Published Monday, November 11, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:16 pm
Eric K. Shinseki: Care for vets is our call to duty

The writer is secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Last month, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to former Capt. William D. Swenson, United States Army, for heroism and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in the Battle of the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.

During six hours of intense combat, Capt. Swenson did everything expected of leaders and more — keeping his ambushed unit fighting effectively, directing available fires, evacuating the wounded and leading by example in repeatedly risking his personal safety to retrieve wounded soldiers and Marines, Afghan allies and fallen comrades.

Capt. Swenson would tell you that there were many more heroes in the Ganjgal that day.

In the president’s words, “[In] moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best — a nation of citizens who look out for one another; who meet our obligations to one another, not just when it is easy but also when it’s hard. Maybe, especially when it’s hard.”

At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), we are honored to walk among, as well as work with, such heroes every day.

Today, less than 1 percent of our population shoulders the responsibilities of our national defense through their service in uniform, and just over 7 percent of all living Americans are veterans. Veterans Day presents the opportunity to ask ourselves, “For their selfless service and willing sacrifice, what do veterans need and deserve?”

What veterans deserve is access to high-quality and safe health care, benefits and services that buoy them against the rigors of military service, education that prepares them fully for their next success, safe and affordable housing and meaningful and satisfying employment. At the VA, we are privileged to deliver on the promises of the American people to those from whom we ask everything.

In the past five years, we have enrolled more than 2 million veterans into VA health care. Since March of this year, we have reduced the backlog in compensation claims from a record high of 611,000 to about 400,000, a decrease of 211,000 claims in 230 days — while increasing the accuracy of claims we process. We will eliminate the backlog in compensation claims in 2015.

We also committed to ending veterans homelessness in 2015. Between 2009 and 2012, during a period of prolonged economic recovery, we have reduced the number of homeless veterans by 17 percent, breaking previous patterns of increased homelessness during difficult economies. More needs to be done, but we have achieved a remarkable reversal. We expect another decrease this year.

Our gratitude for veterans should not be a one-day-a-year event but an abiding commitment on every day of every year. There must be no question that this large and powerful country will meet its obligations to them with the same urgency, skill and determination as it deploys them on critical missions when our nation calls.

On this Veterans Day, every Veterans Day hereafter and every day between them, veterans must know that this nation will keep Lincoln’s promise to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and their families.

I am honored to serve with the dedicated people of VA, and we are all privileged to serve with a president who has provided more than a 56 percent increase to our budget requests so we can provide for the 7 percent of Americans who are veterans and help with what they need, deserve and have earned.

They answered their calls to duty. Let us continue to answer ours.

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