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American Legion National Convention

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Jimmie, thank you for that kind introduction, for your service to the Nation, and for your leadership of the American Legion as National Commander.

Let me acknowledge two Members of Congress, with whom I work very closely and who have been most supportive of Veterans, of VA, and of this Secretary. They both serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee:

* First, Representative Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Veteran of the Minnesota National Guard, and Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida, whose leadership has been crucial and will continue to be crucial to VA and its mission of serving Veterans. Mr. Chairman, Congressman Walz, it's good to see both of you again. Thank you for your leadership and support.

* My congratulations to former Chairman Chet Edwards on the well-deserved recognition of his many years of service to Veterans [Mr. Edwards received the American Legion's Distinguished Service Medal].

Let me also acknowledge other members of the Legion's leadership:

* Dan Wheeler, your National Adjutant, and Peter Gaytan, your Executive Director in Washington; good to see you both again;

* Carlene Ashworth, National President of the Legion Auxiliary;

* Members of the Legion family, fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I am pleased to be here in Minneapolis for the Legion's 93rd National Convention. Last week, at nearby Fort Snelling VA Cemetery, two American warriors and special warfare operators were laid to rest: 31-year-old Chief Petty Officer John Faas and 24-year-old Petty Officer Second Class, Nick Spehar, both Navy SEALs. John and Nick both perished when their helicopter went down in Afghanistan earlier this month. Twenty-eight fellow operators also perished in the crash. This is a particularly difficult time for their families. We pray for John and Nick and their 28 mates, and are reaching out to all their loved ones.

The sacrifices of our young and their families continue unabated, and the risks they face daily are undiminished. When incidents of tragic proportions strike, we are snapped back to their realities. They fight for us, and they are making a difference--and risk and sacrifice should not be theirs alone. We owe them the best this country can offer while they're fighting and when they come home to join our ranks as Veterans. That's our moral obligation.

And that is why I am thankful to President Obama for allowing me to serve Veterans. I know he spoke here yesterday, and he is a tough act to follow. Thank you for the warm reception you provided him. It is sometimes said that we honor the fallen by how we care for the living--the ones who made it home. Well, that's what President Obama and VA have been about for the past two-and-a-half years. And with the support of Congress, especially these two members here today, we have moved the ball.

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. He provided not just strategic guidance--he also provided his personal support, time and again; 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.

With congressional support, President Obama increased VA's 2010 budget to $115 billion--a 16 percent increase over the congressionally-enhanced budget I inherited in 2009, and 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. 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 our Nation in its darkest hours.

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 is 13.3 percent. And, as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, an additional one million service members are projected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016.

Three weeks ago, the President again demonstrated his unwavering support of Veterans and of business by announcing new, aggressive initiatives to get Veterans back to work:

* First, tax credits for any firm hiring unemployed Veterans, both short-term and long-term hires, with a maximum credit of $9,600 per Veteran for firms that hire Veterans with service-connected disabilities, who have been long-term "unemployeds."

* Second, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs will spearhead a government-wide effort to reform the way members transition out of the military services. Every member will receive the training, education, and credentials needed to successfully transition to the civilian workforce or to pursue higher education. If we can spend nine weeks in boot camp getting youngsters ready to go operational, we can spend the requisite time to fully and properly assure their success in returning to their communities ready to work or go to school.

* And finally, the President challenged the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed Veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. VA already employs over 100,000 Veterans, about 30 percent of our workforce. Our goal is to up that to 40 percent.

We are also working to expand opportunities for Veteran-owned businesses. Two weeks ago in New Orleans, we conducted our National Veteran-owned Small Business Exposition. This training conference provided an unprecedented opportunity for Veteran small business owners 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 either Veteran-owned or service-disabled, Veteran-owned small businesses.

Additionally, we recently awarded seven of our 15 major Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology (T4) information technology contracts specifically to Veteran-owned and service-disabled, Veteran-owned small businesses; and we are requiring all 15 contract awardees to meet our subcontracting goals for having Veteran-owned small businesses as part of their teams. Historically, Veterans hire Veterans. So, in boosting the number of Veteran-owned small businesses, we will also be increasing job opportunities for Veterans.

VA is also continuing its historic mission of preparing the next generation of leaders by administering the education of over 518,000 Veterans and family members under the New GI Bill. When VA's other educational assistance programs, such as the Vocational Rehabilitation and Montgomery GI Bill, are added, that number of Veteran and family member students exceeds 840,000.

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

The President's budgets have enabled us to attack three key priorities: extending and increasing Veterans' access, ending Veterans homelessness, and eliminating the claims backlog.

Access: Through our re-energized outreach programs, we have increased the number of Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare by nearly 800,000 in the last two-and-a-half years, a 10 percent uptick. We have qualified 89,000 Veterans for benefits under new rules for presumption of service-connection for conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange. We have made it easier for combat Veterans to receive care for post-traumatic stress disorder, and have hired an additional 3,500 mental health professionals since 2008. We have built more than 30 new Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs) and have invested heavily in telehealth. We have also improved our outreach to women Veterans, with women's program coordinators at each major medical center and over 1,200 providers having received advanced training in women's healthcare.

Homelessness: Our progress in the fight against homelessness 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.

VA is in this fight with all of our capabilities--primary medical and dental care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, case management, housing, and jobs counseling. 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: In 2009, 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% 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, and new Agent Orange-related claims, gives us a measure of confidence that we will soon have the automation tools we need to begin beating the backlog in the short term.

Attitude: Two years ago, you also told me that some in VA had an attitude problem, and I agreed with you. 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 these core values demonstrably at work in our daily business. You have my assurance that VA has embraced these promises with serious dispatch.

With your help and support, we've had two-and-a-half 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 and extensively damaged the right side of his body, severing a nerve and an artery in his right arm.

Doctors didn't expect him to walk without support 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 Kapacziewski'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 for valor 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 joining 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, 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 10 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. We are blessed to have them just as we were blessed to have you serve in your time.

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

Thank you.

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