Thursday, October 15, 2009

Muppets Help Military Kids Cope With Grief

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - As filming for Sesame Workshop's latest "Talk, Listen, Connect," video got under way here yesterday, it became clear that while it's not always sunny on Sesame Street, ultimately the clouds can be swept away. The first two TLC videos, part of a multimedia initiative started in 2006, were meant to help children, especially military children, with separations from loved one, and changes to those loved ones when they return. This video handles an even tougher topic: the death of a loved one.

"I think our military children today have been dealing with a number of difficult challenges," said Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I think it's very important that we find ways to help the surviving parent and the child deal with this. This [DVD] is one way."

Mullen was in New York to view the filming of the newest Sesame Workshop video, along with Becky Gates, wife of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Sandee Cartwright, wife of Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

The story centers on the fuzzy, red Muppet, Elmo, and his cousin Jessie, who recently has lost her father. At age 3 and a half, Elmo has a hard time understanding the concept of death.

His cousin simply doesn't want to talk about it.

Fortunately, Elmo has his mom and Aunt Jill to help him with the sadness he's feeling.

Jessie isn't as easy to crack though, and it takes Louie, Elmo's father, to get Jessie to open up about how she's feeling.

"Sometimes I feel sad when I think about your dad, too," Louie tells his niece.

"You do?" she answers.

"It helps to talk to someone about the way we feel, like we're talking now," Louie says in the video.

"It's important that we provide these sorts of resources," Mullen said midway through the day's filming. "We need to find ways to help them recognize this grief, begin to come to terms with this grief, this loss, [and] learn to deal with the feelings they are experiencing."

It's also important that both children and parents have the necessary tools to survive the death of a loved one, said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's vice president of outreach and educational practices.

"There's a variety of feelings involving death, often conflicting, with sad moments and guilt surrounding happy moments," she said. "We want to offer families a way to move forward, the reassurance to move forward."

As with the other TLC videos, plenty of consultation with experts took place before the final script was approved. A North Carolina National Guard chaplain and a casualty assistance officer who's experienced his own loss, for example, weighed in on the project.

Representatives of children's organizations and those with expertise dealing with grief, both military and civilian, also participated.

"This one was a particularly difficult, sensitive topic to address," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department's cffice of family policy and children and youth. "So we brought in many people who are experts in trauma and then actual ... military families who have lost a servicemember."

And to some extent, Elmo is an expert in helping kids grasp and accept this tough topic, Thompson said. At least he's the embodiment of the cumulative expertise used to create the video.

"It's really important for us to recognize that for a child, coming from Elmo, it's much more meaningful than coming from any other counselor or even a significant adult in their life," Thompson said. "Children naturally respond to Elmo, and that's why these scripts are so important."

The Muppeteers' passion for the project also is crucial and evident.

"[It's always a] privilege to meet military families and get to know them and realize how incredible and strong and [what an] amazing group of people they are," said Carmen Osbahr, who plays Rosita, Elmo's best friend. "Something that started as an amazing project is now a mission. It's an amazing honor to be part of it."

Leslie Carerra, who plays Elmo's cousin Jessie in this TLC video, agreed, saying the work is fun but it's also taken seriously. Occasionally, it strikes a familiar chord.

"I certainly relate to the loss of my brother and what it did to my family," she said. "In order to connect, you go back. You want it to be light, but when that moment comes ... to be able to share is a great gift.

"We're offering tools and celebrating life and being strong," she added.

The video is expected to be aired as a PBS special in April, immediately followed by the distribution of the multimedia kits, which will include the video.

Chairman's Wife Vows Support for Military Families

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - Deborah Mullen, wife of the nation's most senior military officer, had a message for military families while on the Sesame Street TV set here today: servicemembers and their families have a wealth of support behind them. "I just would like to assure people that there are folks who care, who are working diligently to try and make it better," Mullen said as she sat at the counter in Mr. Hooper's Store on Sesame Street. "I think we can't exactly understand what they're going through, but we all want to make sure that we provide whatever it is they need, whether it's resources, [or] education."

