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Paralyzed Veterans of America National Convention

Location: The Woodlands/Houston, TX

Doug, thank you for that kind introduction. It's good to be with you. Let me also acknowledge:

* Bill Lawson, your National President;

* Gene Crayton, your immediate past National President;

* Al Kovach, Senior Vice President;

* Executive Director, Homer Townsend--thanks for the straight talk about the challenges and needs of paralyzed Veterans; always an education and immensely helpful to me;

* Gordon Mansfield, former Deputy and Acting Secretary of VA;

* Members of PVA, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I'm pleased to be here at your annual national convention, in the Woodlands. God bless you all, and God bless Texas. I've lived in Texas several times while still serving in the army--El Paso and Killeen, where those folksy Texas sayings always drew a smile. One of my favorites: "You can't wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time."

You have to do one or the other, and at VA, we roll our sleeves up.

PVA has significantly contributed to the well-being of America's paralyzed Veterans for over 65 years now. Thank you for being the consistent and reliable voice for Veterans with SCI/D spinal cord injuries and disorders.

VA has partnered in all your efforts. Since World War II, VA has been a worldwide leader in developing rehabilitation programs and lifelong care initiatives following SCI/D. We currently have the largest system of care for people with SCI/D in the United States.

Last year, approximately 26,000 Veterans with spinal cord injuries and disorders received inpatient and outpatient services in the VA health care system. Of that 26,000, about 14,000 received specialty SCI/D care. More than 3,000 SCI/D Veterans were seen here in Texas VA Medical Centers, with about 2,000 of them receiving specialty SCI/D care.

We have a number of ongoing construction projects of specific interest to spinal cord-injured patients, including the construction of a 30-bed SCI/D unit and long-term SCI/D facility at the North Texas Health Care System in Dallas. We're also in the middle of our renovation plan for the San Antonio Polytrauma building, adding 12 patient beds and new imaging diagnosis equipment for SCI/D Veterans with traumatic brain injuries. Additionally, we're on track to open a new outpatient clinic in Austin by 2013, and we've got two community-based outpatient clinics projected for Katy and Tomball, Texas, both due to come on line in 2012.

There's a new software application, SCI/D Outcomes, that's currently being rolled out nationally. It allows healthcare teams to enhance the quality of care and rehabilitation for Veterans with SCI/D.

In partnership with PVA, VA is making exciting advances in spinal cord injury research with a strong focus in two areas. First, the repair of chronic spinal cord injuries through the use of cell treatments, gene therapies, drugs, small molecules, bio-engineered rebuilding materials, or a combination of agents. Second, we're conducting research to identify reactions that naturally occur in the body that can be barriers to successful regeneration or repair of an injury. VA has developed a consortium of researchers in our San Diego and West Haven VAMCs to develop and test innovative therapies that stimulate repair of the injured spinal cord.

I am proud of our accomplishments together, and I am thankful to President Obama for this opportunity to serve Veterans. As I've said before, you don't get many do-over's in life, and for me, this is a do-over. I get to care for the folks I went to war with 40 years ago in Vietnam. I get to care for the youngsters I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff. And I get to care for true giants who saved the world during World War II, and those who marched to the guns in Korea in 1950.

Like some of you, I grew up in Vietnam. I went to war with a generation of patriots who were as tough, determined, courageous, and capable of unbelievable acts of courage and sacrifice as any other generation before them. It is sometimes said that we honor the fallen by how we care for the living--the ones who made it home. And that's what President Obama and VA have been committed to for the past two-and-a-half years.

These are tough economic times, and that's especially true for Veterans. As of June, this year, one million Veterans remained unemployed, and the jobless rate for Post-9/11 Veterans was 13.3 percent. And, as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, an additional one million servicemembers are projected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016.

Last week, in New Orleans, we conducted our National Veteran-owned Small Business Conference and Exposition. This training conference provided an unprecedented opportunity for both Veteran-owned and service-disabled, Veteran-owned small businesses to build capacity, grow their businesses, and connect directly with VA procurement decision makers. Over 4,100 people attended, approximately 1,600 of whom represented Veteran-owned small businesses.

