Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

Fisher House Groundbreaking
Charleston, South Carolina
November 18, 2016

Private First Class Ralph Henry Johnson, was a reconnaissance scout with Company A, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. PFC Johnson is one of the 260 Vietnam Veterans to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in combat.

One day in March, 1968, PFC Johnson threw himself on a hand grenade to save his patrol team. He did it without hesitation. Thirteen lives were saved.

PFC Johnson is a symbol of the service and sacrifice of America’s Veterans.

He will always be remembered both through our VA Medical Center here that carries his name as well as the Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson, which was christened in April and will be commissioned in 2017.

But we probably don’t think too much about the people PFC Johnson saved.

A few minutes ago—Alex Colvin led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. Alex is a proud Marine and combat Veteran of Vietnam. Yesterday, Alex celebrated his 70th birthday.

Alex, happy birthday. Birthdays are special for all of us. But birthdays are especially important for Alex. You see, Alex was one of those 13 people who survived that day.

For Alex, birthdays are powerful reminders that Ralph Johnson took a stand on that dangerous ground in the Quan Duc Valley to preserve the lives of the men in his patrol.

And so every birthday since 1968 has been a powerful reminder to Alex about the service, the sacrifice, the courage, and the heroism of Veterans who have served our Nation.

He’s not alone. There are many Alex Colvins out there who understand that some brother or sister in arms didn’t just lay down their life for the country, but laid it down for them personally.

It’s an experience Veterans from every era share.

In the last scene of Saving Private Ryan, the aged Ryan kneels reverently in front of the grave of Captain Miller who gave his life to save Ryan. Ryan says to Miller, “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. . . . I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” We’d all do well to turn to a Veteran and ask, “Am I earning what you have done for me?”

I’ll tell you someone who’s earning it—Scott Isaaks and the hundreds of healthcare professionals at the VA Medical Center here in Charleston. More Veterans are coming to this medical center to receive more of their care than ever before! Despite this growth, they are delivering great access to care thanks in part to hiring more than 300 additional staff over the past two years.

Let me highlight a few great things about your VA Medical Center.

For the second year in a row, your VA medical center was one of the very top-performing medical centers in the country. Looking at industry standard comprehensive measures of inpatient care quality, called ORYX, and outpatient care quality, called HEDIS, your VA medical center is among the very best.

In mental health experience of care, adjusted length of stay for inpatients, primary care wait times and patient satisfaction—all top-quality performances.

  • You may not know that VHA is a national leader in the delivery of care by telehealth.
  • Your VA Medical Center was named the first VA National Tele-Mental Health Hub in April.
  • This designation allows the facility’s program to provide telemental health services to Veterans across the country.
  • And it’s the only VA medical center in the country participating with the Joint Commission in a pilot project to guide health systems toward enhanced quality and patient safety improvements working in collaboration with a state hospital association—South Carolina Hospital Association.

Your VA Medical Center is earning it

I’ll tell you somebody else who’s earning it. I first learned how the Fisher House Foundation earns it during my years with the USO.

Let me share an example.

Cory was one of several Army Rangers grievously wounded when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device outside Kandahar. Cory underwent six surgeries at military hospitals in Afghanistan, Germany, and Bethesda, before arriving weeks later at the VA polytrauma center in Tampa, where he’d be for the next year. When Cory arrived at the polytrauma center, he was comatose—in a state doctors described as “vegetative.”

His odds for recovery were not great. But his grit, courage, and the compassion and generosity of the Fisher House Foundation were instrumental to Cory’s continued recovery.

Thanks to Fisher House, Craig and Annie Remsburg were at their son’s side. All told, they spent two and a half weeks at the Fisher House in Landstuhl, Germany; five weeks at the Fisher House in Bethesda, Maryland; and over 400 days and nights at the Fisher House in Tampa.

Not only did Fisher Houses save Craig and Annie on temporary accommodations and spare the Remsburgs much of the inconvenience of living far from home, they also provided his parents with a much-needed support group—an extended family of Fisher House residents who endured their trials together, bearing each other’s burdens, comforting and encouraging each other through the long months of recovery, sharing hopes and fears as they shared meals.

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.

Perhaps most importantly, Fisher Houses send a message of gratitude from the American people when these families 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!”

The Fisher House Foundation helps all of us to begin, as Private Ryan described it, to earn what Veterans have done for us.

Fisher House is earning it—thanks to Ken Fisher and thanks to people like Durbin and Trux Emerson. It was Durbin’s vision that led to the creation of Fisher House Charleston. She worked tirelessly to raise funds to spearhead this facility. Ken, Durbin, Trux—thanks for setting the example for all of us about what it means “to earn it.”

So yes, today is about a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Fisher House. But it’s so much more than that.

It’s about the passion and the perseverance of good people and their commitment to care for those who have “borne the battle” and their families. It’s about earning it.

Let me close by recognizing a group of extraordinary people: Mayor of Charleston John Tecklenburg; Dave Coker, President of Fisher House; And General Livingston—for devoting so many years in service to this great Nation.

Thanks also to my colleagues, Leslie Wiggins, VISN 7 Network Director and Scott Isaacks, Director of the Ralph H. Johnson VAMC. And finally, I offer my personal thanks to Helen Richards, sister of PFC Ralph Johnson. Thank you for your nine years of devoted service to the Veterans here at the medical center, and for ensuring that your brother’s legacy is never forgotten. Margaret and I look forward to working with all of you in the coming years.

May God continue to bless all of you, our Veterans, and this great Nation.