One resource the military has had a hand in providing since the initiative began in 2006 is the Sesame Workshop's "Talk, Listen, Connect." The multi-media campaign includes two videos, which the Defense Department and other experts consulted on, that address ways for military children to handle separation, reintegration and changes in parents who return from deployment.

The third video, the taping of which Mullen, wife of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on set to observe, deals with the death of a loved one.

"I can only think that, given the trust that children have with the Sesame Street characters, that this will be a benefit that we will see ... make a difference," Mullen said. "Hopefully we will help children be able to address grief in whatever way that's right for them.

"Families deal with things in different ways," she added. "I think it's difficult to say what works for one family is going to work for another."

Keeping families connected with other families or to military installation programs is key to helping them deal with difficult times, Mullen said.

"I think that the more isolated a family is when they're dealing with ... the separations [and] these issues of reintegration, I think it's more difficult on families," she added. "I think it's important for, particularly National Guard [and reserve] families, that they are connected to the school where their children attend."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is looking at developing training to help civilian counselors and teachers understand problems military children face, Mullen said.

Adding these types of resources are important as the military continues to look for ways to help its children, she said.

Some programs include a recently expanded YMCA child care program and the nonprofit National Military Family Association's Operation Purple Camps, which are being expanded to include family retreats as well.

"When I speak with families, particularly families whose loved one has returned from a deployment, they really talk in positive terms about family retreats, how important it is to bring the family back together to try and regain some normalcy, with the understanding [that] everyone will have changed," Mullen said. "It doesn't matter where the deployment is, how long it is, whether or not it was in a war zone."

Mullen also noted the new Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Wash., is available for military families. The center focuses specifically on families of servicemembers with multiple deployments and those who come home wounded, she said.

"They're working very hard to try and help and also to let the families of those who have lost someone, the surviving families [know] that we will never forget, that we will always be there, and that we will work diligently to make sure that they're OK," she said.


Lapoint-Blasé Industries, Inc., of St. Louis, Missouri was awarded a $34,649,163 contract which will provide approximately 54 worldwide deployable portable Doppler radars to provide responsive, reliable, and accurate weather information to standard weather systems. At this time, $1,797,550 has been obligated. 651 ESS/PK, Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts is the contracting activity (FA8723-10-D-0001).

MacAulay-Brown, Inc., of Dayton, Ohio was awarded a $24,354,000 contract which will provide for characterization, archival, and distribution of data for image exploitation system. At this time, $67,862 has been obligated. AFRL/PKSR, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio is the contracting activity (FA8650-10-D-1751, Task Oder: 0001).

Booz Allen & Hamilton, Inc., of McLean, Va., was awarded a $10,951,533 contract which will provide systems engineering and integration support to the military satellite communications wing, space and terminal engineering office through Oct. 21, 2010. At this time, $663,946 has been obligated. SMC/PK, El Segundo, Calif., is the contracting activity (FA8808-08-F-0003,P00022).

AM General LLC, Mishawaka, Ind., is being awarded a maximum $26,234,409 firm fixed price, sole source contract for the integrated logistics partnership contract in support of HMMWV requirements. Other locations of performance are Chambersburg, Penn., and Texarkana, Texas. Using service is Army. There was originally one proposal solicited with one response. Contract funds will not expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This requirements type contract is for one base year and four possible one-year options periods. The date of performance completion is Jan. 2011. The contracting activity is the Defense Supply Center Columbus, Columbus, Ohio (SPM7LX-09-D-9001).

King Fisher Marine Service, LP., Port Lavaca, Texas, was awarded on Oct. 14, 2009 a $10,487,500 firm-fixed-price contract. The work consist of maintenance dredging consisting of 5,600,000 cubic yards of the mud flats to Port Isabel and channel to Port Mansfield, restoration and incidental reconstruction or maintenance of existing submerged levees at placement area nos. 7,220 and 221A and of levee at placement area nos. 222 and 226. Work is to be performed in Kennedy, Willacy and Cameroon Countries, Texas, with an estimated completion date of Mar. 15, 2010. Five bids solicited with one bid received. U.S. Army Corps of Engineer District, Galveston, Galveston, Texas, is the contracting activity (W912HY-10-C-0001).