Additionally, we recently awarded seven of our 15 major T4 [Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology] information technology contracts to service-disabled Veteran-owned or Veteran-owned small businesses--and we are requiring all 15 awardees of our contracts to meet aggressive subcontracting goals for service-disabled and Veteran-owned small businesses on their teams. Historically, Veterans hire Veterans. So, in boosting the number of Veteran-owned small businesses, we do intend to increase Veterans' employment opportunities.

Incidentally, 30 percent of our own VA workforce--over 100,000 employees--are Veterans, and our goal is to up that to 40 percent.

Three weeks ago, the President again demonstrated his unwavering support of Veterans and business in announcing of four, new, aggressive initiatives to serve them both:

* First, a Returning Heroes Tax Credit for firms that hire unemployed Veterans--a maximum of $2,400 for every short-term unemployed hire, and $4,800 for every long-term hire. Also, the existing Wounded Warriors Tax Credit for all Veterans with service-connected disabilities [maximum of $4,800] will continue, with an increase for firms that hire Veterans with service-connected disabilities who are long-term "unemployeds" [a maximum credit of $9,600 per Veteran].

* Second, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs will work closely with other federal departments and the President's economic and domestic policy teams to develop reforms that ensure every member of the military services receives the training, education, and credentials needed to successfully transition to the civilian workforce, or to pursue higher education. If we can dedicate nine weeks in boot camp to getting youngsters ready to join their first operational units and potentially deploy to combat, we should be able to find the requisite time and put together quality transition programs that assure their success in returning to communities ready to work or go to school.

* Third, the Department of Labor will establish an enhanced career development and job search service package for better transitioning Veterans to the private sector.

* And last, a challenge to the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed Veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013.

These four initiatives are good for all Veterans, but they serve the "9/11 Generation" particularly well.

President Obama handed me two priorities when he offered me this appointment: First, make things better for Veterans, and then, transform the Department of Veterans Affairs so that it better serves Veterans throughout the 21st century.

Well, I didn't grow up in VA, and I'm not a clinician, so I had a lot of learning to do that first year. You watched me struggle a bit implementing the new Post-9/11 GI Bill without any automation tools for what was, in 2009, a massive new program. The law directed VA to implement it on the fly--and we did.

Everything had to be done by stubby pencil, but we put 173,000 youngsters into college that fall--the hard way. At the same time, we fast tracked the development of IT tools that have since arrived and are in operation today, administering the education of over 518,000 Veterans and family members under the GI Bill program. And when VA's other educational assistance programs are added, that number of Veteran and family member students exceeds 840,000.

This fall, we will expand that GI Bill program to provide vocational training and other non-degree job opportunities for Veterans who want to work, but who aren't necessarily interested in spending four years in a college classroom--another opportunity for Veterans to add value to their communities.

Implementing the new GI Bill taught me some things: First, VA is tough and agile enough to implement a new program on the fly. Second, as it does so, it is also innovative enough to simultaneously develop new tools to better administer that new program for the long haul. What that told me is that we have good, dedicated, and creative people who come to work at VA every day. My job is to grow and develop them for long-term leadership responsibilities to this important department, and to provide them the right tools, which have been sorely needed.

Now, the President provided not just strategic guidance, he also provided his personal support; he assured the availability of much-needed, scarce resources to address longstanding issues; and then, he allowed me, as secretary, the freedom to make decisions and to act.

Well, two-and-a-half years ago, here were some of the things you told me: Too many Veterans could not access VA's services and benefits. And when they tried, the claims process was difficult to navigate--some said "near impossible"--creating a massive backlog in disability claims. In fact, some Veterans suggested that VA was waiting for them to die so it wouldn't have to pay them their benefits--pretty strong stuff for a new secretary to hear. But OK, I got the picture. I asked you to give me a chance to try to fix a backlog that had been years in the making. I just needed resources and a little time.

You also told me that it was wrong for any Veteran in this country to be homeless, and I agreed with you. In fact, the President was ahead of both of us on this, based on his insights from his time on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. And he decided this was immoral.

Some of you also told me that VA had an attitude problem; that we didn't always treat Veterans with dignity and respect; and, that women Veterans, in particular, were not being well served. We were not overtly disrespectful, but our entire system was heavily male-oriented. So, women Veterans didn't feel comfortable or welcomed. OK, we needed to do something about both of these perceptions.

