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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

National Press Club
Washington, DC
November 9, 2018

Thank you, Derek [Wallbank, Chair, NPC Board of Governors].

For those of you who don’t know, Derek’s father was a warrior, and his mother devoted 21 years of her life to the VA as a nurse. That is a wonderful testament.

I also want to acknowledge someone who you’ve already cheered, and that is Senator Dole from my home state of North Carolina. There is no finer family of patriots than the Doles, and it is always an honor for me to be in your presence, ma’am.

So I have to tell the, the members of the press I finally made it to the press club.

Winston Churchill, when he came to the Congress to deliver his first address to the Joint Session after we had declared war on Japan, and Germany had declared war on us, he pulled Speaker Rayburn aside, and he said, “Mr. Speaker, my mother was American, and my father was English. If it had been the other way around I would have made it here on my own accord.”

I think I started as many of you in the press did. I was a high school newspaper editor spending hours cutting out column inches on boards. But I did have at my desk in my high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a dog-eared copy of Dan Rather’s book The Camera Never Blinks and the collected broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow put together by probably the greatest American raconteur of the twentieth century, the great Bennet Cerf, the founder of Random House. And in my upbringing, I wanted to be one of Murrow’s boys—Cronkite, Sevareid, Richard C. Hottelet—and make true what Cronkite said, that the members of this profession are on the front lines of history.

So it is an honor for me to be here. Some of you have heard me speak before, and I’ve said that 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 as a senior leader in the Pentagon. I’ve spent my entire life watching those who have borne the battle, and I have tragically seen this business through the eyes of classmates and friends in Fort Sill and Fort Bragg whose fathers did not come back from Vietnam. And it is those experiences as to why I am humbled and proud to be part of the VA team.

And, given that background, it may seem a little odd for somebody like me to constantly contemplate the meaning of service and what it means to be a Veteran. I had the great privilege when I started off in this business to get to know a fellow named Ned Beach, Captain, United States Navy. You all know him as the author of Run Silent, Run Deep. For many years he was President Eisenhower’s Naval Aid before he ran the Senate Armed Services Committee staff for many years on Capitol Hill. And he told me about a story from General Eisenhower’s first year as president.

He had thought to scrap the presidential yacht Williamsburg because he thought that it was an extravagance unworthy of a democracy at war. But the one person whose orders the general could not countermand, Meme, said “No. Take it out. But only take warriors on it.” So the first time he took it out there were forty Korean War soldiers—some missing limbs and others horribly disfigured. And you know the Washington kabuki dance. As soon as the President arrived at the pier, the Secret Service launched to separate the President from his troops. And as only a five-star General of the Army could do, Eisenhower yelled, “Halt! Get behind me. I know these men.” And he walked up on the deck of that ship, and he asked those who could, to stand at attention. And when he addressed them he said, “You have one charge for me. You never put away your uniform. You live to remind your fellow citizens every day that the cost of freedom is never free, and they sleep soundly at night because of your sacrifices.”

I can think of no better way to describe the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs than to say that we exist to provide America’s Veterans with the means to remind their fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night. And that is why it is such an honor for me to be part of that team.

This weekend will mark the 100th anniversary of the sadly named War to End All Wars. On the 11th day, the 11th hour, the 11th month, millions of men emerged from the trenches that had cut across Europe like scars to breathe the smell of peace for the first time. In my family, it was a personal adventure. My great-grandfather left a small-town law practice in the Mississippi Delta and a part-time teaching job at Ole Miss to join the Army assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from him was an infantry outfit that had a reluctant farmer—a reluctant farmer and a reluctant soldier from Pall Mall, Tennessee, who would go on to become the greatest American hero of that war.

In another part of Georgia was my wife’s grandfather, a teenager who had 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 hell of the Meuse-Argonne.

Needham Roberts and William Henry Johnson were already there by the time my wife’s grandfather and my great-grandfather arrived. They were members of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment from New York. It was a unit comprised of African American warriors from New York and New Jersey. They were the first to launch from the American expeditionary force. Fifteen hundred of them were casualties. They served in the lines longer than any other American regiment of that war. And just a few years ago President Obama righted a great wrong by awarding them the Congressional Medal of Honor almost one hundred years after their gallantry.