Lockheed Martin Martin Maritime Systems & Sensors, Niagara Falls, N.Y., was awarded on Oct. 13, 2009 a $6,180,000 cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the development of a full tensor gravity gradiometer. Work is to be performed in Niagara Falls, N.Y., with an estimated completion date of July, 15, 2012. One bid was solicited with one bid received. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Reston, Va., is the contracting activity (HM1582-10-C-0001).
By Army Lt. Col. David Konop
Special to American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - When Staff Sgt. John Okumu joined the Army five years ago, he never dreamed he would one day deploy to Africa, the continent he once called home. Okumu, originally from Kenya, was among the first U.S. soldiers setting up operations for Natural Fire 10, a multinational exercise set to begin tomorrow in northern Uganda with more than 1,000 servicemembers from the United States and five East African

During a recent visit to Kitgum High school, Okumu, a logistics noncommissioned officer, found himself surrounded by curious teens eager to learn more about the American sergeant who speaks their language.

Okumu welcomed such an ambush, responding to a barrage of questions from the students. Within minutes, a circle of a dozen students grew into a crowd of 60 or more.

"How can I go to the United States and become a soldier like you?" one teen asked.

What began as an impromptu discussion grew into a huddle of dozens hanging onto Okumu's every word. He told them how important it is for them to do well in school and reach for their goals.

"Education in the key," he said. "Everyone has a talent. You just need to find out what yours is."

The students paid close attention and asked many questions. At one point, they broke into laughter after a student asked a question the others thought was silly. Okumu was quick to jump in, telling the students never to be afraid to learn by asking.

"There's no such thing as a stupid question, except to the question that's never asked," he said.

The conversation went on in English, which the teens learn in their classes. But they initially were drawn to Okumu when they heard him speak Luo, the language spoken in northern Uganda, which Okumu learned as a child in Kenya. He emigrated from Kenya to the United States in 2000, settling in Missouri.

Okumu is assigned to a group of 21st Theater Sustainment Command soldiers tasked with constructing a base camp in Kitgum and providing logistical support for Natural Fire 10, an exercise co-led by U.S. Army Africa, a component of U.S. Africa Command, and the East
African Community Armed Forces.

Hundreds of soldiers from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda will join U.S. troops for the 10-day exercise, which has been held in East Africa every two years for the past decade. The exercise includes training in humanitarian missions, natural disasters, convoy operations, crowd
control, weapons handling and vehicle checkpoints.

U.S. and East African troops also will provide medical, dental and engineering support to local communities. Engineer projects will be conducted at the Kitgum High School, Mucwini Primary School and Kitgum Government Hospital -- where students anxiously anticipate more interaction with Okumu and his fellow Americans.

Okumu looks forward to seeing them again soon. During their recent chat, he made sure they understood the importance of education to their future success.

"Good grades and test scores may qualify you for scholarships to the U.S.," Okumu said. "Do your best."

(Lt. Col. David Konop serves with U.S. Army Africa public affairs.)

Coast Guard Cutter Helps Navy on African Coast

By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - The Coast Guard cutter Legare recently returned from a 120-day mission in support of the Navy's 6th Fleet along Africa's west coast. Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Bauby, commanding officer of the Legare, discussed the cutter's role working with African coastal nations in real-time law enforcement missions during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable Oct. 13.

During the mission, the Legare visited four countries -- Morocco, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde -- to conduct maritime law-enforcement operations and to support regional maritime safety and security. The African mission focuses on building relationships and sharing tactics and procedures.

"Our area of operations ranged from the northwest coast of Morocco, right at the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar, all the way down to the entrance to the Gulf of Guinea down by Sierra Leone," Bauby said.

The Legare crew was involved in several law enforcement activities, including seizing an illegal fishing boat off the coast of Sierra Leone.