Finally, you felt we were too slow to react to real changes in Veterans lives--an example here might be the impact of rising gas prices or the cost of medications. Three-and-a-half years ago, the beneficial travel rate was 11 cents per mile; today, it is 41.5 cents per mile; and, we have controlled co-pay costs on medications to the benefit of all Veterans for the past one-and-a-half years.

Based on what you told me and what I learned, we put together budget proposals to address these issues. In response, with Congressional support, President Obama increased VA's 2010 budget to $115 billion--a 16 percent increase over the $99.8 billion budget I inherited in 2009--the largest single year increase in over 30 years. This year, the 2011 budget grew to $126.6 billion, and the President's 2012 budget request for next year, currently before the Congress, is for $132.2 billion. Very few organizations--public, private, profit, non-profit--have had this kind of resourcing support over the past three budget cycles. And every bit of it is needed to fix longstanding issues in this department.

Thanks to the President, we have a clear direction, predictability in resourcing, and unwavering leadership support. Now, it's up to us to deliver. While there will likely be some adjustment to the President's 2012 budget request currently before the Congress and our 2013 budget proposal, Veterans remain a very high priority with President Obama. I know that personally, and it goes deep with him. That commitment will be reflected in the care and benefits VA continues to provide the men and women who safeguarded the Nation in its darkest hours.

In keeping his promises to Veterans, the President's past budgets have enabled us to address the early concerns you asked me to take on when I arrived:

Access: To your concerns from 2009, that not enough Veterans could access VA's benefits and services, we have outreached to Veterans who did not know about VA or their earned benefits, or had lost faith in us some time ago. The number of Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare has increased by nearly 800,000 in the last two-and-a-half years--a 10 percent uptick.

We will continue our outreach and broaden our appeal to women Veterans. With women's program coordinators at each major medical center, with over 1,200 providers having received advanced training in women's healthcare, and with our efforts to give women Veterans their own larger voice through a National Women's Summit, we believe we are doing the right things to anticipate the coming surge in women Veterans.

With two operational campaigns still underway, VA's mission is clear. And when the last combatant comes home from Iraq and Afghanistan in a few years, DOD's missions may be over, but VA's requirements will still be growing, something that is likely to continue for another decade or more beyond that point.

We, in VA, must be more demanding on ourselves to get every penny of return out of each dollar invested on behalf of Veterans. We must be vigilant not to create another Vietnam Generation, whose unaddressed medical needs continue to challenge its members, even today.

Homelessness: in 2009, you told me that no Veteran should live homeless in this rich and powerful country. Well, I've never been able to fix a problem I couldn't see, so we have begun creating a registry of homeless Veterans. We cannot help them unless we know who and where they are, and what they need. So, we are working with HUD, Labor, Education, Defense, state and local governments, non-profits, and volunteers to create a reliable registry so we can attack the root causes of the homeless problem.

Our progress has been significant. Since 2008, VA has helped permanently house over 29,000 homeless Veterans, and another 30,000 have been assisted through the Homeless Call Center. We intend to reduce the number of homeless Veterans to below 60,000 by June 2012, with the goal of ending this national embarrassment in 2015.

What we have learned over the past two-and-a-half years is that we cannot end Veterans' homelessness through street rescues alone. We must develop robust prevention initiatives that assist an "at risk" population that is difficult to define and see. But we know this "at risk" population exists because Veterans continue to be disproportionately represented among the homeless, the depressed, substance abusers, suicidal, and are well up there amongst the jobless as well.

Unless we are conducting a full-court press in all these areas, street rescues of the estimated 80,000 homeless Veterans alone will not be enough.

VA is in the fight against homelessness with all of our capabilities--primary medical and dental care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, case management, housing, and jobs counseling. Street rescues must continue, but they have never defined the entire problem. We are outreaching to states and communities to collaborate at the local level with non-profit partners who know the homeless situation first hand.

We are also conducting justice outreach to support the creation of Veterans courts, which would remand Veterans--those facing minor charges, petty crimes, and repeated substance abuse offenses--to VA for treatment in lieu of incarceration. And we're working with state and federal prisons to afford Veterans being released from prison an opportunity to break the cycle of incarceration-homelessness-incarceration, which plagues many of them. We are committed to ending Veterans' homelessness by 2015, and we are after it.

