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

Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention
Dena’ina Convention Center, Anchorage, Alaska
October 20, 2018

Thank you. Thank you all. And thanks Senator Sullivan. He’s had the privilege of voting on me twice in the last year, and, thankfully, it was affirmative.

And it is an honor to be here. And Julie, thank you for your kind welcome.

I want to say something. I have had the privilege of seeing this great state through the eyes of a child. My grandfather, at different times in his career, was the port captain in Valdez. And my father would often spend summers with his artillery units up at Wainwright. When I come here now and see the astounding growth, the continued patriotism, and the beauty of this state, it is very obvious that America’s future points to the north and to the west. So thank you very much for having me.

I also want to especially recognize the tribal elders here this morning and those watching from remote parts of this state and around the world. As one who spent a good deal of his youth among the nations of the Great Plains, it is an honor to be with you. And I will say . . . because of my upbringing, I will affirm my deep respect for your tribal governments. And on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I honor your tribal sovereignty.

I was sworn-in a few months ago, two months ago, and I was sworn in the Oval Office. And I had the honor of having my hand placed on a bible that was carried into battle by my wife’s grandfather in 1918. He had a story that was similar to many young Alaskans in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and today. He had probably never ventured much beyond two or three counties in North and South Carolina. But by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-Élysées into the bloody horror of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

And there were words on the back of that Bible that are still there. They were written in pencil 100 years ago that said, “If found, please return to my mother. These words mean much to me.” And I think that says a lot. But it also says a lot about the Veterans of this great state. I’m inspired by your bravery and by your warrior tradition. Your service and sacrifice has been made manifest for over a hundred years in World War II with the territorial guard and the Eskimo scouts.

The unknown story of Alaska’s service is that those who could not formally join the military, from ages 80 down to 12, still signed up. Over 6,000 served the United States of America without pay and at great sacrifice. They served fearlessly, and it is my privilege to honor their service. But today, Alaska peoples are serving in the same manner and with the same ferocity as your ancestors.

You serve in the military of the United States at a higher rate than any group of Americans. Roughly 140,000 of America’s service members trace their ancestry back to America’s native people. Thirty-one thousand Alaskans serve in the Armed Forces of the United States, standing watch and serving freedom’s cause. It is what Senator Sullivan calls “Alaska’s special kind of patriotism.”

So like you, I come from a family of warriors, even though my service, compared to many of you, is modest. This Veterans Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars. Sadly, that didn’t come true. But 12,000 of your fellow Alaskans took up a call to arms and went with over two million of their fellow Americans to plant the American flag in Europe and on the world. And it is their service that I will be privileged to honor when we celebrate Veterans Day at Arlington Cemetery.

Thanks to them—your ancestors, and mine—they were able to put down their arms and return home in the hope that peace would spread throughout the world. Over the past few days I have seen how Veterans Affairs work in your communities to deliver health and benefits across this magnificent state. I have been to the Alaska Native Medical Center, to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and to the Southcentral Foundation at the Anchorage Native Primary Care Center. And here is what I learned.

You have created an amazing system, an infrastructure that took decades to develop and cultivate. I will say, on behalf of my department and on behalf of the President of the United States that we would do well across the United States to emulate the system that you have created to serve Veterans across the lower forty-eight.

The greatest lesson that I learned is that you help Veterans Affairs more than we help you, and I thank you very much. I have also learned how critical VA’s reimbursement agreements with the Alaska tribal health programs are by providing access to care for all Alaska native Veterans and, just as importantly, for non-native residents of this wonderful state.

Since 2012, the VA has reimbursed the tribal health programs over thirty-one million dollars while serving American Indian, Alaska native, and non-native Veterans. So, we are renewing. And I’m happy to say to you, we are renewing all reimbursement agreements with the tribal health programs, including the 26 right here in Alaska through the year 2022, and I’m proud to tell you that.

Senator Sullivan mentioned the MISSION Act, and I will say that it is the greatest transformative legislation in VA’s history since that day when General Omar Bradley was faced with the prospect within a five-week period of watching 11 million Americans demobilize and suddenly enter the ranks of VA. We are on the verge of a period of revolution just as great as that. What our MISSION Act will do, more importantly, for Alaska, is that it will consolidate community care programs into one single program that will make it easier for Veterans, families, community providers, and employees to navigate. We are finally expanding our services to recognize the contribution of families who provide care for those warriors from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. And it is long past time that we pay that debt.

I will also affirm in your presence my support as a member of the President’s cabinet and a friend of the Secretary of the Interior that you have my full engagement for the Alaska Native Equity Allotment Act. As Senator Murkowski mentioned from Iceland, it is long past time that we close the circle on what we owe the warriors who came back from Vietnam.

Alaska is the crucible when it comes to looking at how VA should work because of what you do here. The most important work of Veterans Affairs happens at the local level. Only by way of strong communities can we do the most to improve the quality of life for our service members, Veterans, and their families, caregivers, and survivors. You are a Veteran’s advocate. You are the ones who have the greatest stake in continuing the work of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Here in Alaska, it’s the Alaska Coalition for Veterans and Military Families directed by Megan James. That is the template for our future. But I ask you today, because of the unique nature of this beautiful state and its remote corners spread out over thousands of miles to help us get all of Alaska’s warriors enrolled in the VA system. Help us make sure that every resource gets to the Veterans and their families who have earned and deserve the benefits that our country can give. Less than half of the Veterans in this great state are enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is my pledge to work with you, Senator Sullivan, Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young, and your state government to make sure that in this, the most vibrant of warrior communities in the United States of America, that we leave no Veteran behind.

If there is a case of how this will work, it is Troy Wise from Homer, a Vietnam Veteran. It took him and us 42 years to get him into VA. And now he is working with Veterans across this state to ensure that they never undergo what he did. So everyone should be helping. Your 350 tribal Veterans representatives are there. They are there to reach out to the far reaches of Alaska, and they have the full, full cooperation of the Federal Government in Washington. They are volunteers. They are volunteers just like the Eskimo Scouts and the Territorial Guards. Veterans’ future in this state is in their hands, and it is in your hands. And Alaska has shown throughout its magnificent history that there are no better hands to carry our Veterans and our national security forward.

I want to close, again, with what I’ve been saying across the country in the short time that I have been allowed to be the keeper of the flame that so many Alaskans have carried for their entire lives, and that is, what does Veterans Affairs mean? What it means is that those of you who have chosen to serve America never put away your uniform. You live to remind your fellow citizens that the price of freedom is never free. You live and you prosper to remind your fellow citizens that they sleep soundly at night because of your sacrifices. There is no better testament to the will of the American people than the sacrifice of thousands and thousands of Alaskans over the years. You are on watch for freedom. It is my honor to be part of your cause.

And I thank you. God bless you. And I look forward to spending a lot more time in this wonderful state.

Thank you all very much.