Wendy [Wendy Hoffman, President of Blue Star Mothers]—thank you for that kind introduction, and for your leadership of Blue Star Mothers of America. Let me also acknowledge:
Gold Star Mothers with us today; Susan Naill, Convention Chairwoman and past National President of Blue Star Mothers; Julie Roberts, First Vice President; Patsy Varnell, National Veterans Service Representative; other Blue Star Mothers, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
I am truly honored to join you for your National convention. In this room are some of the most generous, selfless people I've met with in two-and-a-half years as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Between Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Mothers runs a sense of patriotism that is strong enough to allow them and those they love most to assume risks for the entire Nation.
We hear, oft-repeated, that less than one percent of Americans safeguard this Nation in uniform. That means less than one percent of Americans have willingly assumed risk for the American people, and that their families, through love and support, share those risks and the burdens that go with it. So you can appreciate my sincerity when I say I am honored to be with the mothers of America.
And in saying that, I am not just talking about the exceptional volunteer work of Blue Star Mothers—in VA hospitals; in Honor Flights; in the extraordinary peer-to-peer support network you have built for military families; in laying wreaths in our National Cemeteries; or even through your special project, "Sew Much Comfort," tailoring adaptive clothing for combat wounded servicemen and women. Those initiatives are impressive, much needed, and appreciated.
But, your most meaningful contribution is the gift of example, of generosity in how to live our lives with character and grace and without being overburdened by fear. I hesitate here because to go further would be to intrude on the "undiscussable"—reserved for families, alone. Suffice to say, the example you set is profound.
No one knows more clearly than you that military service, particularly in a nation at war, involves risk—risk to that which is precious to all of us—sons and daughters who carry the hopes and dreams of forbears. Over long wars, that risk assumes a weight few are able to bear—tremendously difficult to carry, as mothers, fathers, and siblings wait for a son or daughter to return home safely. Blue Star Mothers have shown us such strength in shouldering that weight—amazing in and of itself—but even greater is your courage in turning that burden into service. I marvel at your strength, your grace, your generosity, and your nobility of character. And I am honored to share time with you today.
President Obama shares profoundly in this admiration of Blue Star Mothers. I know, as a retired soldier, that his job as commander-in-chief is made measurably easier knowing that our troops have you at home, keeping their families strong.
Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs provides healthcare and earned benefits for approximately eight million Veterans. I would like to take this opportunity to share some information on what VA is, what it does, and how it will continue to care for your sons and daughters—and Veterans of every generation—when they shed the uniform and return to civilian life.
Two-and-a-half years ago, President Obama gave me two priorities when I became Secretary: make things better for Veterans and transform your department so that it better serves them throughout the 21st century. Some pretty strategic guidance—serve Veterans, do it better, transform for the future.
Most people know VA as a large healthcare system—and for the most part, that is true. We provide exceptional healthcare at our 152 medical centers, 798 community based outpatient clinics, almost 300 Vet Centers, and our mobile clinics that serve Veterans in remote, rural areas. But here's what's also true:
President Obama has provided us his unwavering support, resources, and the freedom to act. When I joined VA in January 2009, I inherited a good budget—$99.8 billion. In keeping his promise to care for Veterans and meet his obligations to the American people, the President has increased VA's budget by roughly 30 percent over the three budgets he has submitted to Congress. His 2012 budget, currently before the Congress, is for $132 billion for VA—strong evidence of his care and concern for Veterans, their families, and our survivors.
With that support, for two-and-a-half years now, we have been focusing VA on three key priorities to better serve Veterans: increasing access for Veterans to VA benefits and services; reducing the backlog in disability claims; and, finally, ending Veterans homelessness by 2015.
Access: We have made measurable progress in outreaching to Veterans who don't know about VA, don't know they have earned benefits, or lost faith in us some time ago. The number of enrolled Veterans has risen by nearly 800,000—over 10 percent—in the last two-and-a-half years. More than a million service members will become Veterans in the next five years, and VA's mission is clear and compelling.
Veterans benefits / backlog: this past June, I swore in retired Air Force Brigadier General Allison Hickey as Under Secretary for Benefits. We could not have found someone more qualified, more compassionate, more understanding, and more determined to rise to the challenge of addressing the benefits needs of our Nation's Veterans. General Hickey is a Veteran herself. She is married to a Veteran. She is the daughter of a Veteran—and she currently has family members serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We expect a record of around 1.45 million claims to be submitted this year. We know that we will produce another record in claims decisions. But merely hiring more claims processors won't allow us to dominate the growth in disability claims that's been underway for years now. We must automate our processes, and quickly. General Hickey's focus will be on eliminating the disability claims backlog by 2015—and accomplishing that goal while processing all Veterans' claims in less than 125 days with a 98-percent accuracy rate.