"Once we approached and boarded the vessel, we confirmed it had been fishing in that area," he said, noting the boat was within an exclusive economic zone of Sierra Leone. "So the government of Sierra Leone directed us to seize the vessel and persons aboard and then escort the vessel back to their capital city of Freetown."

Because of a lack of resources, Bauby said, the partners in Sierra Leone have been unable to frequently patrol their own waters, causing the United States to step in and handle things that may not have been an option before.

The Legare crew also assisted in building maritime domain awareness by discerning traffic patterns, identifying specific areas where vessels were fishing, and showing areas where foreign-flagged vessels were operating to help the partners know where to focus their patrols.

Illegal fishing is an issue, Bauby said. "Based on my limited experience, which is three months operating over there," he said, "I would say it's a problem throughout the coast of Africa, just based on the scarce resources they have to patrol their own waters."

Cape Verde has a specific process for enforcing fishing laws, he said, but Sierra Leone and Senegal still are developing a system, so they have a problem controlling fishing vessels that are permitted to fish while preventing unauthorized vessels from fishing in their waters, he said.

The four countries have worked with the United States in developing their domain awareness, either by working in small training engagements or directly with U.S. agencies, Bauby said. The work is an ongoing effort of U.S. Africa Command, which stood up in the fall of 2008 to forge a relationship with African nations.

"Understanding Africom's intentions and the Navy 6th Fleet, they definitely intend to establish a long-term relationship with all of these countries along the African coast to help them develop their domain awareness."

The Legare returned Oct. 1 to its homeport of Portsmouth, Va.

(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)

Global Commitments Stretch Army

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - With more than 1.1 million active and reserve-component soldiers in the U.S. Army, some may wonder how the service could be stressed, as is commonly discussed and reported. The answer lies in the number of deployments soldiers have around the world -- known as operations tempo -- and the "dwell time" needed for them to spend at home between deployments, officials say.

The following is a look at where soldiers are based as of Oct. 6.

The Army has 552,400 active-component soldiers, who are called upon most for operations and exercises. Of the Army's 207,400 reservists, 21,700 are mobilized. The Army National Guard has 362,000 soldiers, with 58,100 activated. Once Guard and Army Reserve soldiers come on active duty, there is no difference between them and active-component soldiers. Reservists can be called up for one-year tours, including training.

According to Army statistics, 102,400 active-component soldiers are based overseas, and 450,000 are in the continental United States. About 21,200 soldiers are in Hawaii, and 13,200 are in Alaska. Soldiers deploy to contingencies around the world. Some 38,200 soldiers are based with U.S. Army Europe, and 17,300 serve with U.S. Forces Korea.

The two largest contingencies for the Army are Iraq and Afghanistan, with 98,025 soldiers operating in Iraq and 43,800 in Afghanistan. Another 12,700 soldiers based in Kuwait provide assistance to both theaters in U.S. Central Command, and 1,050 soldiers work in Qatar.

But those aren't the only areas of operations. NATO's Kosovo Force in the Balkans has 1,525 U.S. soldiers – most from the Army National Guard. Ten soldiers based in Bosnia work with the European Union effort in that country.

Another 700 soldiers are part of the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai desert. Since 1981, a battalion of American soldiers has been in the area to ensure peace between Israel and Egypt.

Some 1,200 soldiers are based with Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. They're based mainly in Djibouti, but also work in Ethiopia and other areas of the region.

Another 600 soldiers are part of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, helping to run the detention center at the Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba, and in Honduras, 325 soldiers are part of Joint Task Force Bravo, which works at improving military-to-military ties with Central American countries. In place since the mid-1980s, the command has used civil-military operations to connect with the people of the region.

There are 225 soldiers in the Philippines, working to develop the capabilities of the Philippine armed forces, and another 3,440 soldiers are deployed around the world in "other operations and exercises," officials said.

Added to these numbers are soldiers going through various levels of training, sick or injured, on recruiting duty or involved in other aspects of maintaining the base.

The bottom line is that there are more than 266,000 soldiers deployed or forward stationed in almost 80 countries around the world.

