Student Veterans of America 4th Annual National Conference

By:  Eric Shinseki
Date: Dec. 9, 2011
Location: Las Vegas, NV

Caleb Cage, Executive Director, Nevada Office of Veterans Affairs]--Thanks for that kind introduction and for your work on behalf of Nevada's Veterans. Let me also acknowledge:

* SVA Board Chair Rodrigo Garcia, and Board Members--Dr. Bob Ackerman, the Honorable Charles (Chick) Ciccolella, Major General Michael Lehnert, Peter Meijer, Brian Hawthorne, the Honorable Dan Grant, Dr. Lynda Davis, and Luke Stalcup;

* Your Executive Director--Mike Dakduk;

* Student Council President--Jeremy Glastetter;

* Kevin Schmiegel, Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce--Thanks for including me in your 10 November launch of the Chamber's "Hiring Our Heroes" initiative;

* Other representatives of our state Veterans offices and Veteran service organizations;

* Fellow Veterans, VA colleagues, faculty advisors, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning. I'm honored to be here. Congratulations to SVA for achieving a major milestone--500 chapters in all 50 states, plus two foreign countries--France and Italy. It is a tribute to your organizational skills, the mentoring you have received from other established VSOs like the American Legion and VFW, as well as to your own understanding of the urgency of your mission in making this program payoff on the hopes, the investments, and the thanks of the American people.

Congratulations, as well, on earning the generous support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I'm glad things have worked out for you. But remember, the foundation is interested in leveraging improvements in college graduation rates, and student Veterans are in residence on 6,500 campuses.

Where do you go from here? However you answer that question, if it does not raise graduation rates, we will all have missed an opportunity to do something for this country. I invite you to think strategically here. Organizations don't grow without leadership, and you can't lead unless you know where you're headed. In terms of vision, where does SVA want to be as an organization a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now?

If you say it's difficult to see that far into the future, I would agree--visioning is never easy. About the only thing you can be sure of is that, ten years from now, the world won't look like it does today, and most of our predictions about that coming decade are likely to be wrong.

At least that appears to be the lesson suggested in this historical review of the 20th century used by an incoming administration in 2001, to begin wrestling, then, with its next decade.

Let me cite from it briefly:

* If you had been a security policymaker in the world's greatest power in the year 1900, you would have been British, not American, looking warily at your age-old enemy, France.

* By 1910, you, the British, would be allied with France, and your enemy would have been Germany.

* By 1920, World War I would have been fought and won, and you'd be engaged in a naval arms race with your allies, the U.S. and Japan.

* By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said, "No more war for 10 years."

* By 1940, the world was engulfed in a war of global proportions.

* By 1950, Britain was no longer the world's greatest power, the atomic age had dawned, and a "police action" was underway in Korea.

* Ten years later, in 1960, the political focus was on the "missile gap," the strategic paradigm was shifting from massive retaliation to flexible response, and few people had heard of a place called Vietnam.

* By 1970, the peak of our involvement in Vietnam had come and gone, we were beginning our détente with the Soviet Union, and we were anointing the Shah as our protégé in the Gulf.

* By 1980, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, Iran was in the throes of revolution, there was talk of "hollowness" in the U.S. Army, and the U.S. was the greatest creditor nation the world has ever seen.

* By 1990, the Soviet Union was within a year of dissolution; American forces in the desert were on the verge of showing they were anything but "hollow," the U.S. had become the greatest debtor nation the world had ever known, and almost no one had heard of the Internet.

* By the year 2000, Warsaw had become the capital of a NATO nation, asymmetric threats were transcending geography, and the parallel revolutions of information, biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, and high-density energy sources foreshadowed changes almost beyond forecasting. And almost no one saw 11 September 2001 coming.

Well, it's nearly 2012 now, and the U.S. has been engaged in its largest armed conflict since Vietnam for a decade now.

Where do you think SVA will be ten years from now? If you don't know, fair enough. It's a difficult question, but you can do something about that. If you don't care, well, we have a problem because you are still going to own the answers to that question in 2021.

Here is what we do know. We are in the midst of the toughest economic downturn in my lifetime, and though last month's employment numbers were encouraging, the job market has still been slow to recover.

Sixty-seven years ago, there was an original GI Bill that educated and trained nearly 8 million of the 16 million Veterans who fought and won World War II. That educational opportunity lasted from 1944-1956--just 12 years. The Veteran leadership that graduated under that program went on to catapult the U.S. economy to world's largest and our nation to leader of the free world and victor in the Cold War.

Today, over 410,000 Veterans and family members, like yourselves, are enrolled in college under the new 9/11 GI Bill. Adding in all our other Veteran college programs brings that number up to over 920,000.

