I am honored to join you today to discuss the important work we do together. Doubly honored to be sharing this podium with Col. Greg Gadson because of who he is and what he represents. He is a soldier, and like other soldiers, he lives by 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.”
There is work to be done. You are educators, and we, at VA, provide something on the order of 565,000 veteran students for your classrooms. Let me read an application essay from one of those Veterans:
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to serve in the military. During my senior year in high school, I was weighing my options and trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation. I did hope to go to college and get an education. But my family didn’t have a lot of money, and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. Then, on September 11, 2001, I was in geography class when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. My best friend, Jared Hendricks and I started talking to an Army recruiter right away. By December of ’01, we were both enlisted in the United States Army as tankers.
“Our parents had to sign for us since we were both still only 17 at the time. I knew I still wanted to eventually go to college, but decided to put it off for four years to serve my country. I figured one of the benefits of joining—the Montgomery GI Bill—would help me pay to go to a school that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
“After graduation, I completed four months of basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was sent to my permanent duty station with the 1-77 Armor Battalion in Schweinfurt, Germany. In February of 2004, we deployed to Samarra, Iraq in support of operation Iraqi Freedom. I remember my first combat patrol, proudly heading into the city on our tank. I was 19 years old, thinking it was exactly like the photo in the book my dad had given me when I was 7. There were no pictures in that book of what came next. We were ambushed on the way into the city, and 2004 ended up being the bloodiest year in Iraq. Two roadside bombs and a landmine hit vehicles in which I was patrolling. Halfway through the tour, I accepted the fact I would be going home in a box. But the tour finally ended and I returned to Germany—alive.
“We refitted and trained for a year, then deployed to Iraq for a second time. Camp Ramadi in the western al Anbar province had an actual chow hall that provided food everyday, rooms to sleep in, toilets that flushed. I decided I would make it home in one piece. Though the violence was nothing compared to the first tour, it only takes one blast. Six months into the tour, I was serving as turret gunner on a Humvee in my battalion commander’s personal security detachment. We drove over a roadside bomb—January 30, 2007. My truck commander, and another soldier running up from behind to help us, were both killed. I was thrown about 30 feet straight up into the air and flew about 50 feet away from the vehicle before landing, with a large piece of the truck on top of me.
“The initial radio report listed me as killed in action. Once they found me and discovered I was still alive, I was immediately evacuated back to Camp Ramadi, to Baghdad, Germany, and finally ended up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, here in Washington. I had broken every bone in my right leg, had a piece of it blown off, shattered my knee, cracked my pelvis on both sides, ripped my pelvis open, had shrapnel punch through my left leg, shrapnel go through my liver, broken my right arm, left hand, shattered most of my teeth, and had a traumatic brain injury. Two years and more than 15 surgeries later I am ready to start down a new path.
“I don’t regret my decision to join the Army or hold a grudge against anyone. I’m proud of my service and I know I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the friends who were with me in Iraq, and even more than that, if God had not been with me. I made a promise to God and friends that I would succeed and make something of myself to prove my gratitude. I can never get my friends back, but I can honor their memory and sacrifice by doing something worthwhile and meaningful with my life.
“I do have trouble remembering things sometimes, since I hit my head. All that means is that I will have to work harder to reach my goals. But, I am no stranger to hard work. I always received excellent grades in school, and always did extremely well in the army. I manage to succeed at whatever I put my mind to because I absolutely refuse to give up, quit, or fail. I would just really like the opportunity to study architecture at Catholic U.—for myself, to fulfill my potential, and to fulfill the promise I made to God and to my friends who never left the combat zone. I hope you will give me that chance.“ Signed, Evan Cole
Sergeant Cole’s college application essay carried the day—he was accepted to enter Catholic University this spring semester. But having negotiated your bureaucracy, he then had to negotiate mine, where I am told he ran into some significant difficulties and delays. Well, Evan prevailed with some outside assistance and entered Catholic University in January 2010. He just completed his first set of mid-terms on 4 March, and he reports: "I got a 98% on my physics, sociology and German mid-terms and I know I probably got an ‘A’ on my history mid-term today. I knew pretty much every question. I feel so much better now."
Evan Cole is just one of those 565,000 Veteran-students being educated in your classrooms all across America. VA is second only to the department of education in providing education benefits—$9 billion annually—representing a significant investment in the future of our country.
Of the various education programs in which these Veterans are enrolled, the program most familiar to all of us right now is the new Post 9-11 GI Bill, which went into effect on 1 August 2009. It provides Veterans seeking an undergraduate degree a full ride at any state institution at the highest in-state tuition rate by state, along with a semester stipend for books and a monthly housing allowance. It is a most generous education investment in the future of Veterans, who have served in uniform since the 9-11 attacks on our nation. It is also a bold investment in the future of this country, which is dealing with the most severe economic conditions since the great depression of the 1930’s.
The last time we tried anything this bold was in 1944, as World War II was drawing to a close. That original GI Bill only lasted 12 years, but it profoundly transformed America—economically, educationally, socially. By the time that entitlement expired in 1956, the country was richer by 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists. By the early 1960’s, more than half of the members of the United States Congress had gained their education through the original GI Bill.
