I was greatly honored by President Obama’s invitation to serve Veterans as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs. It provides me an opportunity to give back to those with whom I went to war 43 years ago in Vietnam, those I sent to war as Army Chief of Staff, and to those giants of World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders I and my generation of leaders stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.
Today, there are 23 million Veterans in this country—men and women who served this nation in peace and in war, many of them during the darkest hours of need.
General Douglas MacArthur once said, “By profession, I am a soldier and take pride in that fact. But I am prouder—infinitely prouder—to be a father.” Well, we have that in common—we are here today to celebrate fatherhood.
I’m here to dialogue with you on the unique challenges of being a military dad. I don’t know any more about it than you do, other than I wrestled with it for a lot of years. And in those 38 years in uniform, I helped raise a lot of America’s children. I don’t fully understand the pressures they carry in the current environment between trying to be a professional warrior and being a good dad. What I know is what I lived.
I have known my wife since we were both in the 7th grade. We raised two children, who are parents themselves today to our seven grandchildren. We are blessed, but we had to work at it.
In this time of war, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen have been asked to do incredibly difficult things. They are some of the less than 1 percent of our citizens, who volunteer to go into harm’s way on behalf of the Nation—multiple, long, and often difficult deployments.
They are integral members of high-performing teams—tough, dedicated, extremely motivated teams—where they are expected to put the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade. And to do that they must be mission focused, highly disciplined, alert, and quick to act so that they and their teams can perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous every day. Trust is important, and their lives are long on execution and short on excuses. They’re used to obeying orders, and in turn, being obeyed, when in a position of responsibility. And because of all this, they have accomplished every mission without fail—magnificently.
When they come off operation, they face another set of responsibilities—being a good father. There’s no field manual for this, no battle drill, and very little guidance. There are no instructions on how to react when a two-year-old simply tells you “no” whenever you ask him to do anything. All too often, just as they are beginning to fit back into their family’s rhythms at home—well, it’s time to begin ramping up for the next deployment. Tough? You’d better believe it.
I’m not here to lecture. But when you go on mission, you carry your own rucksack. You can’t take everything, so you prioritize what goes in, what’s mission essential. And when you are finished packing your ruck, you carry it. Nobody does that for you—it’s your ruck. Having decided to be a dad is like packing that rucksack. You’ve packed it, and it’s yours to carry. It’s your responsibility.
Military dads face challenges that most other dads in the general population rarely, if ever, encounter. It isn’t easy today, and the truth is, it has never been easy. I think my children might second that. I know for a fact my wife would.
If you’ve been in combat, you’re carrying baggage. Whether you know it and acknowledge it or not, you are. It takes time to re-adjust back to life at home—to decompress from high stress, high intensity, fear, and hypervigilance. You need time to unload that baggage, and we need the support of those we love most to transition right and well. Community support and patient, loving families enable most all of us to manage these transitions effectively. But not everyone is so fortunate, and as husbands and fathers, we need our families’ assistance in unloading that baggage. They can’t carry it for us. Neither can they unload it for us, but they can help us do both.
At VA, our mission is to serve Veterans and provide them the benefits and services they have earned. Through our chaplains, medical centers, and Vet Centers, VA is striving to ease the transition of returning warriors, especially those who are taking their uniforms off for the final time. We promote healthy families and responsible parenting.
At our medical center in Baltimore, we have a therapeutic component called the Father’s Group. It’s been meeting since 1999. The goals of the group are to strengthen the bond between Veterans and their children, breaking the cycle of non-involvement, re-establishing family connections by making amends, and developing meaningful and reliable fathering skills. Not every Service Member and Veteran faces these issues—but some do, and we’re here to help.
Three members of the group recently repaired their family lives and got jobs. In 2008, they attended the international fatherhood conference in Washington, D.C. In 2009, they presented at the conference, and this year they are helping the Baltimore medical center host their own fatherhood conference for Veterans.
As part of the chaplaincy program at our medical center in Augusta, Georgia, Veterans and active-duty military can take part in marriage enrichment retreats that help them to be better dads to their kids and husbands to their wives. Part of being a good dad means acknowledging our challenges and getting help for them.
At VA, we are seeking ways to be more effective advocates for Veterans—looking for ways we can do things better. I look forward to hearing about your good discussions earlier today on ways we can better serve Veteran dads who wore the uniform.
For those of you, who are already Veterans, I hope you’ll avail yourself of all the services and benefits we have to offer. For those of you still serving, I want you to know that we’re here for you when your combat boots come off.
VA doesn’t work on these initiatives alone. Friends, families and community groups are essential—the work that all the faith-based and social service groups perform here in Fayetteville, and in communities across our Nation, is absolutely indispensable. We are proud to work with them all.
Serving in uniform takes sacrifice, responsibility, patience, hard work, and courage. And you have taken on the hard missions, time and again, with distinction. Being a father is not easy—it takes sacrifice, responsibility, patience, hard work, and courage, as well. Doing both is even more difficult. But the qualities and characteristics that carried you through your most difficult operations—the dark days—will sustain you and serve you well on those most rewarding days you will ever have—as a father.
It’s been an honor to join you this afternoon. I look forward to learning from you, to hearing from many of you as you share your own stories and insights. Thank you, and God bless you all.