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Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki at the Student Veterans of America 5th Annual National Conference

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Location: Orlando, FL

Many thanks for that kind introduction, and for your leadership of SVA. Let me also acknowledge: Your Board Chair, Rodrigo Garcia; John Moran, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans Employment and Traning; other members of the Board, and the members of the Student Council; representatives of our Veteran Service Organizations and state Veterans' offices; fellow Veterans, VA colleagues, faculty advisors, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning, and Happy New Year. I'm honored to be addressing SVA for a fourth time. During my last visit with you in December 2011, I challenged you to ask and answer the question: Where do you want SVA to be in a year, in five years, in ten years?

Answering such a question is never easy. Visioning is hard work. We rarely see the future clearly enough, but the best organizations are able to envision their futures in spite of the uncertainty. That should not be strange to folks in this audience. Your time in uniform was about being decisive, even when the intelligence was imperfect and incomplete. And your units did not have the option not to go.

At today's pace of change, a lot can happen in ten years, often confounding any assumption we might make about the future. The one thing we can count on 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. Twentieth-century history is a textbook for such lessons.

So a vision for SVA invites a robust yet flexible plan for the future, and leaders who are situationally aware, adaptive, and agile in "promot[ing] success for student Veterans"--SVA's mission. And that's what brings you here today--to help Veterans succeed in school and post-graduation.

In the past year, you've endeavored to answer the question posed a year ago about how you saw yourselves--a year, five years, ten years down the road. Well, it is a year later, and I'm proud to see that, with the help and support of the Bridgespan Group, and the immense generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, you've produced a business plan that identifies your strategic initiatives.

It's a good plan that projects, by 2016, a thousand SVA chapters all across the country. A year ago, you had just reached 500 chapters; today you have over 700. Adding over two hundred new chapters in a single year is impressive. At that rate, you could very well reach a thousand chapters, your 2016 goal, by mid-2014. And by 2016, you could hit 1,300 chapters. Be ambitious--raise the high bar. Good organization, clear standards, and determined leaders are important to delivering any critical mission. "Promot[ing] [the] success of student Veterans" is critical, and it's a mission we share in common. I need your help in getting our student Veterans to their graduation days.

Your strategic plan is bold. Your decisions on where to establish chapters sensibly balances Veteran populations and Veteran friendly programs, public and private institutions, and large state schools and smaller community colleges. The strategic expansion in your business plan and the crucial partnerships you have formed define a vision for years to come.

You, like VA, exist to serve Veterans. Our best measure of success is how many Veterans we help, not how many offices opened or chapters added. We need to concentrate our resources and energy where they will maximize outcomes--those campuses and communities where Veterans have chosen to enroll. We also need to consider which schools are most supportive of your mission and best able to assist with funding for Veteran-oriented programs.

We'll have to be creative in other ways, as well. More students are attending community colleges, both full-time and part-time. More are also taking classes online, well away from traditional college campuses. Online schools top the list of GI Bill enrollments in some states. For every Veteran on campus, there may be three more in the local area taking courses online, and more traditional schools are also offering courses online. I ask for your help in figuring out how to reach these students to support them in completing their studies. They may not be campus-focused, but they are education-committed. Serving them means a broader charter and the need for innovation. I urge us not to forget the less visible Veterans in our midst. They, too, need SVA.

This past semester, enrollments for the new GI Bill numbered over 480,000 people. When we include all Veterans students anywhere in the education system, that number climbs to around a million Veterans and eligible family members. Your business plan estimates that over 220,000 Veterans have access to an SVA chapter on campus. That would be about a quarter of the market. Adding 600 more chapters in the next three years would cover about half the market. Aim high!

Your key to long-term success will be the degree to which you are helpful to Veterans. Are you value-added as a service? If you are, SVA will join the ranks of the major Veteran Service Organizations. Every major conflict this Nation has fought has produced a major VSO to represent each new generation of Veterans:

Out of the Civil War came the Grand Army of the Republic;
Out of the Spanish-American War came the Veterans of Foreign Wars;
Out of World War I came the American Legion;
Out of World War II and Korea came AMVETS;
And out of Vietnam came Vietnam Veterans of America.
Each of these VSOs got its start, and eventually crossed the threshold of long-term success, by providing tangible benefits to members--different benefits depending upon the needs of different generations, but always something their members valued. Their success as service organizations fueled their growth in membership, and their membership then gave them not just clout but also legitimacy. Opening an office in Washington, DC, and turning on a large megaphone to Congress and the press is not the only measure of merit. Other VSO's became indispensable voices for Veterans who had legitimate needs but no voices of their own. Those VSO's worked with VA and with anyone capable of helping them do good things for their Veterans. From such selfless service came legitimacy.

It's yet to be determined which organization will represent the 9/11 generation, carrying its torch forward into this century. If you focus on the mission, follow through on your business plan, and dedicate yourselves to serving your fellow Veterans, it could well be SVA.

