Defense Issues: Volume 12, Number 43-- An Unbreakable Bond Among Veterans It's the nation's responsibility to care for those who answered the call to duty in defense of liberty, freedom and U.S. allies. Veterans and their families should receive the care and benefits they earned.
Volume 12, Number 43
An Unbreakable Bond Among Veterans
Remarks as delivered by Vice President Al Gore at the Vietnam Veterans of America's 8th National Convention, Kansas City, Mo., Aug. 7, 1997.
I really do appreciate the chance to be here. ... Throughout the history of our nation, young men and women have been called to serve in uniform in the name of freedom, and their valiant and brave responses shaped our nation and our world.
Every generation of Americans has a defining role to play in the world in defense of our liberty, in defense of the freedom of our allies, and, of course, the wars and conflicts of a generation often define that generation. The doughboys of WWI [World War I], the GIs of WWII [World War II], those who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, our country sent soldiers.
You and I share a common experience. Vietnam is our generation's war. It is a bond between veterans which cannot be broken. When you and I go to the wall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, we see that bond. When we go to memorials like the ones that some of us helped dedicate in Nashville on the Legislative Plaza -- the Vietnam veterans and those who died -- we feel that bond. Those of you who have done the same in your home states feel that bond. I felt it last weekend when my wife, Tipper, and I went to Chicago, and I don't know how many of you all have been to see this, there is a national Vietnam Veterans Art Museum there. Any of you all who go to Chicago, seek this thing out.
It's really quite an experience: paintings and sculptures and poetry and photographs taken by and created by Vietnam veterans. They have been sent in from all over the United States. They have this big collection that was in warehouses for 14 years in boxes, and finally Mayor [Richard M.] Daley of Chicago gave them a building and helped them get this thing set up. Next time you're in Chicago, go by and see that.
When I was there, one of individuals who runs that, a guy named Ned Broderick, gave me a canteen with a poem etched into it that he had written just that last Sunday. I am going to read it. It's real short. I just want to read it to you:
Each face will lose its name and time will not defer
For there will always be the bond between who we are and where we were.
Welcome Home. Welcome Home.
It remains the responsibility of our nation to care for those who answered that particular call and served with honor. This administration has worked hard to make sure that you and all veterans and their families receive the care and the benefits that you have earned. Early on, we wanted to hear directly about the concerns from veterans from organizations like this one. And there is not another one like this one!
But we wanted to hear directly, and that is why we invited your leadership into the White House right away. We wanted to establish a line of communication that ensured that this organization had direct access to the commander in chief so that we could constantly be in touch with you and find ways to best serve your needs. Of course, Hershel [Gober, acting secretary of veterans affairs] has had a critical role in keeping that line of communication open. And together, my friends, I want to believe that we are making a real difference. Every step of the way we have fought for increased funding for veterans, and we are making progress there.
We are also reinventing the way certain services are delivered. We're increasing services across the board for our homeless veterans. I believe it's shocking, the percentages of homeless Americans who are veterans in the United States. And that's why we have really stepped up the nation's efforts to address that question.
We stepped up our efforts for women veterans, for all of our courageous and patriotic service people to whom our nation owes so much, and at the same time, we try to streamline the way the VA goes about its business. And we have tried to improve the methods of service in an effort to better serve you and to hold costs down. The VA has moved to less inpatient care and to more outpatient care, where it is appropriate. The savings achieved by this shift have been used to create additional outpatient clinics and increase the number of veterans receiving VA health care.
To encourage good ideas that improve service delivery and cut waste in government, we concentrate on what I mentioned earlier, reinventing government. We call it our REGO program. That's Gore spelled sideways, because I've worked hard on that program. We try to make government work better and cost less, and we give our awards that we call the Hammer Award. You remember that $600 hammer that the Pentagon used to buy? Well, this is a $6 hammer, and we spent an extra $2.98 on the frame and the bunting and whatnot. But it's the thought that counts.
It's gotten to the point where these awards are really coveted, and we give them out for superior performance in streamlining service and reinventing the way government works for the better. The VA was the very first federal agency to receive the Hammer Award and has now received 100 such awards for outstanding results in changing the way we do things for the better. ...
