Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald
150th Anniversary of the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers
September 17, 2016
Ryan, thank you for that kind introduction, and for the truly spectacular 150th anniversary celebration.
Senators Collins & King; Representatives Pingree and Poliquin; I see Dave Riley & Marc Burgess from Disabled American Veterans here. Good to see you. Other distinguished guests, families, and friends—good morning, everyone.
Anniversary celebrations are a lot of hard work. Could I ask all those on the planning committee, all the volunteers, and the sponsors to stand? Ryan’s told me how hard you have worked to make this a very special day. Thank you.
I always like to begin with VA’s mission, so let’s begin there.
In his Second Inaugural Address as the bloody Civil War was coming to a close, President Abraham Lincoln gave his wounded Nation a vision for healing. He counseled, “. . . let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the Nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan . . . .” The Department of Veterans Affairs derives its mission from those words—to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and for their families.
We repeat those words often. Let me put them in context.
The Civil War touched this Nation unlike any war before it, or since. Between 750 and 850 thousand soldiers and sailors lost their lives—about 2.5% of the population. Today, it would be like losing somewhere around eight million Americans in war. Let that sink in. Can you imagine eight million Americans dying in war?
The country was washed in the blood of soldiers’ service and sacrifice—steeped in the sorrows of families who sacrificed along with them.
Many who didn’t die from wounds or sickness left battlefields with grievous injuries and illnesses. Some suffered from malaria, dysentery, and typhoid they’d contracted in camps and trenches.
President Lincoln himself was daily immersed in the staggering human cost of war. At his cottage on the Soldiers Home grounds in Washington, he saw the adjacent cemetery receive the dead. On the three mile trip back to the White House, he saw hospitals and the machines of war that filled them. Mary Lincoln must have told the President of the anguish of soldiers she sat with herself in nearby hospitals. And during his many visits to the front lines, he saw the dead and dying and those enduring the hardships of war.
All for the sake of the Union. All for the sake of the simple truth that “all men are created equal.” All for those unalienable rights we cherish still today—“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So when President Lincoln charged the Nation to care for those who have “borne the battle,” he understood the enormity of that burden, the cost of “a more perfect Union” that brave young men and women still volunteer to defend.
It was the day before that Second Inaugural Address that President Lincoln signed the legislation Congress sent him that would establish Togus. A year later, on October 6th, 1866, Dr. Bowman Breed, the first surgeon, arrived. He brought with him James Nickerson, a Veteran of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. The doors of Togus were opened, and Nickerson, its first resident, walked through.
Thousands and thousands would follow. These were industrious, hard-working, skilled people—the heart and soul of the Nation. They came from as far west as California, and as far south as Florida. They were from Delaware and the District of Columbia; from Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi and Maryland, and many others states in the Union. Over half the Veterans were foreign born—people who followed the call of freedom and opportunity to our shores. They were from England and France, Ireland and Italy, Poland and Russia, and as far away as Australia. They were artists and architects, bankers and blacksmiths, barbers and book-keepers. There were plumbers, preachers, sculptors, tailors, locksmiths, lawyers . . . even magicians and actors. They made brooms, cabinets, cigars, clocks, chairs, sails, saddles, and shoes.
One Veteran wrote, “Before the war, I was a shoemaker and made a good easy living.
“[Then I] enlisted twice; got wounded, and . . . I can’t even mend a shoe, much less make one.”
So, who were these Veterans? In the late 1880s, Veteran Henry Spalding, wrote of his fellow Veterans here at Togus, “This class of men is rare. Most of our members are as good type of men as can be found anywhere. Good fathers, good husbands, good soldiers, and good citizens, till utterly broken,” Spalding writes. “[T]hey come here and are thankful for this haven of refuge in their old age.”
A “haven of refuge in their old age.”
While communities during and after the war rallied around their Veterans, communities and pensions alone couldn’t always provide Veterans everything they’d earned, and needed. Alone, they couldn’t provide the specialized care for all the combinations of injuries and illnesses that were unique to the battlefield.
Togus was a place where their wounds would be tended. It was a place where they could learn to read, get an education, where they could use their skills and talents to contribute, or learn new skills and new ways to contribute. It was a place of shared experiences. It was community. And that’s what made Togus so special. For those Veterans, it was their home.