VITAL is VA's new campus outreach effort--Veterans Integration To Academic Leadership. It is headed by an SVA alum, Derek Blumke, to coordinate efforts which connect student Veterans with their local VA medical centers, where they can get the care and counseling they need while still in school. The program is now underway at 21 VA health facilities, partnered with 56 schools, including the University of Central Florida, here in Orlando. VITAL has provided face-to-face support to over 4,000 student Veterans, helped over 800 enroll in the VA healthcare system, trained nearly 3,000 university staff and faculty members, and helped 17 campuses establish their own Veteran support programs. Several of these programs now set the standard for "Veteran-friendly" campuses.

If you're not already familiar with VITAL, stop by their display in the hall. I'm sorry to say that Derek will be leaving VA soon to take a job in the private sector, but the program will continue thanks to his hard work in getting it started--great initiative and value-added for Veterans.

I deeply appreciate SVA's creativity and proactiveness in helping gather the data that will allow both SVA and VA to measure our success and identify where we need improvement in Veterans' education programs. The best measurements of success are completion rates for those who enter education and training programs--that's the return on our Nation's investment in Veterans' education. Together we must determine how to make this program successful.

In June 2011, VA's Education Service requested that schools begin voluntarily reporting graduations and program completions to VA. From June 2011 through December 2012, over 2,600 schools notified VA of over 62,000 graduations and 4,800 program completions. VA also has a contract with the National Student Clearinghouse [NSC] to obtain "degree attainment" information, identifying Veterans who earned degrees through the Montgomery GI Bill and Reserve Educational Assistance Program. We believe a similar contract has great potential to produce accurate data on Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients.

Additionally, VA is working with SVA and NSC to create an education completion database for Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI Bill beneficiaries--an initative you designed and funded. VA will provide information for up to one million beneficiaries to NSC. NSC will then match beneficiaries against their database to determine how many Veterans have graduated or completed a training program. The memorandum of agreement between SVA, VA, and NSC was approved by VA yesterday. This kind of collaboration is critical. The original GI Bill lasted just 12 years; the new GI Bill is now entering its fourth year--the shot clock continues to tick.

Finally, let me tell you about a great and good friend of mine who just finished his run on this earth, Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Soldier, senator, statesman, but always an American patriot of enormous resolve and principle, Senator Inouye's extraordinary accomplishments are the stuff of legend.

When America was plunged into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dan Inouye and many other second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry, called nisei, demanded the right to defend this country like other American citizens. And to our country's credit, they were heard, leading to the creation of all-nisei units led by caucasian officers--the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service. Dan Inouye served in the 442nd as an infantryman, enlisting at age 18. Within a year, he was promoted to sergeant. His performance in combat led to a battlefield commission to second lieutenant in 1944, at age 20.

Less than a year later, while leading his platoon in an attack on enemy machine-gun positions near San Terenzo, Italy, he was shot in the stomach yet pressed on to destroy the first machine-gun nest with hand-grenades and Thompson submachine-gun fire. Then he rallied his men for an attack on the second machine-gun position, which he also successfully destroyed before collapsing from a loss of blood. Regaining consciousness, he crawled to the final bunker and cocked his right arm to throw his last grenade. An enemy soldier fired a rifle-grenade, striking his right elbow, severing most of his arm--without dislodging the grenade from his hand. Inouye shouted for his men to stay back while he pried the live grenade from his useless right hand, tossed it into the bunker, and rose to his feet to silence the last enemy with a one-handed burst from his Thompson before being wounded a third time and falling unconscious. For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dan Inouye spent the next two years in Army hospitals, where he met two fellow soldiers with similar wounds, Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Hart of Michigan. Dole had his right arm shattered by machine-gun fire, and Hart had his right arm badly injured by an artillery round on Utah Beach. Those of you who have spent time on a ward know how important camaraderie is. The three formed an immediate bond, and with the help of the other two, Dan Inouye found a new purpose in life: public service.

Before the war, he wanted to be a surgeon, but losing his arm changed his plans. He returned to school on the GI Bill and earned a bachelors degree in political science from the University of Hawai'i, and then a law degree from George Washington University. He was elected to the Hawai'i Territorial House of Representatives in 1953, to the Territorial Senate in 1957, to the U.S. House of Representatives, when Hawai'i became a state in '59, and, finally, to the U.S. Senate in '62.

Phil Hart had been elected to the Senate in 1958, and Bob Dole soon joined them in 1968. Though Hart died in 1976, and Dole retired in 1996, Dan Inouye stayed on to become the Senate's President pro tem--the Senate's most senior member--with an office in the Hart Building.

Today, some of you and your fellow Veterans are just where Dan Inouye was 65 years ago--transitioning back to civilian life, perhaps dealing with new limitations, looking for a new purpose in life. The friendships you form now among your fellow Veterans can help decide your future and theirs. These relationships can make a difference between success and failure for each other and open opportunities not considered before.

If SVA can help facilitate that for Veterans, it will have earned its place among the VSOs of the 21st century. Congratulations on another tremendous year of progress in service to your fellow Veterans. Don't slow down. Don't stop. Finish school, and take your cohorts with you.

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.

Thank you.


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