We were talking on the plane on the way out here about that very first Hammer Award. Hershel was part of that and a guy named Joe Thompson, in New York state, really a smart guy and dedicated to veterans. They engineered the process to eliminate waiting lines.
They had a big waiting room that used to be filled, and they've gone about it in a smarter way, and we're gonna soon see the dedication of that waiting room. They don't need it any more because people are served right as they come in the door. And so we are going to dedicate that waiting room into a museum instead. That's progress. That's the kind of thing that can improve the experience that veterans have when they relate to our government. That's what good government is about, and it's the kind of thing that is also needed if we are going to use the resources for things that really matter instead of just waste and nonsense and the kind of things that nobody wants.
Well, Hershel Gober has really emphasized this approach, and he has created his own award, called the Scissors Award, on cutting red tape. I think these things are really beginning to bring about an improvement, because when we do things better, faster and for less cost -- every dollar saved is a dollar which can be used to serve veterans better. You know, if we are going to redeem the promise of democracy, we are going to have to make it work an awful lot better than it has in the past, because that is what people want.
Let me say, when I am talking about the men and women who have served our country overseas, I would like to say a special word about our nation's women who have served, because a lot of times, this has been left out from the Revolutionary War until today. They have been there both behind the lines and on the front lines, and that is why we have to do more to make sure they receive all the care they need from this grateful nation.
We have taken some steps that previous administrations have not. We have seen the VA in the last four years implement very effective programs. There are now coordinators for women's programs at every VA medical center, and VA has undertaken a major outreach program to make sure that women veterans are aware of these new efforts.
At the VA and at the White House both, we have established offices to focus on issues of special importance to women, and, actually, I look forward to this fall when there is going to be that new memorial dedicated at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery [Va.] in recognition of the women who have served in our military.
I also want to point out that this administration is committed to providing health care and benefits to our Gulf War veterans who became ill shortly after returning from the Persian Gulf. There are a lot of guys who are Vietnam veterans who thought that whole story had a very familiar ring to it; where you know the evidence just wasn't looked at very good. That's one of the reasons Hershel and I went through this business of -- I'll talk about Agent Orange in a minute. I see you all have these [symbols of orange teardrops symbolizing the effect of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans], is that what that's all about? The Australians brought that, right?
I served with some guys from New Zealand in a place, Chu Ling, down in the Delta, but I know that the Australians and the New Zealanders and the Koreans have made a major contribution to understanding some of these issues, and this is an example of that.
In any event, because of the experience we went through with Agent Orange, we were a little bit better prepared to not have the long delay in recognizing the veterans' testimony, and veterans' experiences are not to be dismissed because the state of the art and science are not far enough along to say with absolute precision exactly how the process is working. There are other ways to establish cause and effect.
We've made an energetic investigation of Gulf War service, and a coordinated research program has begun to help us understand this illness. We've moved aggressively to care for veterans of the Gulf War, establishing a Persian Gulf registry health examination program and providing priority health care to more than 200,000 Gulf War veterans. In addition, we provided more than 29,000 gulf veterans with disability compensation. An extensive and aggressive research program with more than 90 projects is under way, and it is hoped that it will yield the most complete understanding possible of the health problems experienced by the Gulf War veterans and the factors that have contributed to these problems. But our efforts don't end there.
I do want to tell you that we are working with VVA [Vietnam Veterans of America] to address the issues related to Agent Orange, and I want to compliment you on the work you all have done on this tough issue. Your work has been one of the keys to the progress that we have been making. I remember vividly from my own personal experience with this issue when I first went to the Congress. I was elected in November 1976, and a fellow named Jack Murtha from Pennsylvania and I were the only Vietnam veterans in the Congress at that time. Soon thereafter, David Bonior formed the Vietnam Era Veterans in Congress, and that group has worked very closely with the VVA over the years.
I remember vividly having the very first congressional hearing we ever had on Agent Orange, and I really couldn't believe some of the things that these people were saying. I hope the gentleman, I think he is long gone from the VA, Hershel, but one of the top medical officers testified there, and you won't believe this, but here is what he said.
He said that according to science, birth defects produced as a result of chemical exposure can only be caused if the mother is exposed to the offending chemical. Well, that was my reaction, but I was sitting up there [on] the dais trying to be dignified, and that is when I first started getting stiff.
