Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

American Legion 100th National Convention
Minneapolis, Minn
August 29, 2018

Thank you very much.

And, Commander, thank you for this distinct honor. And thank you for the service that you have given to the Legion and to the nation, and also to the service that the first gentleman has given to you. Your family’s tradition says a great deal about this institution.

Some of you may have seen a Senate confirmation hearing. That’s something out of like a 1950’s detective movie where there’s one victim, and the only thing missing is the bulb over your head. So I went through that. I’ve been through it several times, but most recently back in July. And you know the lineup. There’s the victim, me. My wife and family are sitting behind me. But behind them was the American Legion. And for those of you who don’t know, the man who makes the Legion office in Washington work, Lou Celli, he was the one behind my wife. And a typical government operation, the sound actually travels from the back, forward. So he was answering the questions before I was, to the point that when my wife saw a pause in the proceedings, she said, “They nominated the wrong guy.”

He’s gone, now. But I do want to thank him for all of his support. And for those of you who are Air Force brothers, and for those you from Alaska, there was one Air Force moment during that hearing. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Marine Reservist from Alaska, read a demand for me from one of his constituents, a guy named Cajun Bob. Now, my father is from South Louisiana, and how somebody named Cajun Bob ended up in Anchorage, Alaska, I don’t know. But Cajun Bob said that my mission was to “kick ass.” And I immediately told Senator Sullivan that “I am an Air Force Officer. We don’t talk like that.”

But I want to thank you again—thank the Legion again—for its courtesy to me.

I want to start off on a somber and reflective note. A few days ago, we lost one of America’s great warriors and a man whose lifetime of selfless service reminds all of us why we do what we do. I want to thank the American Legion for honoring Senator John McCain.

I also want to thank the Legion for honoring people like my father; Colonel Walter Marm, holder of the Metal of Honor; people like Dave Hackworth and Hal Moore and Creighton Abrams. Those men and women of Vietnam are the special generation, and a generation who history has already begun to vindicate their sacrifices, and we should never forget them.

So let me begin with the story from a hundred years ago that . . . some of it took place right here in Minneapolis. A hundred years ago the guns fell silent in Western Europe. And out of that nightmare the American nation erupted onto the world stage, and the American Legion erupted into the consciousness of the American people.

One hundred years ago my great-grandfather left a small-town law practice in Cleveland, Mississippi, and a part-time teaching job at Ole Miss Law School to join up with the artillery of the All American Division, the 82nd Infantry Division then mustering at Camp Gordon, Georgia. In his time, in World War I, he saw thousands perish in a matter of minutes.

Across the cantonment from his regiment was an infantry outfit with a reluctant soldier—a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, who would go on to become the greatest American hero of that war and be here in Minneapolis when the American Legion held its first convention.

In another part of the country was a young man who had been forged in the steel mills of Braddock and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Like my grandfather, he too left the law to join the Army. He was assigned to Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. He trained pilots. He trained them in the new art of flying to support their comrades on the ground. And he trained them to go behind enemy lines at great risk. That was Harry Colmery, the 19th National Commander of this organization and the father of the GI Bill.

His original GI Bill in 1944 was heralded by President Roosevelt as one of the—if not the most—significant pieces of legislation that that President would ever sign. When he signed the bill, the President said that “this is emphatic notice . . . that the American people do not intend to let [our Veterans] down.” So men like Captain A.D. Somerville, Sergeant Alvin York, and Lieutenant Harry Colmery—ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things—we at the Department of Veterans Affairs are honored to serve their decedents, millions of ordinary Americans who have answered this special call for us, and for the world.

The American Legion has been in the forefront of that noble mission since the beginning. You are powerful advocates for the establishment of the Veterans Bureau in 1921. In 1924, you told the President of the United States to expand access to include non-service-connected illnesses, legislation that changed what it fundamentally means to care for all of those who have worn the uniform. In 1988, it was you who sat with Ronald Reagan and led him to say that your seat at the table means that our Veterans will never be forgotten in the national affairs of the United States of America.

Last year, President Trump was here, and he summed it up in his way: “The American Legion embodies the spirit of patriotism that is the true source of our strength and best hope for our future.” So on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs and all of America’s Veterans, let me thank you, thank the entire American Legion, past and present, for everything you have done to make this the last best hope of man on earth.

I have been privileged to see this military life through many angles. I am the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier. One of the more traumatic days—the most traumatic day—of my life, was being told that my father had been terribly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. I was six. What we didn’t know then was that we would not see him for a year. He spent that time in Army hospitals in both Honolulu and California. And when he returned to us, having gone to Vietnam at six-two, 240 pounds, he came back six-two, but weighing 115 pounds. I watched that agonizing recovery, and it was that moment that was on my mind when the President asked me to come serve with you.

I have also seen this Veteran’s experience through the lives of my schoolmates at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg, whose fathers did not come home. And I’ve also seen this Veteran’s life through the eyes of the children of the men who were held in captivity in Hanoi during those terrible years.

So what I want to convey to you, as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I want this to be a call to arms for each of you. In my tenure, in the short time that I am privileged to carry the flame that was lit on revolutionary fields in the 1700’s, I pledge to you that this is a bottom up organization, that the Legion has the seat at the table, that you have the open door to that tenth floor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And I told Lou, if I ever get stuck on that tenth floor, throw me out of the window immediately.

So let me tell you a little bit about my philosophy.

