As he prepares to observe his first Veterans Day as Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. James B. Peake said he believes the United States is living up to Abraham Lincoln's pledge to care for "him who has borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan."
Those words from Lincoln's second inaugural address are inscribed at the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters here. They serve as a mantra for a VA workforce that provides healthcare to more than 7.5 million veterans and benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans.
Peake said the VA is taking advantage of technology and medical breakthroughs in ways Lincoln would never have dreamed possible . "I think he would be pretty proud," Peake told American Forces Press Service. "He'd say, 'You're fulfilling the promise."
A retired Army lieutenant general, Peake understands the significance of that promise in a way most Americans couldn't. He was wounded twice in battle as an infantry officer during the Vietnam War. His acceptance letter to Cornell University Medical College arrived as he was in the hospital recovering from his wounds.
Following the footsteps laid by his parents -- his father, a medical services officer and his mother -- an Army nurse, Peake attended medical school on an Army scholarship, returned to the Army for his medical internships and residencies and built his career in Army medicine. Ultimately, Peake became the 40th Army surgeon general.
Now Veterans Affairs secretary, Peake said he's gratified by continued support that ensures the VA can continue providing first-class care and benefits for veterans, including those returning from combat.
"Since 2001, the president and Congress have provided the Department of Veterans Affairs with a 98 percent increase in funding, and with the guidance and support to enable VA to honor America's debt to the men and women whose patriotic service and sacrifice have kept our nation free and prosperous," Peake said in his Veterans Day message. Health-care funding alone doubled during the past seven years, he said.
This funding has enabled the VA to reach out to more veterans and provide better, more effective services, he said, listing just a few of many new initiatives. VA hired more new mental-health professionals and expanded its community-based outreach. It opened more Vet Centers and laid plans for more to come. It began putting a fleet of motor coaches into service to take counseling services closer to the veterans who need it.
"We are trying to appropriately leverage technology and the tools to provide access to veterans, no matter where they are," Peake said. "That way, it is not your address that decides whether or not you get your benefits."
Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move authorized by the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 signed into law last month, the VA began offering VA-guaranteed home loans to veterans with more expensive and risky subprime mortgages.
Much of the VA's focus has been on care for the 850,000 newest veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA hired transition patient advocates to help severely wounded troops and their families work their way through the transition process and federal recovery coordinators to ensure life-long medical and rehabilitative care services and other benefits for families. More claims processors are on boar d to reduce the backlog in processing disability claims.
Peake called these examples an indication that the VA is on the right track in providing care for what we called "the best educated, best trained, best selected military we have ever had coming back, reentering society...to become the next greatest generation."
He praised the commitment of his staff – 31 percent of them veterans themselves – and called them the spirit that makes every day Veterans Day at the VA. "You see that celebrated when you go to our VA," he said. There's a special level of dedication and commitment here."
Tomorrow, as he attends observances at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial, then sits down to dinner with patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Peake said he'll feel gratified to see the United States observe the commemoration President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed as Armistice Day in 1919.
He urged all Americans to recognize Veterans Day, either at the 33 major national observances taking place across the country, or in simpler, more private ways that honor veterans and their service. "Participation in Veterans Day can be as simple as putting out the porch flag or reminding youngsters of the story of a relative who served in the military," he said.
Veterans Day is as important today as ever, perhaps even more so, Peake said. With just 1 percent of the U.S. population serving in uniform to protect liberties for the other 99 percent, Veterans Day offers a time to reflect and remember, he said.
"It's important for everybody to realize the debt that we owe those who serve this nation," Peake said. "Without the service of our veterans, we wouldn't have the freedoms we enjoy today...Their bravery, their resourcefulness and their patriotism mark them as our nation's finest citizens."
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