Each year almost 70% of high school seniors in this country enter college. Many of them don't complete the first semester, let alone the first year. The graduation rate for all students entering 4-year colleges and universities in the United States is 57%. Remember, I am trying to isolate what we know from what we don't know. Left to seek its own level, do we think that your graduation rates will be any better than the historic norm? I don't know, and neither do you.

If you think this country owes you an education, you have an attitude problem. They didn't do this for any generation since World War II--until yours.

If, on the other hand, you think you owe the American people and great folks like Bill and Melinda Gates and the VSOs, who have given you wings, your best performance academically, I think we'll all come out much better--Veterans, SVA, and the country. More Veterans will graduate; SVA will be acknowledged as the force behind that. Veterans, collectively, will have embraced ownership and responsibility for their education. And one thing I know about this generation is that, if you own something, you deliver.

You see, that's what happened on all those tough missions you took on--you took ownership, you got it done, you took care of one another, and you reset yourselves each day for the next go. So does SVA own the mission of shepherding this generation of Veterans through this educational experience, at a time when the country needs strong, bold, decisive, disciplined, and principled leadership to jumpstart its lagging economy? A country that is investing in your skills, knowledge, and attributes? Does SVA own this?

This year we expanded the new 9/11 GI Bill to provide vocational training and other non-degree programs to broaden the opportunity for Veterans who may not want to spend four years in a college classroom. If they want work skills that allow them to join the workforce today, that is now also available to them, as it was for Veterans under the original GI Bill. So who has the mission of organizing the students in this training effort? Do they fit into SVA's structure?

Now, if the new 9/11 GI Bill follows the track of the original GI Bill, we could be more than two years into a 12-year opportunity. Hence, my earlier question, where does SVA think it will be in 10 years? Do you have momentum to produce, as the World War II generation did, or were they truly a unique, one-of-a-kind "greatest generation"?

Others have stepped up to the plate to find jobs for Veterans:

* President Obama recently signed into law the new Returning Heroes Tax Credit of up to $5,600 for hiring any Veteran unemployed for more than six months, and a Wounded Warriors Tax Credit of up to $9,600 for hiring any service-disabled Veteran unemployed six months or longer. Businesses, especially small businesses seeking to grow, can hire the best people and get a tax benefit for doing so.

* The U.S. Chamber's Hiring Our Heroes initiative, headed by Kevin Schmiegel, is a brilliant year-long effort to help Veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment. Since March, the Chamber has hosted more than 70 hiring fairs in 37 states, giving more than 60,000 Veterans and military spouses the opportunity to meet with over 2,500 different employers. Thus far, the Chamber has helped more than 3,400 Veterans and military spouses and 50 wounded warriors find employment--and it still has 30 more hiring fairs scheduled before the end of March 2012.

* To further encourage private-sector employers to commit to hiring Veterans, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have spearheaded a "Joining Forces" agreement with such businesses as Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Wal-mart, AT&T, Humana, and Honeywell, to come up with 100,000 jobs for Veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013--a tremendous collaboration between the White House and the private sector.

And at VA, we long ago committed to ramping up our hiring of Veterans, as well. SVA co-founder Derek Blumke is one of our fantastic hires.

Over 315,000 good people come to work at VA every day. One third--over 100,000 of us--are Veterans, and our goal is 126,000 Veterans, or 40 percent of our workforce. Every year, VA hires over 40,000 new employees.

Now, most of you know VA as a healthcare provider, and for the most part that's true. We are the largest integrated healthcare system in the country--152 medical centers, over 800 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, nearly 300 Vet Centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics--doctors, nurses, medical technicians of every discipline, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists, dietitians--and the list goes on.

More broadly, in size and scope, VA is on par with a Fortune 15 company, with a 2012 budget request, currently before the Congress, of $132.2 billion. Here is what's also true about VA:

* We are second only to the Department of Education in providing educational benefits of $10 billion annually.

* VA guarantees nearly 1.6 million home loans with an unpaid balance of $248 billion. Our foreclosure rate is the lowest in all categories of mortgage loans.

* VA is the nation's 8th largest life insurance enterprise with $1.3 trillion in coverage, 7.1 million clients, and a 95% satisfaction rating.

* VA operates the country's largest national cemetery system--131 cemeteries.

Beyond healthcare professionals, we also hire--engineers, accountants, lawyers, claims adjudicators, and specialists and managers in every imaginable field, including acquisition, human resources, public affairs, and information technology. And then, we grow them into situationally aware, adaptive leaders to build decisiveness and agility in this department. It's our Veteran-heavy workforce that's, in large measure, responsible for much of our success. Nearly three-quarters of our cemetery employees are Veterans, and for the past 10 years they have been, hands-down, the top-rated public or private sector organization in customer service in the Nation, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index--outperforming Google, Lexus, Apple, and all other comers.

