“Obligation” is a strong word, implying an unbreakable, even sacred covenant. It’s the right word to use when talking about what we owe to those who have served in our military. Upon entering the armed forces, these men and women swore their own obligation to support and defend this great country, no matter the personal cost.
So today on Veterans Day, we pause as a nation to recognize those sacrifices, and pledge to attend fully to those who have borne them.
This is a responsibility that President Obama has taken extremely seriously. Through a time of acute fiscal pressure, President Obama fought for and increased the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by a full 40 percent over the last four years.
The results of this commitment are already visible and significant. Our veteran-care system faces large and continuing increases in demand due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. To meet the demands arising from the 800,000 new veterans who have enrolled in VA health care since 2009, we added new facilities nationwide, from community outpatient clinics to the first new VA hospital in 17 years – with three more hospitals under construction.
To contend with the crisis of suicide and post-traumatic stress among veterans, VA hired 3,500 new mental-health professionals since 2009. To ensure there is always a voice to help those in need, earlier this year, President Obama signed an executive order directing VA to increase its 24 hour crisis phone-line (1-800-273-8255) capacity by 50 percent before the year is out.
Another focus of this administration has been targeting veterans’ homelessness. Between January 2010 and January 2011, veteran homeless dropped 12 percent across the country. But despite these promising developments, we will not rest. Secretary Shinseki’s aim is not to reduce, but to eliminate veteran homelessness altogether by 2015.
We are proud of the progress we are making on these fronts, but we must do more, particularly when it comes to the processing of benefits. We processed 4 million claims – but received 4.7 million – during the last four years. We are committed to addressing this problem. We are fielding a new automated system to handle benefits more swiftly and accurately. We will deploy this technology fully by the end of 2013, with an aim toward ending the backlog in 2015.
It’s possible to compare such expenditures to the payment of a debt – namely, a moral obligation we all owe to those who have worn the nation’s uniform. But there’s another financial metaphor that can help explain our commitment to veterans’ programs, and that’s the metaphor of return on investment.
The same investment logic has informed many of this administration’s programs and policies. VA programs invest in veterans – reducing poverty, increasing productivity, improving health, and vastly expand future possibilities – helping our veterans become stronger.
The post-World War II GI Bill is estimated to have returned seven dollars for every dollar paid. Since its inception in August 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has invested in 773,000 veterans, providing educational benefits to them and their families.
In addition, the array of new programs focusing on providing job opportunities for veterans – including the Joining Forces campaign, led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, help harness the talent, experience, and character of our veteran population. That community is an extraordinary national resource and, like the post-World War II generation of veterans, is a formidable engine of future economic growth.
Such investments in our veterans have tended to produce excellent returns. Today on Veterans Day, let’s not rest. Let us renew this sound strategy for our national well-being – a partial payment on our obligation to care for those who have given so much.
W. Scott Gould is the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a United States Navy veteran.