson is, “There’s no tree too tall for a short-legged dog.” The second lesson is, “If you think you’re special, try ordering someone else’s dog around.” And the third lesson is, “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. You can only do one or the other.”
Thirty years ago, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the neglect and abuse of Veterans returning from Southeast Asia. But a handful of those Veterans rolled up their sleeves and founded Vietnam Veterans of America, and before long they were making a real difference in the world. They forced the nation to face up to the issue of Agent Orange. They led the fight for judicial review of Veterans' claims for benefits. They took the lead in working with homeless Veterans and in fighting for a full accounting of POW’s and MIA’s.
Today, VVA and AVVA continue to represent the concerns of all Veterans and provide them with valuable services. You volunteer thousands of hours of your time at VA and DoD hospitals, and in local communities across the country—over 86,000 hours last year alone. You have also reached out to Veterans of other conflicts and offered support to the Veterans of Modern Warfare, remaining true to your founding principle: “Never again will one generation of Veterans abandon another.”
You’re doing such a good job looking out for Veterans that sometimes the first comment we receive on recent research comes from VVA. That happened last week with this new study by the Institute of Medicine on a possible link between Agent Orange and heart disease and Parkinson’s. We haven’t had a chance to review the study yet, but I can assure you—we will do the right thing as advocates for Veterans.
Every day, 288,000 people come to work at VA trying to do the right thing, serving Veterans to the best of their ability. Of course, any organization our size will have problems, and we’ve had our share in recent years. Some can be traced to a single individual cutting corners. But others are failures of management or leadership, and some are fundamentally systemic.
I think we can all agree that VA is not performing up to the level of a modern high-tech organization. In response to that concern, President Obama has charged Secretary Shinseki with transforming VA into the high-performing 21st century organization, an organization adapted to new realities, leveraging new technologies to serve the new demographics of today’s Veterans with renewed commitment.
People ask, “Where do you want to be five years from now?” The answer is: We want to be the provider of choice for Veterans—for life insurance, for medical care, for education, for home loans, for counseling, and for employment.
We want to be the Veteran’s first choice for each of these, offering the best product and the best service available. We already offer many of the best products. Where we need the most improvement is on the service side. We need to make it easier for Veterans to find out about their benefits, and easier for them to access those benefits.
How do we do that?
The change envisioned can only be accomplished through determined leadership, so we’ve begun to put in place a first-rate leadership team that’s both reflective of the Veterans we serve and committed to the mission of transformation.
To fill the key job of Under Secretary for Health, we’ve established a commission of senior executives from both public and private sectors, and we’ve tasked this commission with interviewing, evaluating, and recommending candidates for the post. Obviously we want someone who knows a lot about healthcare, but we also want someone who knows how to drive transformation within a large organization. The commission has narrowed the field now to just a handful of candidates, which the Secretary will soon present to the White House, for the President to make the final selection.
Along with committed leadership, we need a trained and capable workforce dedicated to VA’s principles: Veteran-centric, results-oriented, and forward-looking. We need to re-orient the workforce we have toward the Veterans themselves. We need to make advocacy—not just service, but advocacy on behalf of Veterans and their dependents and survivors—our overriding philosophy. We also need to instill in our workers a greater level of personal accountability, while also creating a culture of openness and transparency so that workers aren’t afraid to report problems.
That’s our long-term leadership challenge—getting everyone thinking and acting the right way. In the short term, we have several close-in targets we can’t ignore:
Further out, we’re looking for new ways of thinking and acting. We are asking why 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for service-connected disabilities related to it. And why 20 years after Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of whatever causes Gulf War illness. Left to our present processes, 20 or 40 years from now, some future secretary will be adjudicating service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts, and Veterans will still be seeing VA as their adversary instead of their advocate.
There has got to be a better way, and we’re going to find it. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re asking the questions, and we welcome any input from the VSO’s and the Veterans Health Council. In fact, I’m sure we won’t find that better way without you.
Thanks to you, we now have the Agent Orange registry, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the new GI bill. Thanks to you, we also have an agreement with Congress on advance appropriations for VA’s three medical accounts. Both the House and the Senate Appropriations Committees have recommended advance appropriations for VA medical care for 2011. I know this has been top priority at VVA for some time, and I’d like to thank you and the Partnership for Veterans Healthcare Budget Reform for your leadership in getting us this far.
Much more remains to be done, and for that we will need your continued advice and assistance. VA can’t be the provider of choice without the support of VVA, AVVA, and every other VSO. We need you as partners if we are to fulfill our sacred mission—to provide exceptional services and world-class healthcare to Veterans while they are living, and enshrine them with dignity when they depart. From the oldest member of our “greatest generation,” to the youngest warrior of our latest generation, they deserve nothing less.
For all that you do, you have our deepest respect and thanks, and we look forward to working with you in the future.