They, and a million other college-educated Veterans, went on to catapult our economy to world’s largest, and our nation to global leader and a victor in the Cold War near the end of the 20th century.
The GI Bill spawned an education revolution that, beyond infusing federal dollars into higher education, also created partnerships like the post-war affiliations between VA’s medical centers and America’s medical schools.
Fully two-thirds of all physicians practicing today received at least part of their training in the VA health care system. Thanks to the scope of those academic affiliations, which today link our 153 medical centers with 107 of the nation’s medical schools, in 2009, we trained 30,000 medical residents, 20,000 medical students, 32,000 nursing students, and 22,000 associated health professionals.
The achievements of our ‘Greatest Generation’ are poised to be repeated by the Veterans of our latest generation, who are currently in your schools under a variety of educational programs.
In the new Post 9-11 GI Bill, alone, we finished the fall semester of 2009 with 173,000 Veterans in classes at 6,500 colleges and universities all across the nation. As most know, we got off to a rocky start last August, without any automated tools, we learned as we went using a manual process, but had 173,000 enrolled and being paid by the end of the fall semester. By comparison, on 1 February 2010, the first day of the spring semester for our purposes, 131,000 checks were flowing to the 153,000 Veterans enrolled at that point. Because we process 7,000 enrollment certificates a day, we are able to manage the gap. Today, over 200,000 Veterans are enrolled with over 194,000 of them being paid by our system. We think we have managed the surge in enrollments, and on 1 April, we will receive our first automation tools, followed by additional capabilities in July, November, and December. Our processes will finally be fully automated by the end of this year, and we will have successfully implemented the new Post 9-11 GI Bill on short notice. The dedication and devotion of VA’s workforce, heavily-populated by Veterans themselves, enabled us to meet our obligation to Veterans and to the country.
Getting the Evan Coles into school is exciting, edifying, and important, but it’s only the first step. Unless they graduate from their programs, there will be no payoff—for them or for the country. I am watching graduation rates, and I invite you to do the same; I don’t think that we want to be mere observers in this great educational initiative. It is our opportunity to have history repeat itself on our watch—a rescue of the nation. We have a significant role to play, and I suggest that we all, each of us and our schools, make a commitment to play it well. We will do our part, and get qualified students into your system. But unless these Veterans graduate, none of us will have returned the investment of the American people.
No one should graduate unless they fully meet your graduation requirements. But many of these youngsters are coming to you right out of a combat zone. They have not been spending the past several years in college prep classes or ramping up their SAT scores. But they come with a different set of life experiences—experiences that will be invaluable in your classes. They will be among the best of your students. The challenge for them and for all of us is to get them through the initial six months to a year. If we succeed in transitioning them, they will be invaluable contributors at your institutions.
We are currently piloting an initiative called, VetSuccess on Campus, designed to support our newest cadre of Veterans as they transition from military life to campus life—two profoundly different worlds. Our goal is to assist them directly during their initial transition periods and to support them throughout their schooling to help ensure high graduation rates.
It’s an idea whose time has come as new Veterans undergo reintegration after experiencing highly-structured, high-risk, hyper-stress combat environments. I know from experience that the residual effects of combat are real—but they don’t need to be problematic.
VetSuccess on Campus is on the leading-edge of our drive to better serve Veterans. Part of this program includes Veteran-to-Veteran mentoring as Veterans further along in their schooling lend a hand to newer Veterans who arrive on campus—helping them acclimate; get into the academic routine; and otherwise support them in dealing with the day-to-day reintegration issues that arise.
VA’s partnership with A-C-E is an integral part of retooling our systems and services. If we are to provide 21st century programs worthy of 21st century Veterans, we need the help of your constituency. The fact is we cannot go it alone—nor should we. Caring for America’s Veterans and providing them opportunities is VA’s primary mission, but it is not the sole responsibility of VA. Colleges and universities, communities, and every American share the responsibility of guiding young Veterans back into productive civilian lives. Every person in the academic community—students, administrators, and staff—were able to pursue their life goals because of Veterans who served and sacrificed. Every American benefits from the courage and commitment of the men and women in our military formations, and everyone should support them upon their return home. They deserve nothing less.
I deeply appreciate the colleges and universities that are enthusiastically participating in our Yellow Ribbon program, and I encourage all to participate. Organize special programs to encourage Veterans to apply to your schools. Welcome them warmly when they arrive on campus.
VA’s commitment to Veterans is absolute. “To care for him [and her] who bore the battle” is more than a poetic reference to a long-ago war. It is a sacred covenant between the American people and the men and women who serve in harm’s way. Their indomitable spirit, buoyant optimism, and unwavering courage deserve our commitment and best efforts on their behalf.
A decade or so after President Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he invoked our nation’s covenant with Veterans, another president, James Garfield, spoke about the critical role of education in America. He said that, “next in importance to freedom and justice is education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate very much your invitation to address this plenary session and welcome the opportunity to nurture and expand our relationship over the months and years ahead. There is work to be done. Place the mission first. Never quit. Don’t let any of these youngsters down.
May God bless our troops; may He bless our Veterans; and may He continue to bless our great nation. Thank you.