Our Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy filled over 111 million prescriptions last fiscal year. J.D. Power and Associates recognized it as one of their 2011 customer-service champions. And in 2009, our Clinical Research Pharmacy Coordinating Center received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award--America's highest honor for innovation and performance excellence presented annually by the President--only the second federal agency to be so recognized in 23 years. That's the quality of performance and leadership Veterans provide at VA. So, we have raised our goal for Veterans hiring to 40%.

For the bold who are not averse to shouldering some risk by venturing into business for themselves, VA has a small-business office that helps Veterans start up their own small businesses. This past summer, we hosted a training conference for Veteran small-business owners, and we'll host another one next year. This is a good opportunity for VA to teach, coach, and mentor first-time small-business owners about standing up a business, understanding tax law, learning to network, facilitating proposal writing to compete for those important contracts, and thinking about how to grow a business responsibly. We also have unprecedented authority to prefer Veteran-owned businesses in VA contracting.

Helping Veterans succeed in business is part of the solution to Veteran unemployment. Why? Because Veterans hire Veterans. They know the value of military service and how to apply military skills in the business world. Most importantly, they know how to deal with Veterans--how to talk to them. It's about trust.

VA has a special incentive program that reimburses employers up to 50 percent of a disabled Veteran's salary. Veterans can post resumes and employers can post job announcements, at no cost to the Veteran or the employer, at our website: vetsuccess.gov. Thousands of employers have registered on site and posted job announcements.

But all of these efforts to provide opportunity count only if you cross that graduation stage and receive your diplomas. So let's focus on what SVA can do to help make this system produce what it is capable of producing. It happened following World War II. Whether lightning strikes twice or not is in your hands.

We recently initiated a new campus outreach effort headed by Derek Blumke called VITAL--Veterans Integration To Academic Leadership. Derek and his team coordinate efforts to connect student Veterans to their local VA medical centers, where they can get the care and counseling they need while still in school.

At present, VITAL is underway at five VA medical centers--San Francisco, Austin, Ann Arbor, Tuscaloosa, and Bedford, Massachusetts--and the results have been very encouraging. Since August 2010, the San Francisco medical center has helped over 500 Veterans enrolled at San Francisco City College, more than 200 of whom are also now enrolled in the VA healthcare system. If it weren't for VITAL, there's a good chance those Veterans would still be struggling on their own to get over the past and make it through school.

Next year, we plan to have VITAL underway at 15 more VA medical centers. But here's the challenge: There are 152 VA medical centers nationwide--and 6,500 college campuses hosting student Veterans. An awful lot of student Veterans could miss getting the help they need transitioning from combat to classroom and from military to civilian.

SVA needs to be there for them, taking a lead role in helping Veterans transition quickly from the high-stress but highly structured operational environments you knew in the military, to a largely unstructured and often isolated student life. When troops run alone, you know what happens: they don't run as far or as fast. But when troops run in formation, everybody keeps the pace, and everybody finishes.

SVA can provide that formation. That's why I've challenged you in the past to establish sponsorship programs to take charge of each arriving Veteran from their first day on campus to graduation day and beyond--to provide the peer support needed, at times, to connect them to needed services available on campus or from VA, to set high standards for academic excellence and dispel the creep of slacker mentality, and to keep student Veterans motivated and focused on the goal of graduating.

Sometimes the reinforcing support of a sponsor or mentor can have greater, lasting impact on one's life than the courses being studied. What do you remember from boot camp or basic training better than your DI or drill sergeant? The day before Thanksgiving, I met a man who had graduated from Yale University in the 1950's. We were both serving the homeless at a food shelter. He told me he hardly remembered anything he studied at Yale, but he remembered everything about his drill sergeant at Fort Jackson--still knew his name and could describe him. And that is what I have heard, again and again, when I run into a soldier, anywhere--chance meetings, noncommissioned officer students at the Army's Sergeants Major Academy, the six retired Sergeants Major of the Army.

Those of you who went through basic learned teamwork. You learned in uniform to cover your buddy and to take care of each other. Selflessness is essential to military success. It is at the heart of teamwork and collective performance.

Your objective today is gaining a college education. I look forward to all of you earning your degrees, crossing a graduation stage, and proudly accepting your diplomas. That will be a great day for all of us. More than that, though, I expect you, as SVA leaders, to lead other Veterans to successful outcomes. The mission is clear, defeat is not an option, no one quits, and no one gets left behind.

Congratulations, once again, on achieving your 500 chapter / 50 states milestone, and on earning the Gates grant. Make it count--make it count. Give back to this wonderful country that has invested in you, and do great things with your lives.

God bless each of you. God bless those who still serve and have served the Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Happy holidays. Thank you.