Gi Bill: in 2010, over 518,000 Veterans and family members were enrolled in college under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. All told, over 840,000 Veterans and family members were enrolled in VA college programs last year. This year's budget request would expand post-9/11 eligibility to include non-college degree programs—vocational, on-the-job training, flight training, and correspondence courses, to name a few. It also funds full automation of the payment process to speed tuition and housing payments to eligible Veterans.
Electronic records: for the past two years, VA and DoD have been working to create a virtual lifetime electronic record for use by both departments. Secretary Gates and I agreed to focus our joint efforts on the most important component of the concept—a common electronic health record, and I will continue to pursue this goal with Secretary Panetta—beginning with my first meeting with him this afternoon.
We call our effort the "integrated electronic health record," or I-EHR. I-EHR will enable the free flow of needed medical information between not just DoD and VA, but also with other stakeholders and care providers who may urgently need the information.
Family caregivers: We've implemented new post-9/11 family caregiver benefits, providing more than $430,000 in stipends last month to nearly 200 caregivers who were the first to complete caregiver training—this program will grow and expand to assist the families of those service members who have given so much in defense of our Nation.
In addition to those major initiatives, we are investing in the needs of women Veterans, rural Veterans, and with the support of the president, we have also taken on longstanding issues from past wars—Agent Orange, Gulf War Illness, and combat PTSD. There's still much to be done, but we have momentum in key areas and clear directions for the future. We will demonstrate the same level of dedication and selflessness as the men and women we serve.
Core values: This summer, VA reached a major milestone on another long-term leadership responsibility—identifying and promulgating the organization's core values and characteristics. We came up with five core values that underscore our moral obligation to Veterans, their families, and other beneficiaries—obligations inherent in VA's mission: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence.
Our values are more than just words. They represent our commitments to Veterans, family members, and other beneficiaries, whom we serve. Taking the first letter of each word—integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence—creates the powerful acronym, "I CARE," that reminds each VA employee of their obligations within this department. Now, I know at least some will wonder whether this is a cute marketing device to spur conversation. It is not. These core values come together as five promises we make as individuals and as a department to those we serve:
Integrity — Because "I CARE," I will act with high moral principle, adhere to the highest professional standards, and maintain the trust and confidence of all with whom I engage.
You have my assurance that these are promises VA has embraced with serious dispatch.
Today, I seek your help. Earlier, I told you that VA provides care and benefits to over eight million Veterans. What is important to understand is that there are 23 million American Veterans. That means a little over a third of them come to VA for care and benefits. Now, not all of them are eligible, and many have other healthcare options. But many of them are eligible—and yet they either do not know what we offer or they do not care to come and see us.
That's what I'm asking you to help with. We are a department that cares—so help us encourage, not only your sons and daughters, but every Veterans you contact through the impressive network you have established. VA cares—and we want to help.
We know the importance of meeting our obligations to young Veterans like sergeant Evan Cole—one of the countless young men and women, whose sheer determination to rise above adversity have redefined courage for us.
In the personal narrative to his application to catholic university in 2009, Evan Cole wrote, "on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. My best friend and I talked to an Army recruiter right away. By December, we were both enlisted in the United States Army as tankers.
"Our parents had to sign for us since we were still only 17. I knew I wanted to eventually go to college, but decided to put it off to serve my country. I figured one of the benefits of joining—the GI Bill—would help me pay for a school that I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.
"After graduation, I completed basic training and was sent to Germany. In February of 2004, we deployed to Samarra, Iraq. 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 seven. There were no pictures in that book of what came next. We were ambushed. 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, then deployed to Iraq for a second time to camp Ramadi in the western al Anbar province. 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 when 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, I was immediately evacuated, eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I had broken every bone in my right leg, had a piece of it blown off, shattered my knee, cracked and ripped my pelvis open, had shrapnel punch through my left leg, shrapnel 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. 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 my friends that I would succeed and make something of myself. 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. All that means is that I will have to work harder to reach my goals. But, I am no stranger to hard work. I manage to succeed at whatever I put my mind to because I absolutely refuse to give up, quit, or fail. I would like the opportunity to study architecture at Catholic University—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 in January of 2010. He completed his first semester with a 4.0 average. He continued to excel in his next two semesters at the school of architecture, and I have no doubt he will meet every challenge that life can offer—and prevail.
William Faulkner once said, "I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
Soul, spirit, compassion, sacrifice, endurance, prevail. These words all encompass Blue and Gold Star Mothers and the wonderful examples you set for us.
May God bless your children, and may He continue to bless our Veterans and this great Nation. Thank you.