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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

NCA Intern Graduation
Washington, D.C.
August 21, 2015

In the movie Taking Chance, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, serves as a casualty assistance officer during the Iraq war to assuage the guilt he feels for taking a desk job while many of his comrades are deployed. His first assignment is to escort PFC Chance Phelps home to Wyoming.

While the movie highlights his personal anguish with escorting this fallen hero, I believe the movie tells an equally compelling story—and that is the importance of the team who performs the noble mission of laying our Veterans to rest with dignity.

As I watched this movie at Dover Port Mortuary, I was moved beyond words at the deep humanity and kindness of Americans from all walks of life in their respect and regard for the life of a service member. There is one particular scene in which Lieutenant Colonel Strobl tells the funeral director he needs to view the body, to make sure everything is right. The funeral director tells him that it is not necessary because it will be a closed casket ceremony. Lieutenant Colonel Strobl insists. There is the initial emotion in seeing Chance for the first time. After a brief moment, he states that his uniform was immaculate; he looked perfect. Even though the staff at Dover knew the casket would remain closed during the ceremony that did not alter their standard of perfection.

It is at that moment—in the movie, as in real life—when the value and trust placed in those charged to care for and bury our Servicemembers is made clear. The team of professionals at our national cemeteries ensures a legacy of remembrance and a final resting place for the loved ones of grieving families.

To our 11 future cemetery directors, you have a chosen a profession that demands excellence and perfection. At every VA cemetery I visit, your willingness to accept the obligation to serve our fallen heroes and their families speaks volumes about who you are as public servants. But I would say, more importantly, it tells me who you are as a person—people who will never forget to recognize the sacrifices these Veterans have made to the Nation and will honor their service.

In the VA family of organizations, NCA is routinely the standard for excellence. The NCA formula for success is simple: Excellent and effective leaders, an integrated enterprise approach, and a deep commitment to and advocacy for providing superior customer care to family members throughout what is always a difficult and painful time.

Said more simply, NCA epitomizes I CARE.

NCA, the smallest VA administration, is the benchmark for sustained excellence. NCA leaders have developed a continuous platform for innovation, and I applaud their efforts. As an administration, you have so many qualities others within VA could improve by emulating, especially in the areas of employee and leader development—the foundation of teambuilding.

Exceptional leaders most often are known for producing a well-defined vision and outlining priorities for their organization in support of the mission. Central to fulfilling the purpose of the vision is the team—that core coalition of people working across diverse operational lines with defined objectives and goals.

For the past year, today’s graduates focused on the management of cemetery operations as an integrated enterprise, a model that connects processes to both services and people to demonstrate to create value for those we serve. This integrated, enterprise approach places importance on the team and the collaborative model of success. It also ensures consistent delivery of quality services to customers.

Across the entire Department, this is one of our top priorities—improving the services and benefits the VA delivers to Veterans and their families, especially those who have lost a loved one. That is when the services you provide become most important.

You will be the bridge between past and present.

You will listen to the stories of lived memories as you prepare families to say their final goodbyes.

You will make sure that their names, etched in stone or cast in bronze, are never forgotten.

And, at the end, you will serve as the reminder that the cost of freedom is never truly free as Veterans and war heroes are laid to rest.

As you prepare to become directors at your newly assigned post, take with you a few leadership points.

First, sometimes I think we get so focused on the rules that we forget to pay attention to the team. Whatever policy or initiatives you create, there is something more important, and that is the people you serve.

Second, treat everyone around you with dignity and respect. Your sole purpose is to ease the hardship that the loss of a loved one has placed on families.

Third, embody our core values in all you do—Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. Keep in mind that I CARE prepares you best for the challenges you will confront.

Last, I believe that if you strive to do the right thing for Veterans and their survivors, and you are a good steward of taxpayer dollars, you will make the right decision at the right time.

As directors and associate directors, you will meet the family members of proud Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines—men and women who risked their lives for freedom. When the Nation asked them to put their lives on the line for freedom, they did not hesitate, and neither will we in fulfilling our commitment to provide final honors befitting of their service.

As I close, there is a line from the West Point Cadet Prayer that is especially fitting for the duties you are about to assume. The line reads, “Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer.”

Under Secretary Walters and the National Training Center, thank you for developing another outstanding class of leaders.

To the families who are here today, thank you for supporting and encouraging your loved ones during this rigorous year-long program.

Distinguished guests, family members, and of course, the graduating class of 2015—welcome to the VA family.

Thank you for allowing me to share this special occasion with all of you.

Graduates, congratulations. Thank you for your service, and best of luck in your new assignment.