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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

48th Annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference Veterans Braintrust
Washington, DC
September 14, 2018

(Watch Secretary Wilkie deliver his remarks here.)

Thank you, Congressman Bishop. It’s an honor. It is also an honor to share the podium with Colonel Brown, Sergeant Rangel, and Congressman Takano—it’s nice to see you, too, sir. 

I’m going to digress here and get off of the script, which I think this lofty position allows me to do. You probably tell from my accent that I am from the deep south. And in the deep south, we are very much about remembrance and homecoming. And in my view, the Black Caucus is about remembrance and homecoming, too.

And in the last month and half, we’ve lost two mighty warriors. The first you heard the American people talk a lot about is John McCain—a great man, a great man who was worthy of everything that was said about him. But I’m going to tell you a little bit about somebody that you all know, whose contribution to the people of the United States and to the warriors of America was no less important.

He grew up in a place where he played baseball with Frank Robinson and Curt Flood in high school. He could have been them. But he decided to go into the United States Marine Corp and then devote the rest of his life to serving the cause of Veterans and peace. And it was probably the most American of experiences, because he was known for being an anti-war activist, but he was also known for promoting the lives of soldiers. 

I had the unique opportunity to give this man bad news. Now, I was a thirty-something staffer for the Senate Majority Leader. I walked in on his office, and he was six-foot-seven and looking down at me. And I had to tell him that the United States Senate had let him down. Now, that was not a very inviting prospect. But Congressman Rangel will know that what happened next was something that he experienced during his entire career with this gentleman. He reached out his hand. He said, “I thank you for the honor of conveying the Senate’s message to me. And good luck to you.”

We miss a man of that stamp.  

The last thing I will say is we did share one other thing in common. We were both awarded the Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, which is the highest civilian award of the department. He was much more deserving than I. So I want to say on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I am honored to speak of Congressman Ronald Dellums. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of “The War to End all Wars.” Unfortunately, it didn’t end wars. But I have often said that there’s no “Greatest Generation.” The reason I say that—I’m the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier. My service is modest compared to my ancestors’, compared to the men on this dais, as compared to the men and women in the audience. There’s no special generation for warriors. They all experienced the same emotions—fear, a sense of duty, a sense of duty to their fellow soldiers, and the same dreams, the same dreams to come home to a land of hope and a land that values not only their service, but values their citizenship. And I think World War I is forgotten for the wrong reasons, because out of it came the beginnings a movement that changed the country.

But let me tell you a little bit about why I talk about it. The Bible that I used in my swearing-in was carried into battle by my wife’s grandfather. He was enlisted in the Army when he was 17.  Now, he 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, where in a matter of minutes he saw thousands of young people die. In the back of that Bible was an inscription written in pencil that said, “Please return to my mother. These words mean a great deal to me.” I don’t know that there’s a better expression of the prayer of a soldier than “Return to my mother, because the words of this book mean so much to me.” 

Another part of that battlefield was less heralded, and I’m glad the Congressman is here, because he has probably done more along with General Powell to remind Americans of the sacrifices of all Americans.

I want to talk about two men. Needham Roberts, who hailed from Trenton, New Jersey, who served in the 369th Infantry, an outfit that you know very well. He had a buddy from Albany, New York, named William Henry Johnson. They were commanded by a legend, James Reese Europe, who not only was a legend on the battlefield, but he was a legend in the culture of the United States of America. 

The 369th Infantry was in combat longer than any other American unit in The Great War. Roberts and Johnson fought alongside the French Army’s 161st Division. And it was their commander who awarded these two men from New Jersey and New York the first Croix de Guerre—the first Croix de Guerre, the highest award the French Army could bestow to these young Americans.

In hand-to-hand combat, they killed 141 German soldiers. A grenade wounded private Roberts in the arm, and he still fought on. The Germans were terrified by the ferocity of that Harlem infantry unit. And the Kaiser himself was heard to mutter at his headquarters at Spa that hellfighters had descended upon the German Army.

We now know this unit as the Harlem Hellfighters. And I was proud to be in the East Room of the White House when President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to those warrior-Americans, an honor that should have been bestowed in 1918. 

Americans must also know the story of people like Charlie Rangel. And I won’t embarrass him. I had the pleasure of knowing him when I served in the Office of the Senate Majority Leader. And he was kind enough to my father to say that my father was a great warrior. The Congressman at the time knew from the Senate Majority Leader that my father had been gravely wounded in Vietnam. He was big man. He went to Vietnam the second time six-two, 240. And he came back to us after a year in an Army hospital weighing 115 pounds. Congressman Rangel knew that story. And he said that “You sir, are the true warriors that know. You survived Korea.”

Let me tell you what this great man of the House of Representatives did. He was in a convoy. The convoy was overwhelmed by Chinese soldiers. He led 40 soldiers to safety, suffered terrible wounds, and made sure that they were out of harm’s way. As a result, he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor. Sir, it is an honor for me to be here.

I’ve told these stories for a reason, because Roberts, and Johnson, and my ancestors, Charlie Rangel—we at the Department of Veterans Affairs are charged with not only taking care of those who still live with us, but we are charged with taking care of the descendants of those who have sacrificed so much for this nation and the promise of this nation. The Department of Veterans Affairs, as Congressman Bishop said, is about serving all of those who have borne the battle. 

So let me just go from the sublime to the everyday and tell you about a lot of the changes that are occurring in our department that, I believe, will take us on the path to making the Department of Veterans Affairs a twenty-first-century health administration.