A lot has changed over the last 150 years. Today, VA provides benefits and services for about 11 million Veterans. We have over 350,000 people serving them. A third of our employees are Veterans themselves. We care for Veterans at over 1,200 health care facilities—including 168 Medical Centers and over 1,000 outpatient sites of care.
We’re the largest integrated health care system in the United States—a full service provider with inpatient and outpatient care, remote care, and community care. About 70 percent of all U.S. physicians receive at least some professional training at a VA hospital. We train 62,000 medical students and residents, 23,000 nurses, and 33,000 in other health fields, annually.
VA healthcare today is whole Veteran healthcare—body, mind, and soul, customized to meet Veteran needs. Yoga? Acupuncture? Sports therapy, music therapy, writing and art therapy? We validate and embrace what works to heal Veterans. We provide services from primary care to polytrauma care to complex specialized procedures like organ transplants and neurosurgery. We employ psychologists, physical therapists, pharmacists, recreation therapists, social workers, and a long list of other health care professionals.
VA researchers have given the Nation modern electronic medical records. VA researchers gave us the implantable cardiac pacemaker, the first successful liver transplants, and the nicotine patch. VA researchers gave us artificial limbs that move naturally when stimulated by electrical brain impulses. They demonstrated that patients with total paralysis could control robotic arms using only their thoughts. They identified genetic risk factors for schizophrenia, for Alzheimer’s, and for Werner’s syndrome, among others. VA proved that an aspirin a day reduces the rate of death and nonfatal heart attacks by half in patients with unstable angina.
Today, VA care is integrated with non-medical determinants of health that people often miss. I’m talking about things like education services, career transition support, pension resources, disability compensation, and many others. This year VA will provide nearly $100 billion in benefit distributions to Veterans, their families, and survivors. One of those survivors, by the way, is the daughter of a Civil War soldier.
Togus was about Veterans coming home, coming to a place that was their own. That’s the very same spirit animating VA’s transformation—perhaps the largest restructuring in the history of the department. We call that Transformation MyVA. We intend to be the No. 1 customer service agency in the Federal government. The American Customer Satisfaction Index has already rated our National Cemetery Administration No. 1 in customer service—five times running. Visit the hallowed cemeteries here at Togus, and you’ll get an idea why. J.D. Power rated VA’s mail-order pharmacy the best in the country in customer satisfaction—six years running. We aim to scale that kind of excellence across the Department. We want Veterans to see us as their VA, an institution they’re proud of—just like Veterans so many years ago here at Togus.
So a lot has changed. But in spite of the passage of time, some things haven’t changed. Communities still rally around their Veterans and embrace them. That’s why you see springing up around the country innovative Community Veterans Engagement Boards—CVEBs. These are leaders of local communities helping ensure we implement local solutions to meet their Veterans’ needs. There’s one here in Togus—it’s called “Putting Maine Veterans First.” It’s co-chaired by Peter Ogden and Amy Line. Peter, Amy, could you stand?
Right now there are 80 CVEBs across the Nation. And thanks to people like Peter and Amy, we expect to reach 100 by the end of the year. Local communities embracing Veterans and partnering with cities, states, VA, and other federal agencies is a big reason why Veteran homelessness nationwide is down by 47 percent since 2010. Together, we’ve cut it in half. Twenty-eight communities and two states have achieved a functional end to Veteran homelessness. Communities like yours are why over 360,000 Veterans and family members have been housed, rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness.
And here’s something else that’s not changed. Our Veterans are still industrious, hard-working, skilled people—the heart and soul of the Nation. Our Veterans are still that rare class of courageous people Henry Spalding described. They’re still his good people and good citizens. And members of our Nation’s military are still bearing the burden. They’re still serving, still fighting, and still dying—paying for the freedom, liberty, and opportunity we cherish.
Since the attacks of 11 September, over 52,000 have been wounded in combat. Nearly 7,000 Servicemembers have made the ultimate sacrifice. They’re still leaving behind their widows, their widowers, and their orphans. And VA’s still caring for them. With the devotion of the President of the United States, with the continued strong support of Congress, and with Veterans Service Organizations and wonderful communities like this one across the United States, we’ll care for them for the next 150 years, and beyond.
I think President Lincoln would be proud.
I know I am. It’s the most noble mission there is. Thank you. God bless you and our great Nation.