The VA is about serving Veterans. So what does that mean? It is our responsibility to serve you well, and honorably, and showing you the same kind of dignity and devotion that you gave to America. So my prime directive is customer service. When a Veteran comes to VA, it is not up to him to employ a cauldron of lawyers to get VA to say, Yes. It is up to VA to say yes to the Veteran. That is customer service.

Many of the issues I encountered when I was Acting Secretary were not with the quality of VA care, but with just getting our Veterans through the door to get that care. Those problems are administrative and bureaucratic. Alexander Hamilton was the one who said that the true test of good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration. And that is where the VA must go.

Customer service must start with you, the customer. We have to talk to Veterans. We have to listen to Veterans. Because every major advance in relief for those who have borne the battle has come for the efforts of Veterans themselves, not waiting on the slow machine of government.

That’s also true of the VA MISSION Act, which was signed by the President in June. That Act will fundamentally transform the Veterans health care system to fulfill the President’s promise to give Veterans more choice and prevent short-falls in funding that have plagued the current VA choice program. So what does that do for our warriors? It consolidates and streamlines all of our community care programs into one. It expands our program of comprehensive assistance for family caregivers to include, finally, eligible Veterans of all eras in our history. And, importantly, it strengthens my ability to recruit and retain the quality health care professionals that you deserve.

The result will be a modern, integrated, patient-centered health care system providing maximum choice of quality health care options. So what are those options? One absolutely essential option is the availability of care that specializes in treating Veterans in the language of Veterans. These people need to know what each of you have been through, what your special needs are, and who can meet those needs officially and effectively. This is not an option that the private sector can provide. The private sector cannot replicate VA’s expertise in things like spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, audiology, services for the blind, and suicide prevention.

I will say to you what I said to those senators in July. There is one unspoken fact of VA life that can never be replaced. It can never be replicated. It can never be privatized. That is the community nature of the VA experience. For your service to America, you deserve to come to and be treated by those who know what you and your families have gone through.

As the Commander noted, it was my privilege to serve General Jim Mattis and a high honor to be on his team at the DoD. He gave me one final order as I walked out of the Puzzle Palace a few weeks ago. He said that from here on out, DoD and VA will be joined at the hip. And it is about time. I have been given instructions from him to make our new electronic health care record system work, so that from the time any young American enters the service to take his first, her first physical to the time that he or she first walks into the VA, there will be a continuous holistic record. No longer will people like my father have to carry around an 800-page record that began for him in the Kennedy years. General Mattis said it simply, “The time to talk is over.” My pledge to you on his behalf: that together we will create a real solution, a good solution, and the best solution for all of those who have committed their lives to the defense of this great nation.

So I want to get a little poetic now.

The Senate has accused me . . . actually, Senator McCain accused me of being Forrest Gump. He used to play a game in the years that I knew him called “Stump the Gump.” He always said that I could find any answer dating back to the Roman Empire to give to him, whatever he happened to ask. But because the service in uniform is so grounded in the history of tradition—and this institution is grounded in the historical mission of the American warrior—I felt it was appropriate to look back on the words of a man that I happen to consider to be the greatest American of the twentieth century, Dwight David Eisenhower.

As you know, in his campaign for president, President Eisenhower promised to visit the troops in Korea when elected. He actually bettered his promise. He went there Christmas, Christmas of 1952, one month before he was inaugurated, and said, “I will bring you home.”

One of the things that the President inherited was the presidential yacht Williamsburg. Ike, being a man of the American heartland, felt that a yacht for a president during a time of war was an extravagance not worthy of the democracy on the battlefield, and he ordered it scrapped.

But the one person whose orders Eisenhower could never disobey, Mamie, said to him, “No, keep it, but when you take it out, you take it out with soldiers.” So a few months after he was inaugurated, about forty Korean War soldiers and Marines got aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg. Many of them were missing limbs. Some of them were horribly disfigured. The presidential limousine pulled up to the pier there at the Washington Navy Yard, and those of you who have watched this procession through the years know what happened. The Secret Service immediately ran out, ran up the plank, and started separating the President from his troops. And only as a five-star General of the Army can do, Eisenhower yelled, “Halt. Get behind me. I know these men.” And he asked those soldiers that could to stand at attention. He said, “I want to address you at attention. My charge for you as your commander-in-chief is that you never put your uniform away. You are always on duty. You live to remind America two things: that the price of freedom is never free, and you remind your fellow citizens that they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices that you have made.”

I don’t think that the American Legion could have a better motto than to say that we are here because we ensure that America sleeps soundly at night because of the sacrifices that we have made, our ancestors have made, and those who have come in front of us will make in the future.

So Eisenhower, the year after he made those statements on the Williamsburg, appeared with you. He spoke to your national convention in 1954, and he said, “To help keep America strong, to help keep her secure, to help guide her on the true path to peace, there is no group better qualified than you of the American Legion.” And then he appealed to each and every one of you, “May courage, wisdom, and determination make the American Legion an instrument of ever increasing value to the whole of America, and to the free world.”

President Eisenhower, if he were here today, would be proud of all you have done and all that you are doing.

Harry Colmery would be proud.

I know that I am proud to be with you today and to be working with each of you as we move forward.

I’m also deeply honored to be here, the 100th anniversary of your first convention, the 100th anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars when my ancestors and yours put down their arms to return home in the hope that peace would spread throughout the world.

God bless you. God bless this Legion. God bless the United States of America and all of the good things that she stands for.

Thank you all very much.