Claims backlog: You asked me to fix the backlog in disability claims, and I have committed to ending it in 2015 by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level. Of the things you asked me to take on, this one's taking longer to achieve momentum. But we have a host of promising options being piloted today, and expect them to begin paying off in 2012 as we begin fully automating the disability claims process. Our success in automating the new GI Bill program on the fly gives us a measure of confidence that we will soon have the automation tools needed to begin beating the backlog in the short term.

Attitude: Two years ago, you told me that some in VA had an attitude problem. And so, since last December, with input and recommendations from a variety of panels, work groups, and VA senior leaders, we have settled on five core values that underscore the moral obligations inherent in VA's mission: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence--"I CARE."

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.

Commitment--Because "I Care," I will work diligently to serve Veterans and other beneficiaries, be driven by an earnest belief in VA's mission, and fulfill my individual and organizational responsibilities.

Advocacy--Because "I Care," I will be truly Veteran-centric by identifying, fully considering, and appropriately advancing the interests of Veterans and other beneficiaries.

Respect--Because "I Care," I will treat all those I serve, and with whom I work, with dignity, showing respect to earn respect.

Excellence--Because "I Care," I will strive for the highest quality and continuous improvement, be thoughtful and decisive in leadership, and be accountable for my actions, willing to admit mistakes, and rigorous in correcting them.

You will begin to see our core values demonstrably at work in our daily conduct of business. You have my assurance that VA has embraced these promises with serious dispatch.

With your help and support, we've had more than two good years for Veterans. There's still much to be done, but we have momentum in key areas and clear directions for the future. We will not fail to honor the dedication and selflessness of the men and women we serve--warriors like Army Ranger Joe Kapacziewski, who was severely wounded when an Iraqi grenade shattered his right leg, extensively damaged the right side of his body, severing a nerve and an artery in his right arm.

Doctors feared he would never walk again, let alone fulfill his wish of returning to the Ranger Regiment and becoming a squad leader. Then, again, most of us don't fully appreciate iron-will. In Sergeant Kapcziewski's words, "I don't like people telling me I can't do something."

Kapacziewski had been serving with the Rangers since May 2002. When he was wounded in 2005, he was on his fifth combat deployment. After multiple surgeries, slowly regaining use of his right arm, and enduring unimaginable pain, he made the courageous call to have his right leg amputated below the knee, opting for greater mobility and faster recovery with a prosthetic leg.

In March 2007, the leg was removed. Five months later he was running. After six months, he rejoined the Ranger operations company at Fort Benning. Ten months after surgery, Kapacziewski completed an Army PT test, a five-mile run, and a 12-mile road march with 40 pounds of gear. In March 2008, one year after his surgery, he became the only amputee ever to assume combat duties in the Ranger Regiment--as a squad leader. He has since deployed four more times, he's been promoted to platoon sergeant, and he's received a Bronze Star with "V" device for helping to save a severely wounded comrade.

Sergeant Kapacziewski is a member of the "9/11 Generation." More than five million Americans have served in the military during the past decade--three million of them joined after 9/11, knowing full well that they would be deploying to combat. Their accomplishments are extraordinary--unseating the Taliban, pushing al Qaeda from its sanctuaries, capturing Saddam Hussein, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden, and training Iraqi and Afghan forces to defend their own countries.

The 9/11 Generation includes more than a million spouses and two million children of service members, many of whom have lived their entire lives in a Nation at war. More military women have served in combat than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed multiple times. They have all borne a heavy burden on behalf of the Nation--but despite the enormous strains of ten years of continuous operations, our military remains as strong as it has ever been.

Sergeant Joe Kapacziewski's 9/11 Generation is defined, just as every previous generation of America's Veterans has been defined, by the virtues of selfless service, sacrifice, and devotion to duty. These men and women, who serve and have served, are the flesh and blood of American exceptionalism--the living, breathing embodiment of our national values and our special place in the world.

God bless our men and women in uniform; God bless our Veterans, and may God continue to bless our great Nation.

Thank you.

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