Commentary: Dealing With Loss on Sesame Street

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 15, 2009 - To the envy of all the neighborhood kids, I was invited to New York yesterday to attend the taping of a special Sesame Workshop production aimed at helping military children. I was in awe when I walked down the real-world Sesame Street. As I passed the laundromat and Mr. Hooper's famous storefront, the years slid away with each step until, once again, I was a 5-year-old glued to an episode of "Sesame Street" on my early 1970s TV set.

I was transported back to the present when down the hall I heard the familiar, high-pitched tones of that furry red Muppet who has gained superstar-like status in recent years. Elmo and his good friend, Rosita, were rehearsing a scene on a brightly lit park set.

Used to more lighthearted shows punctuated with lessons of letters and numbers, it took me a while to adjust to the serious topic Sesame now was tackling: coping with the loss of a loved one.

The video is the latest offering from Sesame's Talk, Listen, Connect initiative, a multimedia project that helps to guide military families through multiple challenges. The first two productions, developed with help from the Defense Department, dealt with deployments and the visible and invisible wounds of war.

"The next endeavor was how do we support families of the fallen," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department's office of family policy and children and youth. "That is the ultimate, supreme sacrifice that a family has to endure; and what would be a comfort not only to the child, but also to the parent who is also grieving? The result is going to be a real contribution to any family who has lost a loved one."

As with its other military-related projects, Sesame worked closely with the department, enlisting the help of military advisors. A few of those defense experts were on the set yesterday, including Thompson and Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist who heads the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Also there to support the project were Becky Gates, wife of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and Deborah Mullen, wife of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.

Sesame consulted with the department on a script that involves Elmo and his family dealing with the loss of Elmo's Uncle Jack. Wanting to reach a broad audience, Sesame avoids mention of combat or war in hopes that the messages of hope and healing will transcend the military and reach all children.

Emotions ran high on the set as the cast and crew filmed the scenes. I saw a few teary eyes, and just reading the script brought tears to my own. Many on the set had suffered losses too and connected deeply with the script; others simply empathized with the emotions of others and the day's purpose.

In one park scene, Elmo, his parents and Rosita are having a picnic with Elmo's Aunt Jill and cousin Jessie. Forgetting momentarily about the recent loss, Elmo innocently asks, "Where's Uncle Jack?" The set was so quiet at that moment you could've heard a pin drop. Then Elmo's mom reminds him that Jack died. Unable to vocalize the depth of her emotions regarding her dad, Jessie asks to go play.

As the script unfolds, Elmo's dad, Louie, finds time to talk with Jessie and encourages her to talk about her feelings. "It helps to talk to someone about the way we feel, like we're talking now. Sometimes it feels better than keeping it all inside," he tells her.

He also explains to her that by remembering Jack, they can continue to celebrate his life.

"It's important to be able to have words that parents and kids can use around death," said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's vice president of outreach and educational practices. "There's a variety of feelings involving death, often conflicting, with sad moments and guilt surrounding happy moments. We want to offer families a way to move forward, the reassurance to move forward."

I had a chance to speak briefly with the actors who play Rosita and Jessie. They clearly were passionate about their work, and both said they felt honored to be a part of the production.

It's a privilege "to meet military families and get to know them and realize how incredible and strong and amazing group of people they are," said Carmen Osbahr, who plays Rosita. "Something that started as an amazing project is now a mission. It's an amazing honor to be a part of it."

"We always connect with our characters. It's fun what we do, but we take our work very seriously," added Leslie Carerra, who plays Jessie. "I certainly relate to the loss of my brother and what it did to my family. In order to connect, you go back. You want it to be light, but when that moment comes ... to be able to share is a great gift. We're offering tools and celebrating life and being strong."

These are the exact messages Sesame Workshop hopes to impart to children using the familiar Sesame pals.

"It's really important for us to recognize that for a child, coming from Elmo, it's much more meaningful than coming from any other counselor or even a significant adult in their life," Thompson said. "Because children naturally respond to Elmo, and that's why these scripts are so important."

