It's my honor to be here today, among so many who put themselves on the line to protect American lives and the cause of freedom around the world.
You all have the eternal gratitude and unwavering respect of more than 25 million Texans.
I also commend you all for the work you've done over the years in helping your fellow veterans here in Texas.
Over the last decade, we've seen more than our fair share of veterans returning from combat overseas.
Many of you in this room know exactly what that experience can be like.
Through your outreach programs, VFW Texas has helped numerous veterans as they reorient themselves to civilian living, reconnect with family members and work to get into the swing of a regular job again.
All those things sound so much easier than they can be, even under the best of circumstances.
VFW stands ready to help, or just to lend an understanding ear, and for that, you have my thanks.
I've spent the last few weeks talking about the great opportunities available for people here in Texas.
Over the last decade, we've worked hard to create an economic climate that is conducive to job creation, a climate that can give anyone a chance at reaching their dream if they have the dedication to pursue it.
We've remained dedicated to the fiscally conservative principles that have helped us build an economy strong enough to withstand the strains of a national recession, and today has us positioned to continue our upward economic trajectory.
Our military veterans must be a part of that continued economic success.
That's why we are working to improve our workforce development system, to better connect employers with jobs that need filled with highly-qualified veterans to fill them.
For example, Texas has partnered with 28 local workforce development boards and the Texas Veterans Commission in the "Hiring Red, White and You" program, which promoted a series of job fairs across the state, encouraging employers to hire veterans..
The Texas Workforce Commission has launched an industry-driven program providing opportunities for veterans to receive training and occupation certifications and supplying funds to lower the cost to both the veteran and the employer.
This initiative will start out targeting the Oil & Gas industry, specifically employers that need welders, drillers, pipefitters and truck drivers.
More important, the program is meant to connect employers to unemployed veterans, veterans with experience and skills that will prove valuable to any business.
Some of these veterans already have specialized training and valuable real-world experience in these fields, but lack certification.
That's why we're utilizing competency-based learning, which awards credit for those skills and experiences, and dramatically cuts the time needed to earn certification.
This minimizes the cost by not forcing candidates to sit through lessons on subjects they've already mastered.
It's a practice that's already paying dividends in programs like College Credit 4 Heroes, which we launched last year that specifically rewards veterans for the training they've received.
As we begin a new legislative session, we will once again do everything possible to effectively care for our wounded warriors, as well as those who sacrifice body and soul in defense of their fellow Americans.
In 2009, we all came together and amended the State Constitution, granting 100 percent disabled veterans exemption from property taxes, so they could continue to own, and live in, their own home.
In 2011, we extended that benefit to the surviving spouses of those vets.
In 2013, we should extend that benefit to the surviving spouses of service members who paid the ultimate price, those killed in action.
That's why I've called for the Legislature to approve a Constitutional Amendment doing just that, so surviving spouses can continue to live in their own home after suffering through the tragedy and hardship of losing a spouse.
We've also continued helping in other practical ways.
Over the past two years, we've assembled strike force teams to help cut red tape and work through the backlog of pending cases at the VA.
To date, these teams have reviewed almost 11,000 cases and sent thousands back to the VA for an expedited decision.
Another set of experts are working on Fully Developed Claims Teams, helping veterans submit more than 1,500 new cases to the VA for expedited review.
To help coordinate all this, and more, we recently recruited Dr. Suzanna Hupp to HHSC, where she will lead a multi-agency effort to strengthen services for veterans.
As a former lawmaker who represented the Killeen area for 10 years, Dr. Hupp is ideally suited to review and recommend ways we can improve services.
I'm glad to have her here with us today.
The message we send should be clear: in Texas, we honor our veterans and their families for the sacrifices they've made in our name.
In Texas, we will never forget those who gave every last measure of devotion on the battlefield.
In Texas, we will always remember the courage and dedication of our men and women in uniform, and do everything we can to help them heal and return capably to the workforce.
Our freedom is not a gift from academics, poets or politicians, it is the gift of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
They're the ones who drop behind enemy lines, who take to the air and set sail on the seas, without knowing which mission might be their last.
The courage they've displayed, and the blood they've shed, have purchased the free air we breathe, have protected the rights we cherish and granted us the liberty that fuels us to do better.
Whether you fought in World War II or just returned from the Middle East, Texas is grateful for your distinguished service.
May God bless you and, through you, may He continue to bless the great State of Texas.