By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press ServiceMarch 17, 2009
WASHINGTON, March 16, 2009 - Caring for veterans is a responsibility and duty for all Americans, and the employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs are those who are charged with repaying "that debt of honor," President Barack Obama said during a ceremony here marking the department's 20th anniversary today.
The president promised the VA employees that he will make good on his promise to create a 21st-century department.
VA, formerly called the Veterans Administration, became a cabinet-level department in 1989. The employees are charged with providing education, training benefits, health care, home loans and cemeteries for American veterans. "It's a commitment that lasts from the day our veterans retire that uniform to the day that they are put to rest, and it continues on for their families," the president said.
U.S. servicemembers are the country's best and brightest, Obama said. "They are our bravest, enlisting in a time of war, enduring tour after tour of duty, serving with honor under the most difficult circumstances and making sacrifices that many of us cannot begin to imagine," he said. The department must take care of these people and of their families, he added.
The VA mission always is vital, Obama said, but it is even more so during long and difficult conflicts like today's. "Last month, I announced my strategy for ending the war in Iraq, and I made it very clear that this strategy would not end with the military plans and diplomatic agendas, but would endure through my commitment to upholding our sacred trust with every man and woman who has served this country," the president said. "And the same holds true for our troops serving in Afghanistan."
The president has requested an extra $25 billion for the department over the next five years. The agency - under the leadership of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, former Army chief of staff - is reviewing its operations.
"With this budget, we don't just fully fund our VA health care program," the president said. "We expand it to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013, to provide better health care in more places and to dramatically improve services related to mental health and injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury."
Obama said technology also will help to cut red tape and ease the transition from active duty. He promised new help for homeless veterans, "because those heroes have a home."
"It's the country they served -- the United States of America," he said. "And until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation's streets, our work remains unfinished."
He called on VA employees to help to implement the GI Bill for the 21st century. Just as the veterans of World War II formed the backbone of the progress after that war, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan too, can be the catalyst for progress. The deadline for putting the rules for the new GI Bill in place is Aug. 1.
"That's how we'll show our servicemen and women that when you come home to America, America will be here for you," Obama said. "That's how we will ensure that those who have borne the battle, and their families, will have every chance to live out their dreams."
Transforming the agency is a tall order, Obama said, but he added that he has the fullest confidence that the men and women of the department can do it.
The United States will "fulfill our sacred trust and serve our returning heroes as well as they've served us," he said.