Remarks by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
June 20, 2012
Good afternoon, everyone. I am honored to be here, and I regret that my friend, Leon Panetta, had to reschedule his appearance for Friday.
He and I have worked closely on issues common to both of our departments—five meetings since last July, when he assumed his duties, two last month, and we are hoping to meet again in August.
Let me just say that Secretary Panetta’s leadership and close partnership on behalf of those who wear and have worn the uniforms of our Nation has been monumental, and, as a result of that, we have brought our two large departments closer together than ever before.
As I often remind our folks at VA, very little of what we do in VA originates in VA. Most everything we do originates in DoD, and we must therefore be collaborative, attentive, and cooperative in supporting DoD’s accomplishment of its enormous mission to keep our Nation safe, competitive, and leading. Doing so means that we, at VA, must be situationally aware, agile, and fully capable of caring for those “who have borne the battle” and their families and survivors, long after the guns have fallen silent.
Today, we still care for two children of Civil War Veterans, over a hundred spouses and children from the Spanish-American War, about 5,000 from World War I, and the numbers go up from there.
The promises of President Abraham Lincoln are being delivered today by President Barack Obama. The same will be true a century from now: VA will be here to deliver the promises of presidents and meet the obligations of the American people to those who have safeguarded us.
We, at VA, are proud of our unique mission and of our partnership with the Department of Defense.
So, thank you again for inviting me here today. Our shared commitment to help the most challenged of our men and women find the strength and hope they need to prevail over the issues of suicide is crucial. We must end suicides amongst some of the most dedicated, loyal, tough, and courageous people I’ve known.
Having said that, suicide is a national concern. The Center for Disease Control’s annual report on the top ten leading causes of death among Americans lists suicide as one of the top four causes of death in Americans ages 10–54.
VA has had tremendous funding support in each of President Obama’s four budget requests. Our investments in mental health programs increased by more than one-third in the past three years—from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $5.9 billion in 2012—and our funding specifically for suicide prevention has doubled from $35.8 million in 2009 to $72.8 million in our 2013 budget request, with $6.2 billion overall for mental health — VA Secretary Eric Shinseki
More specifically, for age group 15–24, suicides are number three; for age group 25-34, it is the second-leading cause of death among Americans. These also happen to be the recruiting years. Should we be surprised that recruits out of such a population, bearing some level of increased stress for much of the past decade, would experience suicides at some elevated level? Or that the suicide rate among male Veterans appears to be almost twice that of the general population?
Mental health professionals tell me that intervention works. It’s important to define what we mean by intervention. If intervention only occurs in the midst of a potential ongoing suicide, our responses will be primarily reactive.
In such scenarios, precision and agility become critical since time is of the essence. Recognizing key signs immediately, acting early (sometimes on thin evidence), having the means to intervene, and vectoring help decisively—these are the attributes of success in any crisis, not just suicides.
The challenge is knowing when and where to intervene—precision and agility, again. We have demonstrated that we can react well, but is this good enough for the long term?
Each year, around 60 percent of high school graduates go on to college and university—some version of higher education. Of the remaining 40 percent or so, some undergo vocational training; others immediately enter the workforce. A few join the less than one percent of Americans who voluntarily serve in our Nation’s Armed Forces.
After basic training and arrival at their first units, they quickly become valued and trusted members of high-performing teams—maybe the best teams they will ever serve on—tough, motivated, and extremely dedicated. With strong leadership, they perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous missions—much as they are doing today in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, and as they have done throughout our Nation’s history.
On some days, they are asked to do the impossible, and they don’t disappoint. What the current generation has demonstrated has been nothing short of staggering in terms of courage, stamina, determination, and unwavering commitment—without complaint. This is a powerful image we all carry with us of the men and women who enable our way of life.
But there is also a second image: Veterans suffer disproportionately from depression, substance abuse, and they are well up there in joblessness as well—factors which contribute to both homelessness and suicide.
Why these disparate images?
Read the full transcript of Eric Shinseki’s remarks: