The airmen of today’s United States Air Force display the same guts, determination and skill as their forebears in the wars of earlier eras, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said Sept. 18 at the Air Force Association’s annual meeting.
Service members stepped forward to repel the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he said, “without orders, without much leadership.” Eight Air Corps pilots in five planes, “outnumbered [and] outgunned,” Shinseki said, “took out nine attacking enemy aircraft.”
Years later, “air crews paid a heavy price for their courage in Vietnam, the walls of the Hanoi Hilton testify to the incredible sacrifices by those who defied a cruel enemy and endured unspeakable horrors,” he said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs exists to honor such exceptional Americans, he said, “honoring their courage and faith and patriotism by keeping faith with President Abraham Lincoln’s promise from his second inaugural [in] March 1865, ‘to care for those who have borne the battle.’”
Most people only know VA as a large healthcare system, he said. “But here’s what’s also true about VA…we’re second only to the Department of Education in providing educational benefits.”
“VA guarantees nearly 1.6 million home loans,” he said, and is the only zero-down entity in the nation.
And for the past 10 years VA customer service has been the top-rated among public or private organizations, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, he said.
Of the 316,000 VA employees, more than 100,000 are veterans, Shinseki said. “The determination, initiative and leadership they demonstrated in uniform continue to define their performance today as we transform VA into a 21st century organization.”
Yet, he said, three and a half years ago there were an estimated 107,000 homeless veterans. VA was also dealing with unresolved issues, some of which dated back to the Vietnam War. Only 7.4 million veterans of the 23 million living veterans were enrolled in VA healthcare.
“We had an outreach problem…we had an access problem,” Shinseki said.
To solve these issues, he said, VA determined three priorities: increase veterans’ access to VA benefits; eliminate the backlog in compensation claims; and end veterans’ homelessness – the last two to be completed by 2015.
“Nothing rivets the attention like ambitious targets with short timelines,” he said.
These priorities led VA to develop a closer relationship with DOD in order to create seamless transitions from military service to civilian life, he said.
“Creating change requires stable and predictable budgets,” Shinseki said. Without accompanying resources, he said, nothing happens except a lot of talk.
VA’s budget has increased by 40 percent since 2009, he said, helping the department move closer to its goals. New hospitals and clinics and new technology are combining to provide increased access for veterans across the country.
“We also fixed those longstanding issues from prior wars,” he said. Several new conditions were added to the list of those for which Vietnam-era and Gulf War veterans receive presumption-of-service connection ratings.
And for all veterans, he said, post-traumatic stress disorder was added to the list of disabilities presumed to be service connected. “PTSD is as old as warfare itself. It was time.”
One million new claims resulted from these changes alone over the past three years, he said, but VA is taking several approaches to reduce the amount of time it takes to process claims. On average, the department processes one million claims per year, he continued.
“[The] backlog is a function of these decisions we make about access,” he said. But a paperless management system is on the way, which is the key to eliminating the claims backlog.
The system will be operational in most regional offices by next summer, he said.
In the book “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” Shinseki said, the author James Michener asks “Where do we get such men as these?”
“Today we would say ‘such men and women as these,’ ” Shinseki said. “The answer is they come from our farms, our villages, our cities and they come from both coasts of this nation. They come from islands, they come from our mountains and they come from the American heartland. They also come from the banks of the Hudson and the Severn and from the foothills of Rampart Range. They’re Americans. And they are, by God, exceptional.”