Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson
Fisher House Foundation Golf Classic Awards Banquet
May 2, 2016
Seven years ago now, a young Veteran applied for admission to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Here’s what he wrote in the personal narrative portion of his application:
"On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. My best friend and I talked to an Army recruiter right away.
By December, we were both enlisted in the United States Army as tankers. Our parents had to sign for us since we were still only 17.
I knew I wanted to eventually go to college, but decided to put it off to serve my country.
I figured one of the benefits of joiningthe GI Bill—would help me pay for a school that I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.
After graduation from high school, I completed basic training and was sent to Germany.
In February of 2004, we deployed to Samarra, Iraq. I remember my first combat patrol, proudly heading into the city on our tank. I was 19 years old, thinking it was exactly like the photo in the book my dad had given me when I was seven.
There were no pictures in that book of what came next. We were ambushed. Two roadside bombs and a landmine hit vehicles in which I was patrolling.
Halfway through the tour, I accepted the fact I would be going home in a box. But the tour finally ended and I returned to Germany, alive.
We refitted and trained, then deployed to Iraq for a second time to Ramadi in western al Anbar province.
Though the violence was nothing compared to the first tour, it only takes one blast. Six months into the tour, I was serving as turret gunner on a HUMVEE when we drove over a roadside bomb—January 30, 2007.
My truck commander, and another Soldier running up from behind to help us, were both killed.
I was thrown about 30 feet straight up into the air and flew about 50 feet away from the vehicle before landing, with a large piece of the truck on top of me.
The initial radio report listed me as killed in action. Once they found me, I was immediately evacuated, eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
I had broken every bone in my right leg, had a piece of it blown off, shattered my knee, cracked and ripped my pelvis open, had shrapnel punch through my left leg, shrapnel through my liver, broken my right arm, my left hand, shattered most of my teeth, and had a traumatic brain injury.
Two years and more than 15 surgeries later, I am ready to start down a new path.
I don't regret my decision to join the Army.
I'm proud of my service and I know I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the friends who were with me in Iraq, and even more than that, if God had not been with me.
I made a promise to God and my friends that I would succeed and make something of myself.
I can never get my friends back, but I can honor their memory and sacrifice by doing something worthwhile and meaningful with my life.
I do have trouble remembering things sometimes. All that means is that I will have to work harder to reach my goals. But, I am no stranger to hard work.
I manage to succeed at whatever I put my mind to because I absolutely refuse to give up, quit, or fail.
I would like the opportunity to study architecture at Catholic University—for myself, to fulfill my potential—and to fulfill the promise I made to God and to my friends who never left the combat zone. I hope you will give me that chance." Signed, Evan Cole.
Sergeant Cole was accepted to Catholic University in January of 2010.
In just 12 days, on May 14th, Evan will graduate from Catholic University—with a Master’s degree in Architecture.
I’m old enough to remember the old idea of “Grit.”
But sometimes old concepts come back into vogue—and apparently that’s the case with the concept of “grit.”
There have been several books published in the last year on the subject, the most recent by Professor Angela Duckworth, entitled GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
In her book, she details the habits and characteristics of those with grit:
- Interest in a pursuit
- A willingness to practice
- A sense of purpose
- And, the one I like best, a hopeful spirit!
SGT Evan Cole has GRIT.
He’s one of so many young men and women who have worn our Nation’s uniforms who display extraordinary strength and resilience.
Supporting and caring for them isn’t an obligation borne by just one department of government. It can’t be. The mission is too important, the needs of Veterans too broad.
Serving Veterans must be a collaborative endeavor!
It takes the great generosity and compassion of private organizations and dedicated individuals who care deeply about those who have served our Nation and their families.
Organizations like the Fisher House Foundation.
Fisher House, and all of those who work to sustain it, recognize not only the needs of our wounded, ill, and injured Veterans and their families, but also the souls, spirits, sacrifices, endurance, and determination to prevail over adversity that so many manifest each and every day.
Young men and women like Evan Cole.
I’ve been at VA for over two years. But I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to look at the Federal government from the outside in—to think about what the American people expect of government.
Governmental departments working collaboratively, rather than functioning as silos.
Programs tackling significant challenges and providing appropriate support to those among us in greatest need.
Goals and objectives based on measureable outcomes for those served.
In my view, those are the characteristics not only of good government, but also of best-in-class collaboration—relationships with non-governmental partners in communities to bridge gaps in support during Servicemembers’ treatment, recovery, and reintegration.
Fisher House is simply one of those best-in-class organizations we at VA are so proud to collaborate with and to support.
The Foundation provides critical support to those like Evan Cole, and their families.
These young people sacrificed for the greater good.
They demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect our freedoms.
They worked with others, often very different from themselves, to accomplish great feats.
They showed care and compassion for others in need, sometimes at the risk of their own lives.
And they live by the core values of duty, honor, and country, and in so doing earn our trust.
At a time when our country faces many challenges, we have an opportunity to help these men and women and their families. It is the smart thing to do!
Can we imagine any situation where we don’t need more people who put service before self?
Who can bridge differences to accomplish great things?
Who will persevere in the face of daunting obstacles?
Who we can trust implicitly to choose the harder right rather than an easier wrong?
Don’t we need to support each and every man and woman who has worn our uniforms, who has undergone great hardship and suffering, and yet comes through their ordeals with “a hopeful spirit?”
It is the right thing to do.
But even men and women of tremendous grit can’t do it alone.
I came to understand and recognize the critical role of the Fisher House Foundation during my years with the USO.
Understand that for these men and women and their families, it’s not just about a place to stay or even the camaraderie and support of other families experiencing daunting hardships and enduring challenges.
It’s not about the care and compassion of nurturing, dedicated staff.
Perhaps most importantly, Fisher Houses send a message of gratitude from the American people when residents need it most.
Every time they walk in the front door of a Fisher House, they hear the voice of the American people saying, “Thank you!”
So, to the Fisher family, and to the whole Fisher House Foundation team, to the generous donors, members of the steering committee, and to everyone who shares in the wonderful work of the Fisher House Foundation and in the sponsorship of this special event—thank you.
It’s always great to be at Fisher House events, and especially gratifying to know that this event supports the Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina—a city so dear to Margaret and me, for a cause so dear to us and to so many, many others.
Let me close by recognizing a group of extraordinary people—the Medal of Honor recipients and family members who joined in today.
- Colonel Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum, Jr. United States Marine Corps, Retired.
- First Lieutenant Brian Thacker, United States Army, Retired.
- Robin and Jim Carpenter, Parents of Lance Corporal William Kyle Carpenter, United States Marine Corps.
These men, and this family, have a quality so very important to the future of our Nation.
They have grit.
Thank you all for being a part of this endeavor.
May God continue to bless all of you, those who wear our uniforms, and this great Nation.