A time of reflection

WASHINGTON - Ninety years ago today, the guns fell silent in Europe. World War I – the "war to end all wars" – was over. Almost 5 million Americans served during that first modern, mechanized war. Our last living link with them, 107-year-old Army veteran Frank Buckles, observes this Veterans Day at his farm in West Virginia.

It is important, on Veterans Day, for all Americans to reflect on the service and sacrifice of our veterans, from Mr. Buckles to the men and women who recently fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their bravery, their resourcefulness, and their patriotism mark them as our nation's finest citizens.

Since 2001, the President and Congress have provided the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with a 98 percent increase in funding, and with the guidance and support to enable VA to honor America's debt to the men and women whose patriotic service and sacrifice have kept our nation free and prosperous; to provide them with medical and financial help when they need it most; and to build and maintain beautiful national cemeteries to perpetuate their memory and their accomplishments.

During this Administration, VA has met the challenge of a new generation of veterans: those tempered by war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have defended America's interests elsewhere while their comrades served in combat.

The Benefits Delivery at Discharge program serves these separating service members at 154 locations, assisting them to file for VA disability benefits. To further help these men and women, a new insurance benefit is in place to assist them with the costs of living with traumatic injury; life insurance coverage has increased by $100,000; and the time it takes to process requests for education benefits has been reduced from 50 days to less than 20.

One hundred Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been hired to reach out to their fellow veterans throughout the nation and tell them about the benefits and services VA offers. Federal Recovery Coordinators are on board, actively engaged in helping severely injured veterans and their families navigate our system for health care and financial benefits. Our Vet Centers now provide bereavement counseling to families of those who have given their lives in the war against terror, and we've provided health care to nearly 350,000 new veterans-about 40 percent of all separated war veterans.

Our program to screen all veterans coming to us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan for possible traumatic brain injury is giving us great insight into how best to serve these men and women. Those who screen positive are referred for a comprehensive medical evaluation to confirm the diagnosis, and are quickly and appropriately treated. For those with very severe injuries like brain injury, amputations, visual impairment and burns, we've established Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers in Richmond, Va, Tampa, Fla., Minneapolis and Palo Alto, Calif., to provide the very finest, state-of-the-art care. They are examples of great cooperation across the continuum of care with the Department of Defense.

While caring for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has been among VA's most important priorities, we continue to provide the full spectrum of care and benefits to our veterans of other eras. Since 2001, we've reduced our average number of days required to completely process a claim from a high of 233 days in 2002 to 162 days today and have reduced the number of disability claims pending from 432,000 in 2002 to 384,500 through a combination of process improvements, increased staffing and improved training. We've placed particular emphasis on adjudicating claims for veterans aged 70 or older. Our home loan guaranty limit has increased from $203,000 to as much as $729,750, providing a better opportunity for veterans who want to own a home. The programs to deal with the issue of veteran homelessness have measurably paid off, reducing the number of homeless veterans by nearly 40 percent from 2001 to 2007.

The number of veterans enrolled in VA health care has increased from 4.8 million to 7.8 million in the past eight years. Their care is provided by the Veterans Health Administration, an organization that excels in the provision of high quality health care, that has set benchmarks in patient satisfaction in the American Customer Satisfaction Index for seven consecutive years; that has substantially cut waiting times and improved access to care throughout the nation; and that has set, and met, a standard of 24 hours for initial assessment and a 14-day standard for comprehensive assessment of new mental health patients, thanks to more than 4,100 mental health professionals hired in the last 5 years.

VA leads the nation in the development and use of electronic health records, receiving the coveted "Innovations Award" from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2006. We've laid the groundwork for sharing electronic records with the Department of Defense, launched a web-based application to allow patients and their families to interact with VA physicians over the Internet, and worked hard to set the "gold standard" for health information security to protect the vital personal information veterans entrust to us.

Addressing readjustment needs and rural access, we have announced plans to place at least one Vet Center in every county in which there are 50,000 or more veterans. We are also purchasing fifty "mobile Vet Centers"-vans which will travel to rural areas throughout the nation to bring Vet Center services to veterans in rural and highly rural areas; we're also in the process of expanding our community-based outpatient clinics to a total of 782, an increase of 100 in five years.

Our National Shrine Program has uplifted the beauty of our cemeteries, and by the end of 2009 six new national cemeteries will have opened for burials, adding to the six cemeteries we have already opened since 2001.

I am proud of this great record of accomplishment, prouder still of the approximately 270,000 men and women of VA who daily fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for veterans and their families; and proudest to have had the opportunity to serve men and women like Frank Buckles, whose dedicated service to our nation in all its wars has enabled generations of Americans to live their lives in freedom.

   
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