Today, Americans come together to honor and thank those who have safeguarded our nation in both peace and in war. Veterans Day is a time to renew our national commitment to those who have "borne the battle," as President Lincoln acknowledged in his second inaugural address. Our character as a nation is revealed by the honors we accord them and measured by the respect with which we care for them
My thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs' 298,000 loyal employees, who serve veterans every day of the year. And on their behalf, I thank and salute the 23 million veterans, who, like those who preceded them, have defended us and kept the republic safe. We are especially proud of those performing today's missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere along freedom's frontier.
Today, veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse and suicides. They rank up there in joblessness, as well.
Last week, VA hosted a first national summit on ending veteran homelessness. We are developing a five-year plan by which to attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness. We must offer veterans education, vocational training and jobs; treat depression and fight substance abuse; and provide safe housing. We estimate that, every night, 131,000 veterans sleep on the streets of this wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. Six years ago, that estimate numbered 195,000. While we seem to be making progress, the current economic downturn threatens to reverse that progress by increasing veteran homelessness by 10 percent to 15 percent over the next five years. Simply doing what we have been doing for the past six years will not be enough. We must raise our goals and increase our tempo.
VA will deliver on President Obama's promise to end veteran homelessness and intends to do it in the next five years. No one who has served this nation's military should ever find themselves living on the street - without care and without hope.
The week before last, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs co-hosted a national summit on mental health. Troops, today, are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with invisible wounds, which if undiagnosed and untreated can become as debilitating as any major physical trauma sustained on those battlefields. We are working together to build a strong network of support for service members and veterans and their families that reaches out beyond the walls of both departments.
Defense and VA also are collaborating to build a fully interoperable electronic records system that will provide all members of our armed forces a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record to stay with them throughout their service in uniform and, following that, as veterans. Once the Defense and VA system is fully linked, this system will ensure the seamless transition of service members from uniformed service to veteran status. At present, this is not possible, and precious time is wasted unnecessarily verifying benefits eligibility and transferring personnel and health records between the two departments - most often in paper. The virtual records system will eliminate these mind-numbing delays.
It also will provide access to health care providers at VA and the Defense Department and, with patient approval, in the private sector, as well. Defense and VA currently spend about half of their combined health care budgets purchasing care in the private sector. For patients to receive the best care possible, all providers - Defense, VA, private sector - must be able to access patient records interchangeably. This new system will enable that.
The power of technology is crucial, and we must not miss the wave of technology that offers solutions to long-standing obstacles to transitioning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from duty to veterans' status. But no amount of technology can overcome the bureaucratic mindset. Good people come to work every day at VA to process requests, claims, applications, certificates of eligibility and a host of other requirements. VA employees, 30 percent of whom are veterans, must view each submission as being as important as the veteran who submitted it.
VA must and will change its approach to dealing with veterans. We can and will become advocates for the men and women who have protected our country and defended our way of life. This is our covenant with them and their families.