The finished product will be integrated into a documentary scheduled to air on PBS in April, which also happens to be the Month of the Military Child. The documentary will include the Elmo story, along with footage of four families, two military and two civilian, who've suffered a loss.

Sesame will follow up the special with the distribution of a military-specific kit. The kit will include print and DVD materials, and will be available on Military OneSource and through family-support centers throughout the services.

I started the day in star-struck awe and finished it in pretty much the same way. I was really amazed by the cast and crew's passion, caring and sensitivity and their close relationships with the military visitors. I'm excited to see the finished product and really believe it has the potential to help countless military families deal with loss.

Stay tuned for more about my day on Sesame Street, including an interview with Deborah Mullen, who gives her perspective of the Sesame production, and some experts' tips for dealing with loss.

(Elaine Wilson, a writer and editor for American Forces Press Service, writes the "Family Matters" blog.)

Shinseki Pledges Better Support for Veterans

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 14, 2009 - The Veterans Affairs Department continues its efforts to provide the best support possible to the nation's military veterans, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told a House committee here today. "We have been busy putting into place the foundation for our pursuit of the president's two goals for this department: transform VA into a 21st-century organization, and ensure that we provide timely access to benefits and high quality care to our veterans over their lifetimes -- from the day they first take their oaths of allegiance until the day they are laid to rest," Shinseki said in his written statement provided to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Shinseki's previous "State of the VA" report to Congress was in February. Today, Shinseki pledged he would "continue working to craft a shared vision for the department, one that will be enduring."

"We remain guided by our determination to be people-centric – veterans and the work force count in this department; results-driven – we will not be graded on our promises, but by our accomplishments; and forward-looking – we strive to be the model for governance in the 21st century," the secretary said.

The VA's nearly 300,000 employees all share one mission, Shinseki said, which is "to care for our nation's veterans, wherever they live, by providing them the highest quality benefits and services possible."

Among the nation's 23.4 million living veterans, nearly 8 million choose to access Veterans Affairs-provided services and benefits, the secretary said. The department, he added, will work diligently every day to provide those services "faster, better, and more equitably."

The nation's veterans "put themselves at risk to assure our safety as a people and the preservation of our way of life," Shinseki said. Not all are combat veterans, he said, but all were prepared to be.

VA's mission, Shinseki said, is to care for veterans who endure physical and mental hardships acquired during their military duty. He cited the "cruel misfortunes that often accompany difficult operational missions, and the reality of what risk taking really means to people in the operational environment."

VA health care, services and benefits are in great demand, Shinseki said, noting that demand increases each year. More than 4 million new veterans have been added to the VA's health care rolls since 2001, he said.

Some of today's youngest veterans are dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other multiple-trauma injuries from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

"We will provide them the care they deserve," the secretary pledged. He also promised to improve the quality of care delivered to veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Desert Storm and other operational deployments.

A 2003 policy change that's based on where a veteran lives and relaxed income thresholds has enabled many more veterans to access VA care, Shinseki reported, but it also has increased VA's workload. Still, he said, VA is prepared to accommodate up to 500,000 new enrollees, to be phased in over the next four years.

Expanded benefits have increased VA's workload in other areas as well. While the post 9/11 GI Bill expanded educational opportunities, Shinseki noted, it also has challenged paper-bound processes. Therefore, he said, aggressive efforts are under way to transfer paper documents to computers to provide more, better and faster decisions in disability claims and educational benefits.

Additionally, "the honor of providing final resting places for our veterans remains a source of immense professional pride for the National Cemeteries Administration, and indeed, the rest of VA," Shinseki stated. The NCA, he wrote, consistently meets the demographic standards associated with veteran burials and exceeds expectations with regard to care and compassion for heroes' families.

The NCA over the past year has interred about 107,000 veterans at 130 national cemeteries, Shinseki said. Five new national cemeteries have been opened, he added, and 16 cemetery projects have been funded for expansion.

"Our veterans have earned and deserve our respect and appreciation for their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families," Shinseki wrote, adding that VA is "privileged to have the mission of demonstrating the thanks of a grateful nation."