One of my top priorities is to finally create an electronic health record system where people like my father no longer have to carry around an 800-page paper record, so that the for first time, when a young American enters service, there will be a complete record from the day he or she walks into that processing station to the day that Veteran comes in the for first time to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We will have a continuous, holistic record.

This Congress—particularly the efforts of Congressman Bishop, Congressman Takano, and their colleagues—have given us the MISSION Act. This will also transform Veterans healthcare. It gives Veterans more choice. But, more importantly, finally, it recognizes the services of those families—the families of soldiers of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam who take care of their warriors—by finally getting them the assistance that they need. 

And as the Congressman said, for the unique needs of America’s warriors in our urban communities and those who still live in the heartland and the farms, what this does is it finally says to those young Americans who are at Morehouse, and at Drew, and at Howard, when you’re in medical school, if you want to come work with Veterans at the VA, we will make sure that you are paid through medical school. 

So to succeed in all of this, we have to transform the way we do business practices, to get beyond the structure that would have been really available to General Bradley, Omar Bradley, when he sat in the chair that I now occupy. We have to bring Veterans Affairs into the twenty-first century.

And my prime directive to our folks is customer service. Not just customer service in the way that you or I know it, but customer service amongst the employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One of the jobs I believe I have is to tell America of the good work that the men and women of the Department of Veterans Affairs do on a day-to-day basis. As we sit here today, our employees are poised with emergency equipment, with emergency vehicles, with doctors, nurses, engineers, and social workers to enter North Carolina and South Carolina to help all Americans get whole after the devastation of this hurricane. 

Congressman Bishop said something that I don’t think is understood by many in our country. Our country has changed. Our Veterans population has changed. He gave statistics. I will actually give you some more.

When my father was commissioned, two months before the inauguration of John Kennedy, less than one half of one percent of the force was female. Today, the active duty force of the Armed Forces in the United States is composed of 17 percent of America’s fighting women. For the Department of Veterans Affairs that means that our current population is ten percent [women Veterans]. This is not my granddaddy’s VA anymore.

When we look at the landscape, there are four things that we must provide—new women’s health services, primary caregivers, internists, and mental health providers. I’m going to go Congressman Bishop one point better. He mentioned the statistics about the make-up of the Armed Forces and the Veterans population by the year 2040. I think he said 35 [percent]. It will be 38 [percent]. And that means we have to change. 

We have to keep working with our most vulnerable Veterans populations. It was this caucus—under the leadership of Congressman Dellums, and Congressman Rangel, and Mickey Leland back in the 1980s—who first raised the alarm on Veterans homelessness. Nobody was talking about that. The Pentagon wasn’t talking about that. At that stage, it was the Veterans Administration. They weren’t talking about that. So you led the way.

The sad thing is that for the warriors of my father’s generation, the greatest number of homeless Veterans, the greatest number of Veterans who are suffering from opioid abuse, and the greatest percentage of Veterans who are being afflicted by the scourge of suicide comes from those who suffered in the rice paddies of Vietnam and were not welcomed when they came home.

This caucus raised the alarm in the 1980s, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that every asset that we have—new funding, funding in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars, new VA workers, new homeless centers, cooperation with our cities and our states . . . for Congressman Bishop’s purpose, I was in Atlanta meeting with the Atlanta leadership and forging a new relationship between the VA and the great city of Atlanta so they can help us identify those warriors who are down on their luck and on the street.

So what does that mean?  It means that our Veterans have earned everything that we can give them.

I will leave you with one story that I am very fond of. And it comes from Dwight Eisenhower himself.  President Eisenhower made a pledge when he was running for President in 1952. He said, “I will go to Korea.” And a couple of months before he was inaugurated, he did. And he told the soldiers there that “I will bring you home.” He did that, although the descendants of those warriors are still on edge and on guard on the demilitarized zone.

But when Eisenhower got back here, he discovered that he was the beneficiary of a Presidential yacht.  It was called the Williamsburg. And Eisenhower, being a man of very modest tastes, said, “No, that is an extravagance unworthy of a democracy at war.” And he ordered it to be scrapped. But there was one person whose orders Eisenhower could not countermand—Mamie.  And she said, “No, keep it. But the only time you take that ship out is when you have American soldiers on it.”

So about five months after he was inaugurated, the President pulled up to the Washington Navy Yard. And on board the yacht were forty soldiers from Korea. Many were horribly disfigured. Some were missing limbs. And of course, you all know the Washington Kabuki dance—as soon as the President arrived the Secret Service ran out to separate the President from his troops. And as only a five-star General of the Army could do, all you heard from the back was, “Halt. Get behind me. I know these men.” And Eisenhower walked up and he asked to address those warriors at attention, and those who could stand, did. And he said, “Gentleman, I have one charge for you. You never put away your uniform. You exist to remind your fellow citizens that the cost of freedom is never free. You exist to remind your fellow Americans why they sleep soundly at night.”

I can think of no better testament to the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I can think of no better testament to the work of the Black Caucus’s Braintrust, to the work of people like Ron Dellums, to the work of Charlie Rangel and Mickey Leland, than to say, we exist to remind Americans why they sleep soundly at night. And we exist to remind Americans of the warrior struggles of all races—and as Congressman Rangel did in his work with General Powell, to bring to the attention of the American people the glories of the Buffalo Soldiers. We should exist to bring to the American people the true stories of people like Roberts, and Johnson, and James Reese Europe, and Charlie Rangel, and people like my father.

So, I thank you all for your kindness to me. I look forward to working with the caucus in the short time that I am allowed to be the keeper of the flame for Veterans.

God bless you for everything you do, and thank you very much.