As the nation celebrates Veterans Day and remembers the men and women who have served the U.S., Federal News Radio asked Tammy Duckworth, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, for an update on some of the major projects the VA is working on and how the agency has changed over the past few years.
Right from the start, she made it clear this is not a nine to five job for her.
“Secretary Shinseki, Secretary (Scott) Gould, myself, we’re all vets ourselves and understand on a very personal basis what VA needs to do.”
Looking back on what the VA has done recently, Duckworth quickly ticked off a couple of major accomplishments. “I think we’ve been fairly successful with the GI Bill, Agent Orange decisions, things that are going to help veterans from all generations.”
At the same time, she was mindful of what’s ahead for the Department. Switching over from a completely paper-based system for heath records to the Electronic Health Records, for example, and keeping up with the changing needs of vets.
“One of our fastest growing population of users of VA are Vietnam veterans,” she said. As those veterans approach their mid-60s, said Duckworth, they’re retiring and losing healthcare, and discovering VA health benefits. “You would have thought it was the young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but in fact, the largest population of VA’s internet page users are Vietnam vets.”
Veterans Affairs is also shifting its focus to better serve even younger vets, said Duckworth, and many more of them are women as the first generation of female combat vets work their way into the system.
Duckworth noted there’s an increased need for, and focus on, mental health and brain injury treatment.
I tell people “if you were willing to go get help for a gunshot wound or if I was willing to go get help for my amputations, then you should be willing to go get help for post-traumatic stress and brain injuries because those are also combat wounds.” One of the things that’s different about this generation of vets is that they are going back three, four, five times on these rotations. It’s not the same as in previous generations where some folks served more than one tour in Vietnam, but most people did their one tour and came home.
Duckworth said there’s a cumulative effect to both post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. “You know, you get blown up a couple of times, even if it’s a minor IED and then you have a little concussion, that adds up.”
Duckworth said that’s why the VA has really been pushing veterans to come in and get the help that they need and pushing itself to make that help as accessible as possible.
Vets can call the helpline, 1-800-273-TALK, access the HHS mental health chatroom suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or go to the nearest vet center or veterans hospital.
“Wherever our vets are,” said Duckworth, “we’re going to make sure that they get the care that they need.”
The VA, said Duckworth, is no stranger to innovation. When it comes to serving the needs of vets, from the moment they step off battlefield to the surgical suites in the VA hospitals and beyond, VA is constantly looking at new techniques.
“We invented the nicotine patch, the first liver transplant, we implanted the first pacemaker, and we are working very closely with our DoD partners to take any of the new techniques and systems that they’re using in combat and applying them in our VA facilities,” said Duckworth.
So, she said, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that over 90% of all physicians in the United States receive some sort of training at some point in their career at a VA facility.
As for the future, Duckworth quickly listed goals:
End homelessness among veterans in five years,
Improve access to VA, both online and reaching out in communities,
Continue to care for all vets. “Everybody from World War 2 onwards and we do have one World War 1 veteran out there,
and of to address the need of our increasing numbers of female vets.”
When asked about the sole veteran of the Great War, Duckworth confirmed, “There’s still one World War 1 veteran out there, and VA actually is still paying benefits to two children of Civil War vets.”
It seems, said Duckworth, “these two Civil War vets had children very late in life, and the two children are, I think, in their 90s and 100s.”
So our nation’s committment to veterans is literally for the rest of their lives, she said. “Whatever we put into place now for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will have to be there for the next 60 years and we are committed to maintaining the highest quality.”
But for today, Veterans Day, Duckworth listed a full day’s worth of appearances, “and then the following day is my ‘alive day’. I was shot down six years ago on November 12th. For me, it’s a two day kind of a thing, and on the 12th, I will be with the pilot in command of my aircraft, the man who saved my life, as I am every year to say thank you.”
Then it’ll be back to work at the job that’s anything but nine to five.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.