Aloha, everyone. It’s always good to come home. I left Hawai’i the first time in 1959, at age 16, to live for seven months with a number of host families in Flemington, New Jersey. As luck would have it, Congress voted to admit Hawai’i into the Union in March 1959, while I was living there in New Jersey. Fifty years later, I still regret missing the big celebration that occurred here. So, it’s good to be home for this one.
I returned for my senior year at Kaua’i High School, and since graduating in 1960 I’ve spent most of my adult life abroad. Despite those absences, this is home. My heart still skips a beat when the aircraft I’m on turns short final on its approach over Pearl Harbor and Hickam before a touchdown at Honolulu International.
I was born on Kaua’i about a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hawai’i, like the West Coast, came under martial law as a result, and American citizens of Japanese ancestry were caught up in the paranoia and fear that followed. You can imagine why my heroes were the young nisei who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Engineers—and they still are today. They helped shape many of my young thoughts about the uniform and service in the military.
Growing up there on Kaua’i in the 1940’s and 1950’s was exciting. The world was emerging from the effects and devastations of World War II, and for the first time in its 170-year history, the U.S. was an acknowledged world power. National confidence was surging; prospects for economic growth were huge, given wartime industrialization and technological developments; Veterans were flooding college campuses under the original GI Bill; women were moving into the workforce in large numbers. The country was transforming, and it was exciting.
At eight or 10 years of age, most of these macro-factors weren’t digestible to me, but I do remember the sense of opportunity, promise, and excitement that seemed to ooze from all those Movietone news clips that I would see whenever I was lucky enough to get into a Micky Mouse Club movie for 10 cents on Saturday morning—cars rolling off Detroit assembly lines, ships being commissioned, commercial aviation taking off, sparks cascading as molten steel rods seemed to snake across steel mill floors. There was a perceptible aura of national expansion and excitement, even to this pre-teen.
From an early age, the pursuit of education became a singular, riveting focus for the children in my family. Both of my parents dropped out of school at early ages for economic reasons—my dad as a sophomore in high school, my mom as an eighth grader. So there was no question that we were going to get our high school diplomas and go to college—never whether, just where.
Like my friends and classmates from those days, I was born into a family that saw no shame in hard work, physical or intellectual. I learned early that there is no greater nobility in life than the willingness to work hard to be the best at whatever you choose to do and to be a good friend to those you meet.
Vietnam was my turn to serve in combat after my commissioning at West Point in June 1965. What might have been a brief period in uniform, turned into 38 years of service with some of the finest Americans I have ever met. I did not plan it that way. The soldiers with whom I served ensured that I never had a bad day, and I stayed because of them. The years simply flew by, and before I knew it 38 years had passed and it was time to retire on 1 August 2003.
These snapshots in time were used by an incoming administration in 2001 to begin discussing change at the Defense Department. Among other insights, they suggested that the assumptions of one decade rarely held true 10 years later.
In 1999, we had been living with the peace dividend since the end of the Cold War in November 1989 and were still basking in the euphoria of Operation Desert Storm, eight years after it ended. The common patter lines used by then-key decisionmakers, who were trying to shape the outcome of the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, were “we’re in a strategic pause”; “we have a window of opportunity with no visible threats on the horizon”; and “China is not likely not be a global competitor until sometime after 2020.” The conclusions they drew then, over some strong objections, were that there would be no wars in the foreseeable future, certainly no big ones, and downsizing ground forces and increasing missiles and other “precision” weapons were prudent priorities.
A month later, al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our lives have changed forever, in ways large and small. Today, eight years beyond those predictions, we can look back and decide whether they got it right—whether the assumptions of 2001 have held true during this first decade of the 21st century.
To remain relevant, you must have vision, you must be agile, you cannot be risk averse, and you must be determined—these are the attributes of dominance.
The 20th century, in which the United States rose from emergent upstart to global superpower, was marked by access to affordable energy to drive industrialization; an immigration program that fueled the engine of a growing, post-World War II economy; universal education that assimilated new citizens quickly into the fabric of American society; and a credible healthcare system much in need of doctors, dentists, and trained nurses—a healthcare system waiting to be primed. According to political scientist and professor Milton Greenberg, returning World War II Veterans leveraged the generous 1944 GI bill and made our country richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and over a million other college-educated World War II Veterans. These Veterans went on to provide the national, state, and local leadership to catapult our economy to world’s largest and our nation to leader of the free world and victor of the Cold War.
Today, a bold young president faces some significant challenges in the economy, two ongoing combat operations, education, energy, and healthcare in a nation whose birthrate has only recently climbed back to 2.01 percent, enough to replace ourselves. And he is dealing with all of these challenges near-simultaneously because there is the sense that there isn’t any one of them that can be deferred to another time. I’m honored to be a part of President Obama’s team in facing these challenges.
