This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, sees his chief commitment as taking care of military veterans who had been taking care of the nation.
And St. Louis, he said, has a key role to play in fulfilling that mission.
"St. Louis is one of those unique nodes in the VA system," Shinseki said during an interview while in town this week to meet with regional administration personnel and to address attendees at the National Veterans Small Business Conference at the America's Center.
Since taking office in 2009, Shinseki's prime goal has been to reduce the decades-old problem of the backlog of disability claims. As it stands, he said, the VA is handling claims now filed by veterans spanning several generations of wars — from World War II to the current conflicts in the Middle East.
St. Louis is at the center of that operation because the region is home to several key functions. St. Louis is among 56 regional offices in the country that handle disability claims, but it also is among only four that process claims for education benefits.
St. Louis also houses the nation's only repository for all those military records. Shinseki's goal is to conquer the claims backlog by 2015, which means addressing a number of challenges — from an antiquated reliance on paper records to recent resurgences in claims.
This year, he said, should be the "major crossover year" to change "the way we do business in benefits administration."
Record numbers of claims filed
Behind the process are daunting numbers that explain why the VA has handled a record number of claims — roughly 1 million or more a year — since 2009.
"Unprecedented," Shinseki said. "Never before in our history."
Shinseki said that the surge reflects, in part, three key decisions.
"For older generations of veterans — Vietnam, Gulf War — we've made decisions in the last three years to address unfinished business with them," he said.
"In 2010, we made a decision that granted service connection (from Vietnam) for Agent Orange exposure, and there are a number of diseases associated with that."
Second, also in 2010, the VA gave official recognition to nine diseases afflicting some who had served in the first Gulf War fought 20 years ago.
Third, the military is now recognizing claims for combat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
"When you open the door for access, the number of claims go up," Shinseki said. "All of this was anticipated."
But dealing with all those claims has meant forcing modernization of the VA in order to have the proper "catcher's mitt'' to handle the deluge, the secretary said.
According to the VA, the disability claims backlog, interpreted as over 125 days, peaked in March at 611,000 claims, and now is down to about 500,000.
The pace of handling even older claims has quickened. Claims that were a year old peaked at 194,000 in June. Now it's down to about 157,000, the VA said.
Two-year-old claims, which had peaked at 42,000 in April, is now down to the 1,800 "toughest cases,'' the secretary said.
Encourages vets to pursue care, education
What is Shinseki's message to veterans?
"There are generations of veterans so it's hard to have one message," he explained. "For the younger veteran, it is, 'Look, you have been part of an operation for 10 years...You're entitled to five years of health care guaranteed. Let's get you enrolled."
To veterans now in school, Shinseki said his speech centers on one word: "Graduate."
Reprising his address, the secretary continued, "You have the most generous educational assistance program in the history of this country. And if you don't leverage that, you've let us all down. And you haven't served the interests of the veterans serving behind you."
Behind that lecture is recognition, Shinseki said, that the newest and youngest wave of veterans deserve a lot of respect for confronting unexpected challenges.
"We've asked a lot of these youngsters. This is the longest operation we've been on, 10 years," he said, referring to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shinseki recalled the national debate after Vietnam, when the U.S. military transformed from the draft to a volunteer force.
The vision, he said, was to have a military that was "smaller, highly professional."
At the same time, Shinseki continued, "the tough scenario was, when you have a small force like that, you have to be careful, that you do not get into a long war. So, this is that sort of 'tough scenario.' "
"What I respect the most, is that this generation of youngsters have not blinked. Haven't gone all wobbly. They've done everything asked of them and better than anybody could expect. And that's why we owe them the best care and treatment and benefits and as quickly as possible."
Sees role as getting vets the benefits they deserve
A Vietnam veteran himself, Shinseki says he takes his task as VA chief very seriously.
"I can tell you why I took the job," he said. "You don't have many opportunities in life where you can touch things, decisions you made earlier. So here, I get to help take care of veterans I went to war with in Vietnam.''
"My last job in the Army, I sent a lot of kids on operations, places called Iraq and Afghanistan. I have a chance to take care of them, making sure they're getting the best care, getting their benefits, getting educated, getting jobs, moving on with life., Returning to them the benefits they earned."
"And then I have, also along with that, the opportunity to take care of the folks that raised me when I was a young pup growing up in the military," Shinseki continued. "And that's the World War II veterans that saved the world...We used to say that a lot in the '50s, and we've forgotten...the contribution that generation made. They saved the world.
"And then there's generation after that went to Korea and saved the nation."
Overall, he concluded, "This is one of those opportunities in a professional life to bring closure to a lot of things you've touched for 38 years."