I’m always honored to be a part of important dedications and ribbon cuttings. But I’m especially honored to be here today, after serving for the past 28 months as Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Last Friday, I was at Arlington National Cemetery for the Veterans Day commemoration. Every time I visit Arlington, I’m reminded of the last scene of Saving Private Ryan, in which the aged Ryan kneels reverently before Captain Miller’s grave and says to Miller and all Veterans, “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. . . . I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
That’s my hope as well. We have all been given one of the greatest gifts possible by America’s Veterans—the opportunity to live in a country as free and as prosperous as the United States. The question is: Are we earning it?
At VA, we are privileged to have the best and most inspiring mission in government, caring for those who have “borne the battle,” and for their families and survivors. It’s a noble mission, and our 360,000 employees, one-third of them Veterans themselves, are proud to be a part of it.
Eight years ago, VA set its sights on three main priorities: increasing access, eliminating the claims backlog, and ending Veterans homelessness. And we’ve delivered on each of those priorities: We’ve reduced Veterans homelessness by almost half, we’ve all but eliminated the claims backlog, and we’ve greatly expanded Veterans’ access to healthcare.
1.2 million more Veterans are now enrolled for VA healthcare, and last year Veterans completed four million more appointments than in the previous year. Over 96 percent of appointments in September were completed within 30 days of the Veteran’s preferred date; 91 percent were within 14 days, and 22 percent were same-day appointments.
Just since I’ve been at VA, we have also begun an ambitious transformation initiative called MyVA that aims to make VA the No. 1 customer-service agency in the federal government. Through MyVA, we are transforming VA in five ways:
And that fifth strategy—expanding strategic partnerships—is more important than most people think.
A lot of people don’t know it, but VA, as we know it, was founded on partnerships after World War II, when General Omar Bradley, as VA Administrator, reached out to medical colleges and universities across the country to enlist them in the cause of caring for the Veterans returning from Europe and the Pacific.
Out of that initiative came our all-important partnerships with many of Louisiana’s outstanding schools, several represented here today. And out of those partnerships has come a Nobel Prize, awarded to Dr. Andrew Schally in 1977 for his research on neuro-hormones, conducted right here in New Orleans.
Today, VA has over 1,800 partnerships with medical schools and research institutions. VA researchers have earned three Nobel Prizes, eight Lasker Awards, and many others honors for contributions to medical science that benefit not just Veterans but people everywhere.
General Bradley also established VA’s Voluntary Service to enlist others in the service of caring for Veterans. We’ve extended that idea to the formation of Community Veterans Engagement Boards, like the MyVA Community Council chaired by Larry Jones and Bill Detweiler. These boards or councils bring advocates and agencies and other stakeholders together to find better ways to serve Veterans. There are 95 in the national network already. Our goal is 100 by year’s end. By working together, we can do what no single agency or organization can do alone.
A major challenge in expanding Veterans’ access to healthcare is aging infrastructure. Some 900 VA facilities are over 90 years old, and 1,300 are over 70. These older facilities don’t meet today’s standards for hospital construction. They were designed to provide health care in the 1930s, not the 2020s. Their rooms are too small to accommodate state-of-the-art medical equipment and procedures, and they lack the privacy, convenience, and comfort Veterans, especially female Veterans, expect today. They need to be replaced with new facilities—like this one.
Building hospitals isn’t easy, but Louisiana Veterans have been fortunate. Since Hurricane Katrina, lawmakers in Washington have recognized the need for a new, state-of-the-art VA medical center to replace the one devastated by Katrina.
This new facility covers 12 city blocks, totaling 29 acres. It provides 1.6 million square feet of floor space and can operate for five days on its own, without support from external utilities. It’s also designed to accommodate more beds in an emergency. When fully operational, this time next year, it will employ 2,588 people and serve 70,000 Veterans in Southeast Louisiana.
Let me acknowledge some of those responsible for getting this important facility built:
VA can do nothing on its own. We depend on Congress for funding and authorization, we depend on Veteran Service Organizations for their advice and assistance, we depend on thousands of public and private partners to contribute their own resources and expertise to countless causes on the behalf of Veterans, and we depend on our own employees to go the extra mile in serving Veterans.
Alone, we can do little, but together, we can earn the gift that Veterans have given us.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this day possible. Thank you, and God bless you all.
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We hope you enjoy these images from the 2023 Alumni Parade and Distinguished Graduate Award Ceremony at West Point.