For the last seven months, I’ve visited VA facilities—large and small, urban and rural, complex and simple—all across the country. I’ve spoken with leaders, staffs, and Veterans.
There are 23.4 million Veterans in our country. VA’s three administrations—Veterans Health, Veterans Benefits, and the National Cemetery Administrations—serve only a third of them, roughly 8 million. Last year, some 5.5 million walked through our doors at least once. About 3.5 million saw us regularly—some, weekly. Everyday, 288,000 employees come to work to help operate our 153 hospitals, 768 outpatient clinics, 232 Veterans Centers, 50 mobile clinics, and 128 National Cemeteries.
Here in Hawai’i, there are more than 118,000 Veterans. The largest percentage of them—over 36,000—are my contemporaries from the Vietnam War. Over 3,200 are Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hawai’i is home to a VA medical center, 5 Vet Centers, 4 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, and 9 cemeteries [1 national, 8 state]. In fiscal year 2008, VA devoted more than $368 million to Hawai’i’s Veterans, the majority evenly split between healthcare and compensation (pensions and benefits).
President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a more people-centric, forward-looking, and results-oriented organization for the 21st century. We are crafting a vision for the next 10 years based on what I’ve learned over the past seven months.
For one thing, 131,000 Veterans sleep on the streets of our country each night—men and women, young and old, fully functioning and disabled, from every war generation, even the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and they rank up there in joblessness, as well. I can’t really talk about a vision for the next 10, let alone the next 50 years, until I clean up this accumulated neglect. If I cannot do this, I will have a difficult time convincing folks that my priorities are right for the next 10 years.
VA is going to take 131,000 homeless Veterans off of the streets of our nation in the next five years. I know that there are no absolutes in life—but I also know that if I don’t put a big number on the table, we won’t be working this hard enough. You see, to get to zero, we have to attack the entire cycle of downward spirals that end in homelessness—the last step in the loss of hope. We can’t solve it, at the state or national levels, unless we attack jobs and education, healthcare and substance abuse, depression and suicides, and housing.
We have looked at ourselves closely and have decided to make advocacy on behalf of Veterans, both our culture and our overarching philosophy. It will involve a long-term process of reorienting our workforce and our work habits towards this philosophy. Culture will take even longer, but we’ve decided that the effort is necessary and critical for transformation.
Five years from now—and for the long term in this century—we want VA to be the provider of choice for Veterans—in insurance, in healthcare, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.
To achieve that kind of status among Veterans, we must make it easier for them to understand their entitlements and then make it much simpler for them to access their benefits.
Education: On August 3, Senator Akaka and I joined President Obama to mark the beginning of payments to Veterans under the new GI Bill. We expect upwards of 150,000 young Veterans to be enrolled in college this fall under this program, the most significant educational benefits package for Veterans since the GI Bill of 1944.
Access: We are expanding our services to welcome back up to 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans, who lost their entitlements back in 2003. The downturn in the economy makes this crucially important. We began registering Priority Group 8 Veterans in July and expect to see 266,000 of them enroll this first year.
Backlog: I am personally committed to reducing the processing times of disability claims so that Veterans don’t have to wait 6-12 months for their checks, and I don’t have to have 11,400 claims adjudicators in the benefits administration and 60 judges and 300 lawyers on the Board of Veterans Appeals, involved in delivering Veterans’ benefits.
In April, President Obama charged Defense Secretary Gates and me to build a fully interoperable electronic record
s system that will provide each member of our armed forces a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record that will stay with them from the day they put on the uniform, through their time as Veterans, to the day they are laid to rest. DoD and VA have an opportunity to drive healthcare improvement through interoperable records, not just for Veterans and service members, but for the nation as a whole. It is a large part of our strategy for speeding up the claims process and eliminating delays in receiving care.
I’ve asked why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for presumption of service-connected disabilities tied to its toxic effects. And why, 20 years after Operation Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of Gulf War illness. Left to those same processes, 20-40 years from now, some future Secretary of Veterans Affairs will be adjudicating service-connected disabilities due to our ongoing operations—if we don’t find a better way. I don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re going to find that better way.
A hundred and fifty years ago, President Lincoln delivered his charge to Americans “. . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” It is my great privilege and honor to be a part of upholding that charge for our nation’s Veterans and to be doing so in the company of the great professionals at VA. Once again, I’m honored to have been part of the program today.
God bless our men and women in uniform. God bless our Veterans. God bless the State of Hawai’i in the years to come, and God bless our wonderful country.