South Court Auditorium
1:46 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Wow. That was such a nice introduction, Mr. Secretary. Thank you. (Applause.) And, by the way, just so you understand, he’s doing a great job. Please, sit down. After that introduction, I would have to say that even if he wasn’t doing a great job, right? (Laughter.)
But he’s a fantastic person, who has committed like I’ve never seen. And, you know, he came out of Defense, and they weren’t happy about it. That’s always a good sign — you know, when they’re not happy? When they are happy, you know you picked the wrong person. (Laughter.) But they were not — they’re still not happy about it.
Thank you very much. Where are you? There you are. Thank you very much. Beautiful.
And thank you, everybody, for being here. This is a tremendously important group of people to me. America’s veterans, these are special people.
Today I’m thrilled to welcome you all to the White House Conference on Supporting Veterans and Military Families. And we all know how important families are for us. I do want to thank — I understand with us, a man who’s really been of great help, is the Utah Attorney General, Sean Reyes. Where’s Sean? Hi, Sean. Thank you very much. (Applause.) Really good.
Earlier this week, our nation celebrated Veterans Day, and we also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. That’s a beautiful, beautiful and important day. On Sunday, I had the immense privilege of visiting Suresnes Cemetery in France to pay tribute to the brave Americans who laid down their lives for our nation one century ago. One hundred years. We will never forget what these heroes did to win — and win they did, the war — and to secure peace.
To everyone here today who has served our country in uniform, and to every veteran and military family across our land, I want to express the eternal gratitude and thanks of our entire nation.
Delivering for our great veterans requires strong partnerships at all levels of government. That is why we are so grateful to you, the state — very important — and local community leaders — it all doesn’t work without you; it doesn’t work without you — from around the country who are participating in today’s very important conference.
We’re also glad to be joined by Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, wherever Alex may be. Where is Alex? Hello, Alex. He’s doing a great job. Thank you. Thank you very much. Who is leading up our efforts to ensure veterans and military families can find great jobs and rewarding careers. And one of the best things we have going is you have maybe the greatest economy we’ve had in many, many years.
Thank you, Alex. I thought I saw you back there. (Laughter.) Now you’re where you belong, right next to each other. Right?
So I want to thank all of the people that are making this economy go. We have so many people working so hard. But it’s booming.
And veteran unemployment has reached its lowest level in nearly 21 years. And it’s going to be better. (Applause.) Going to be even be better. And that number will be better — because if you look at the various statistics, African American employment [unemployment] is the lowest level in history. Hispanic employment [unemployment] is the lowest level in history. Asian employment [unemployment] is the lowest level in history. Women — 65 years.
So we have to do better for the veterans. I think 21 years isn’t the same. I have a feeling that the next chart that comes out, they’ll be right up there too. But this is the lowest in 21 years.
Since day one, my administration has also taken bold action to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs and deliver our veterans the care they so richly deserve. Working very hard on it.
Last year, I signed the landmark VA Accountability Act, which, as you know, by accountability, that ensures us the right to get rid of, in a very nice way, or a very rough way — any way we want — (laughter) — the Secretary probably is a rough way, and that’s okay; that’s okay, too, Secretary — those who mistreat our veterans. And they are going to be held fully accountable.
This was something that for, I would say, four decades they’ve been trying to get it approved. Sounds easy; it’s not. I love the unions; we love civil service. But they didn’t make this one easy for many, many decades. We got it done. We’re good at getting things done.
Since my inauguration, we have removed more than 3,600 government employees who were not giving our vets the care or respect that they deserve.
In June, I proudly signed into law the most significant VA reform in half a century, called Veterans Choice. Everyone knows what that means. Now, if a veteran cannot get the treatment they need from the VA in a timely manner, they can see a private doctor. They don’t have to wait 12 days or 20 days.
I heard horror stories like you wouldn’t believe during the campaign, when I was campaigning. And I appreciate the Secretary saying that it was a very major part — the veterans — of all of my speeches. I don’t think I left them out of one speech, and I made plenty of them. And they were at the top. And now we’re really producing I think far greater than anyone would have thought possible.
Since I took office, 2.2 million veterans have been able to receive the care they need outside of the VA system. So there’s no more waiting on lines. Literally, people were waiting. You know better than I do. But they’d be waiting three, four, five, six weeks, in some cases, to see a doctor. Now they go and they see a private doctor right outside, hopefully right next to their house or where they live, and we pay for it. And they are very thankful. It’s been incredible.
And we’re actually upping that program quite a bit as time goes by. We’re going to be doing certain steps that we always had planned. But we’re doing it step by step. And we’ve had great support in Congress, I have to say that.
