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

Dedication & Grand Opening, National Veterans Memorial & Museum (NVMM)
Columbus, Ohio
October 27, 2018

Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m going to change my opening. After the Congresswoman gave that remarkable introduction, I’m going to tell her how Columbus, Ohio, affected my life.

Now, I’m not, as someone from the Deep South, going to come up here and talk about football. But my father was very badly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia. He was so badly wounded that we didn’t see him for a year. He was at the Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu, and one day he received a special visit from a retired United States Navy commander by the name of Wayne Woodrow Hayes.

Coach Hayes saw a young officer in distress, and he urged him to get well. “Don’t let the doctors tell you you can’t do it. Get back to Fort Bragg and do what you love, just serve the country.” Coach Hayes had such an affect and impact on my father that when Ohio State ventured down to New Orleans to play Alabama in the 1970’s, my father and I went, and into the cauldron of Bear Bryant worshipers, he wore a hat that read “Woody is God.” (Laughter)

Now, don’t get too happy. Alabama won 35 to 6.

General Powell, General Ferriter, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the Ohio Congressional Delegation, Veterans, and the wonderful people of the Buckeye State.

General Powell, it is an honor to be on the same stage with you. Nobody has given as much to our country in my lifetime. Your example both in uniform and as a global statesman is worthy of everything that makes this country great. (Applause)

And to David Glenn, this facility is testament to the vision of a humble man whose self-effacing patriotism and faith in the American spirit brought this nation together and, as Lincoln said, appealed to the better angels of our nature: Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., United States Marine Corps. (Applause)

So now you know a little bit about my background. I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles—as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer and a senior leader in the Pentagon. I have watched those who have born the battle, and I have seen the world through the eyes of my classmates and friends at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg whose fathers did not come home [from Vietnam].

For those reasons, I am humbled and proud to see this magnificent building rise in the name of America’s Veterans. It may seem odd for someone with my background to constantly contemplate the meaning of service, and the meaning of what it means to be a Veteran, but I think General Eisenhower had it about right.

In 1953 he invited 40 Korean War Veterans onto the Presidential yacht, the Williamsburg. Some were horribly disfigured, others were missing limbs. General Eisenhower said to them that their country could never repay them for what they had given America, but they had a charge from him—that they never put their uniforms away: “You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.”

This museum, this place, reminds all Americans that they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifice of millions of ordinary men and women. It is fitting that this museum opens its doors to America to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars.

A hundred years ago, my great-grandfather left a small-town law practice in Mississippi to join up with the 82nd Infantry Division assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. In another part of the country, my wife’s grandfather, who was a teenager, and had never ventured much beyond two or three counties in North and South Carolina, was preparing to march up the Champs-Élysées, into the bloody cauldron of the Meuse-Argonne, before he was 18.

The Bible that I took my oath on in the Oval Office was carried into battle by him. And the penciled-in inscription on the back said, “If found, please return to my mother, these words mean a great deal to me.”

Needham Roberts and William Johnson were also there, members of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment. A regiment that General Powell and his friend, Charlie Rangel, have spent a lifetime reminding Americans of the heroism of these special Soldiers. This was the first unit composed of African-American soldiers to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. They spent 191 days on the front lines in the trenches, more combat duty than any other regiment in the American Army. They suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other regiment in our Army. The 369th was nicknamed the Hell Fighters by the Germans due to the ferocity that they displayed in battle.

In May of 1918, Johnson and Roberts, alone, fought off a 24-man German patrol. Both were severely wounded, yet they fought ferociously until all their ammunition was expended. And then continued to fight hand-to-hand using a rifle as a club and a bolo knife killing and wounding every one of that German patrol.

Over one hundred soldiers, from the 369th were presented with American and French decorations. Johnson was the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre. In 2015, both Johnson and Roberts finally received the respects of a grateful nation with the Medal of Honor.

Less celebrated as a warrior was a nearsighted farmer from Jackson County Missouri, who cheated to get into the Field Artillery because he could not bear the thought of watching his friends and neighbors go to war and not supporting them. He would go on to become one of the greatest presidents in our history.

So, there they are…, Captain A.D. Summerville, Sergeant Alvin York, Private Onslow Bullard, Corporals Needham Roberts and William Johnson, and Captain Harry S. Truman. This is their museum. This is their place, as it is for all those ordinary citizens who have performed extraordinary deeds in the defense of freedom from Lexington to Afghanistan. All total, more than 41 million American men and women have served during times of war and hundreds of thousands gave America their last full measure.

This place is for them.

And today, in this 21st century, Americans in uniform again bear the burdens of long wars, wars pitting freedom and liberty against fear and oppression. In the future, when generations of Americans, who never met a Veteran from Lexington or Gettysburg or Belleau Wood, or the Meuse-Argonne, they can learn about those warriors here.

When the generation that fought and won at Iwo Jima and the Bulge have all gone, future generations can learn of their service here.

And, when Generations of Americans too young to know much about Vietnam, where General Powell and my father left so much, when they come to visit, this museum will be their teacher.

We owe our warriors a debt we can never repay—but we can remember them and what they did and why they have had to be brave for us. So, standing here, I’m reminded of the plea of General Matthew Ridgeway, when the night before the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne divisions launched the liberation of Europe on June 6th, 1944, tossed sleepless on his couch. As General Powell said at General Ridgeway’s funeral, “That great man listened for the promise that God made to Joshua, I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”

That is the promise of this place in Columbus Ohio. To never forsake those ordinary Americans who have never failed us.

So, thank you to the people of this great state. May God continue to bless our great Nation, and may he bless all the men and women, living and passed, to whom we give thanks for our freedom.

Thank you all very much. (Applause)