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

Military Women’s Coalition Inaugural Meeting
Atlanta, Georgia
September 7, 2018

Thank you very much Lydia [Watts, CEO, Service Women’s Action Network].

And can everybody hear? I have to ask that. I have a deep-south baritone. But because of all of the talking that I’ve been doing, particularly with members who are elected, it is now a deep-south base. So I apologize for that.

But I was taught that Winston Churchill said, “You never tell an audience that you’re happy to be there because nobody will ever believe you.” Well, that’s not the case here.

I’m actually going to take a step back into my most recent past and go back to my very first speech as the Acting Secretary. Now, an acting secretary is someone—and any of you who have been beaten by the Jesuit order—is somebody who is, but isn’t. And I have to say that during that time the very first speaking engagement that I accepted was at the Women in Military Service Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And I’m going to talk a little bit about that. I’m going to take speaker’s privilege and get off script for a minute. I think it’s fitting that I’m back here in Atlanta, because when I addressed some of you in Arlington, I talked about a second American revolution.

You already know what part of the country I’m from, and we know who led that second American revolution. We know the spirits who did it; we know the battlefields—the spirits being people with names like King, Abernathy, Lewis, Andrew Young; the battlefields, Birmingham, Montgomery, here in Atlanta.

But there was somebody else who began a quiet, but profound revolution at that same time. She left the University of Alabama to join the United States Air Force at a time when my father was commissioned, and a time when the make-up of the Armed Forces of the United States consisted of less than one half of one percent America’s fighting women.

So she embarked on her career in the Air Force and did not do what was expected of her. She volunteered for Vietnam at the same time my father went, but she volunteered to go with the bombers. And at the end of her career, she was a Brigadier General of the United States Air Force. You know General Wilma Vaught. It was my great honor to recognize her at that ceremony.

But, I also recognized her for another reason, and that is for the continuum that she began back in the 1950s. Because prior to that speech, I had represented the prime minister of Canada and the President of the United States at a ceremony in Denver honoring the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the North American Air Defense Command. And the commander of the North American Air Defense Command was four-star Air Force General Lori Robinson—the ultimate manifestation of the work that Wilma Vaught began back in the 1950s.

So that’s why it is important and an honor for me to be here.

. . .

I am the son of a field artillery officer. I grew up at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg. But the reason I bring up field artillery is that the most famous instances of field artillery glory—actually the first one began at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The Continental Army was a mess. It had fallen back under the relentless charge of the Grenadier Guards. Washington’s army was breaking. He had lost control. And all of a sudden two women known to history as Molly Pitcher—but known to their friends as Molly Corbin and Molly Hayes—manned two field artillery pieces and began with their own efforts to break up the charge of the most ferocious warriors in the world, the guards of the king.

And it was Washington himself who saw what they were doing. And he rallied the Continental infantry behind those weapons. And the day was saved. And some would argued, that the revolution itself was saved.

So the story that you all make manifest is not new. But let me give you statistics to show you why what you’re doing is so important for the future of our country.

I mentioned that when General Vaught and my father joined the military the population of fighting women was half of one percent. Today the active force is 17 percent [women]. There are about 250,000 American women deployed in every corner of the world, on the front lines, manning freedom’s cause. They are now the fastest growing single group in the Armed Forces of the United States. And as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, they are the fastest growing group in our world.

About 10 percent of the Department of Veteran Affairs is now made up of fighting women who have served their country. My guess is that by the time my children are into their careers, that that number will rise to about 17, 18, perhaps 20 percent.

So we are on the cusp of a great change. This is not my father’s or my grandfather’s VA. It is now your VA. And in order to meet that change, we have to change the way we do business.

That means in terms of making the institution more welcoming. When I go about filling critical spaces in the VA world, I look to three things. I look to mental health. I look to primary care providers. I look to those who specialize in women’s health. The VA has to change to accommodate America’s change.

So that is why I’m here, to thank you for leading the charge in this continuation of that revolution that I talked about, that began not too far from here, down the interstate, at the University of Alabama with General Vaught.

I will tell you, it is my pledge to you that the VA will become a welcoming home for all those who have worn the uniform.

I do want to talk a little bit about what I believe VA stands for. And I’m going to go back to history. I’ve often used a story from General Eisenhower. Eisenhower had just been elected President. And he found out that the President of the United States had a yacht. It was called Williamsburg. Now, President Eisenhower, being a man of the heartland, thought that a presidential yacht was an extravagance unworthy of a democracy at war. And he ordered it scrapped.

But there was one person whose orders General Eisenhower could not countermand and that was Mamie. And Mamie said, “No. Don’t scrap it. Only take it out when warriors are on board.” So he did.

And about five months after his inauguration, he had it taken out, and there were 40 Korean War soldiers on board—many missing limbs, some horribly disfigured. And, of course, if you’ve seen any activity in Washington involving the high and the mighty, you know that before Ike got out of his car, the Secret Service had deployed and were running up the plank to separate the President from his troops.

And all of a sudden, a bark that only a General of the Army could deliver came out and said, “Halt. Get behind me.” And he walked up, and he asked to address those Veterans at attention. And those who could stand, did. And Eisenhower said, “We can never compensate you for what you have given to America. You exist every day to remind your fellow citizens that the price of freedom is never free. And you exist every day to remind them, by not putting away your uniform, that your fellow citizens sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices that you’ve made.”

I think that goes double for this group. You exist to remind your fellow citizens of two things—the great changes that have overcome, overwhelmed our country in the last sixty or seventy years. That’s one. But you also exist to remind your fellow citizens that they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices of women who came before you, and the women who are on the front lines today.

I’m not going to use the rest of this time to give you a A-B-Cs of what Veterans Affairs will be doing, other than to say that we have a new leadership team in place. Almost all of them have shared your experiences. They have been in Kuwait. They are men and women. In fact, my Chief of Staff, Colonel Pamela Powers, just retired from many years in the United States Air Force. They know what you’ve gone through. They will be helping me work with you to make sure that our VA is welcoming for all Americans—all Americans who have fought and carried on the battle.

One last thing I will say. You will hear me talk about it. I actually am one of those people—and I get in trouble for saying this—I don’t believe in singling out any group and call them the greatest generation. I’ve been privileged to see this military life from many angles—as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier. In fact, the Bible that I took my oath on was carried into battle by my wife’s grandfather. He was 18. He probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina. But by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-Élysées into the bloody cauldron of the Meuse Argonne.

On another part of that battlefield was a young Marine named Opha Johnson. Now what was special about her? Well, a woman being in the Marine Corps in 1918 was, to say the least, rather unique. But a woman fighting for her country in the United States Marine Corps, before she was even granted the civil right to vote, makes that story an inspiration for all of us.

And the reason I say I don’t believe in labeling any generation the greatest generation, is that those young men and women who have fought in all of our wars since the Revolution, have all experienced the same thing. They’ve experienced the horror of combat. They’ve experienced the longing for home. They have experienced the want of being able to come home to a country that appreciates everything that they have done. And I believe that is why you all are here.

I will leave you with a promise, before my voice goes, that this is your Veterans Affairs Department. The doors are open. We will be making changes to make sure that the needs of our fighting women are taken care of, and that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be walking with you into the rest of the twenty-first century.

So I thank you. I thank you for everything that you have done. And I thank you for everything that are doing. And I look forward in the coming months and years to getting to know as many of you as possible.

So God bless you, and God bless the country.

Thank you all.