In September, I signed into law the largest funding bill for the VA in history. We secured $8.6 billion for veterans’ mental health services; $400 million for opioid abuse prevention; and $270 million for rural veterans’ health initiatives. The rural veterans have had it pretty tough over the years because they’re pretty far away from a lot of potentially good treatment.
Working with the VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development, we’ve helped nearly 54,000 veterans in need. We’ve helped them find permanent housing and great services last year.
To improve the efficiency of the VA, I signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. Over the last two years, we have taken dramatic action to streamline the bureaucracy, and made tremendous progress.
In the last year, we pro-cessed more than one million total claims — processed — total claims at the VA, along with 85,000 appeals decisions — the most in history — and 62 percent more than the previous year, which is a record. Which is a record. Nobody has ever seen that kind of an improvement.
Since I took office, we have reduced the average claim wait time — such a big factor in what we’re doing; wait times — by nearly 25 percent. And that number is going to go substantially better with a little more time.
We opened the promised White House VA hotline, which has already fielded more than 150,000 calls and emails from our veterans when they have a complaint, a problem — or in many cases, we receive compliments for what’s happened in the last less than two-year period. It’s almost two years. Can you believe it? But it’s still less than two years.
In January, I signed an executive order directing the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs to ensure seamless access to mental health care and suicide prevention resources for veterans — tremendous, hard to believe problem; hard to believe, actually — with a focus on the first year after separation from military service, when a lot of bad things can happen.
We secured $206 million for VA suicide prevention programming. And every VA medical center now offers same-day emergency mental health care. But we must do more, and we’re working to do more.
We will be working with every state and local leader — so many of you are here and around the nation — to improve vital mental health services for America’s great veterans. This is a top priority for my administration. It has been, as I said, from the beginning — always will be — until we get it right. And we’re getting close. And once we get it right, we’re going to keep it right — because it can go bad just as fast as we fixed it. So we’re going to keep it right. Pretty soon, that’s what we’re going to be working on, Mr. Secretary — just keeping it right. We’re getting to a point.
Another crucial element of our veterans agenda is improved access to education. Last year, I signed legislation to allow every veteran to use their GI Bill education benefits at any point in their lives. And earlier this year, I signed an executive order to promote military spouse hiring across the federal government. Military families are the backbone of our nation.
So, in addition to everything else, as you see, I did the promotion of military spouse hiring across the federal government. The fact is, I’ve done a lot. (Laughter.) I could — (applause) — goodbye, everybody! Goodbye, everybody! That’s a lot. That is a lot. That’s more than anybody has ever even thought about, and I’m proud of it. And we’re not finished yet. That’s why I figured I did so much, I could leave now. But we’re not finished. We never will be finished.
To support our heroes in uniform, we have secured a record $716 billion in military funding this year. And last year, we increased it by hundreds of billions of dollars to $700 billion. America’s military might is the best way to prevent war. The stronger we are, the less chance we have of having to go to war.
It’s now a new force, a great force. We have the finest equipment, the finest planes, the finest missiles and rockets, ships. Some are being built. Just gave out a tremendous order for brand-new F-35s — fighter jets. They’re stealth. You can’t see them. Other than that, they’re easy to beat. (Laughter.) I said to one of the pilots, I said, “How good are these?” “Well, sir, the problem is you can’t see them when you fight them.” I said, “That sounds like it’s a big advantage.” And he said, “It’s an awfully big advantage.”
It’s incredible equipment, everything we make. We make the best equipment in the world. You should know that. I mean, we make equipment like nobody else even comes close. Our technology is far superior to anybody else. Our jetfighters — even our tankers — but our planes, our ships, there’s nobody that makes the equipment like we make it. And the beautiful thing with — when you hear “$716 billion,” it’s all made in the USA, every ounce of it. Right? (Applause.)
And we will soon have the greatest and most prepared force — military force anywhere in the history of our country, by far. And that’s what we need. It was becoming very depleted and very tired. And you people know probably better than anybody in this country what was happening. It was not good. And now it’s really good.
It’s our sacred duty to support America’s service members every single day they wear the uniform, and every day after when they return home as veterans and heroes. We take care of them. That’s very important. And they really appreciate it. I think nothing I’ve done is more appreciated. I think we’ve done a lot for a lot of different groups, but nobody has appreciated it more than the vets. I see that when I go out, when I make speeches and I meet people backstage and onstage. I think the vets, maybe more than anybody else, appreciate what we’re doing for them.
So together, we will honor those who defend us; we will cherish those who protect us; and we will celebrate the amazing heroes who keep America safe, and strong, and proud, and free.
I want to thank you all. You’re very incredible people. I know the job you’re doing; I know how hard it is. I know what you’ve gone through, especially before we came into office. What you went through is incredible. Horrible, in certain ways. But I know what you went through. And it’s my honor to be with you.
And God bless America. Keep up the great work. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.)
2:01 P.M. EST