Now let me continue with my story. I was sitting up there trying to be dignified, and I said, "Doctor, thousands of years ago, some primitive peoples believed it was only the mother that had anything to do with conception, but subsequent scientific experimentation proved them wrong. I believe you are destined to experience that same fate."
And sure enough, we have come a little ways since then, but far from enough has been done. So I salute you for your vigilance and determination. We know for a fact that many thousands of veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, and for many of them, the war continues.
We have done our level best to help expand benefits to veterans exposed to the awful chemical, and this includes more than tripling the number of diseases related to Agent Orange eligible for treatment. It includes that shift in the burden of proof to say, "Look, you know if you have all this correspondence and the weight of the evidence, don't wait until you've got every T crossed and every I dotted; if the veteran is suffering and you know that there is a very high likelihood that it is connected to this exposure, then come on."
Four-and-a-half years ago, there were only three illnesses that had been determined to have an association with exposure. One such disease is spina bifida in children of Vietnam veterans. We will be able soon ... to provide benefits for these children including health care and rehabilitation, vocational training and a monthly monetary allowance. Very important steps forward. But it is just a start. There is a lot more that has to be done, and that is why we have signed an agreement with the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a leading provider of treatment for spina bifida, to provide medical treatment for these children whose health and well-being is the responsibility of all our nation.
As I mentioned before, this responsibility extends to those veterans who are homeless. I mentioned my outrage a moment ago. I think it is just so sad to see people in the cities and towns and streets and alleys sleeping under bridges and realize that on any given night, as many as 250,000 veterans are homeless on the streets of America. That is intolerable; that is unacceptable; that is wrong. No one in this nation should live this way, especially no one who has served this nation in uniform.
And that's why in the last four years this administration has reached out to the homeless, especially to those veterans, in new and innovative ways, touching their lives and giving them not just a handout, but a hand up. And we have established a governmentwide effort to create a veteran's outreach program to provide housing for homeless veterans, and VVA is working with the Department of Labor seeking to integrate homeless veterans into the labor force.
I have seen some of these programs firsthand. Let me tell you, it is a hard job, but if it is done correctly, it can work. You have to stay with them, and you have to realize that some of them need to learn again how to dress in a presentable way, how to look somebody in the eye, how to shake hands, how to understand the importance of showing up on time for work, how to start with a night job and that makes it all harder, but then work your way slowly back into the mainstream of society. I have seen it done. It can be done. It is being done.
VVA is one of those groups that is helping to make this possible again. We want to be your partners. During the past three years, the VA has awarded more than $17 million in grants to community groups in 32 states to provide homeless veterans with places of refuge and to recover their health. Another $3.3 million in grants will be awarded this year. These grants fund things like the transitional housing and the mobile medical clinics that go out and give the care where they are, and drop-in service centers that are more accessible and less intimidating. And more than $2 million in grants have been provided to Vietnam vets' organizations for this purpose, because we want our homeless veterans to regain their dignity and their independence. And with your help and hard work, we will help our fellow veterans return to productive and healthy lives. You know there is still much more to do.
In particular, I want to say that we will never forget those who have not returned. You know and I know that a good soldier never leaves his buddy behind. We want and will demand a full accounting for every last one of our MIAs. It is our solemn pledge. We won't rest until we know the answer.
I want to congratulate this organization on thinking about this in a new way and making some progress that nobody thought was possible. I want to congratulate you on the success of your veterans initiative -- a humanitarian outreach that has really made a huge difference in opening up doors and opening up avenues for investigation and accountability that were closed before because there are a lot of MIAs there too.
This, I know, is controversial, but I know also from the standpoint of the United States government, some of the doors that we were knocking on were never opened until this veterans outreach program began, and then, all of a sudden, some of those doors swung open. And I don't care how controversial it was, if it gets results, and it helps us reach our goal, that is really an example of the value of thinking in new ways. So I really do congratulate you on that.
In closing, I want you to know that we are committed to serving our nation's veterans and their families and loved ones with the same zeal and dedication that veterans showed in their service to the United States of America. Working together, we can get the job done. I am very proud to be here among you, proud of your service to our nation, proud of your service to your fellow veterans, proud to have the opportunity to serve you. I also want to say I am very proud to be a Vietnam veteran. Welcome Home!
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.