Less celebrated on that front was a nearsighted farmer from Jackson County, Missouri. He lied and cheated to get into the field artillery because he could not bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war without him being there to support them. And he would go on to become one of the greatest presidents in our history.

So there they are—my great-grandfather Captain Abrams Somerville, Sergeant Alvin York, my wife’s grandfather Private Onslow Bullard, Corporals Needham Robertson and William Johnson, and Captain Harry S. Truman. They are the testament to the millions of ordinary Americans called from every walk of life to perform extraordinary deeds and, from them, to allow the American nation to erupt onto the world stage in a place that we have never left since those dark days.

This day is for them.

But, it is also for the members of the press. In World War I, correspondents were called upon to achieve extraordinary things, as well. But they were stopped from telling the truth by the impenetrable censorship of their government and the clutter of propaganda. It was only after the armistice that they were allowed to come home to tell the real story of what happened to those valiant Americans during that time, reporting what Dickie Chappelle once said was “[t]he wreckage resulting from man’s inhumanity to man.”

Now, she was the one who covered Okinawa and Iwo Jima. And she always said, “When I die I want to die in the company of the United States Marines.” She died in Vietnam alongside those Marines. She was the first American female war correspondent to give her life in action, and during that war, 62 reporters, editors, and photographers gave the last full measure of devotion. When Dickie Chappelle died, the commandant of the United States Marine Corp said she died as “one of us.”

Now, she mentored many of your heroes. One of them was a UPI correspondent who showed up at LZ X-Ray by the name of Joe Galloway. Galloway told us that the Marines had a longstanding love affair with Dickie. She died with her head in the lap of an AP correspondent and with a priest’s hand on her head giving her the last rites. Galloway learned of her death while he was fighting in LZ X-Ray in an action for which he earned the Bronze Star. Four civilian reports from the Vietnam War were decorated for their courage in combat, in each case, rescuing American warriors who were wounded. Galloway was one. Charlie Moore, who once was said of by Jimmy Carter that “you knew the story was true when you saw Charlie Moore’s by-line, even though it criticized me.” H.D.S. Greenway of Time. And Alvin Webb of UPI. All warriors in the service of their country.

As I said, there were 63 of them. And more names are added to the war correspondents’ memorial every year. And so I say on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs to all of those correspondents who were on the front line of freedom, thank you for everything you do to keep our country safe and keep truth at the front of all of our endeavors.

So, let me know turn to the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs. As it has been said, I have been at VA for 100 days, and as I said under oath to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the state of VA is better. It is better because of the bipartisan consensus in this town that the one department that should be above partisan ranking—other than the Department of Defense—is the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is better because of the devotion of 370,000 Americans who have chosen to give their lives to the service of veterans, and as such, are committed to the mission that I believe is the most noble in the Federal Government. And it is better because we have a more experienced team in place, all with military experience, all who speak the language of service. And I will say, and it’s a bit self-indulgent, but I do believe as I have testified in Congress that the turmoil of the first half of this year at the Department of Veterans Affairs is over.

I mentioned by experiences both with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Rumsfeld, and now at the VA. And now, more than ever, we are seeing the need of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to work together, to provide quality care for all of our active reserve and Veterans for the good of this country.

Congress has done what no Congress has ever done. They have given us the road map for success. They have passed the MISSION Act. They have passed the Accountability Act, which allows the leadership of our department to shake up the complacency that has been written about so much. And they have strengthened our ability to making the right decisions on behalf of America’s Veterans.

Over the past 100 days I have been in 19 VA medical centers everywhere from Anchorage to Orlando to Las Vegas to Boston. I have visited our Veterans’ treatment centers, a Veterans Treatment Court in Baltimore. I have talked with our VSO, small clubs across the country, and I have been amazed at the dedication and the fervor for which Americans think of Veterans. But it was apparent to me in those travels that the face of the American Veteran is changing at a pace that we have not realized. For the first time, since the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than half of our Veterans are under the age of 65. They are computer savvy. They expect quick service. And they expect that service to be given to them closer to home. They expect service that is available, accessible, and cost effective. So it is an integrated VA, an integrated Veterans benefits and healthcare system that is agile and adaptive that will do what they need it to do. And that is my goal to provide them with that service.

I have said on many of my trips that I have seen wonderful examples of VA accomplishments. Accomplishments that deserve more attention than they normally get. Not enough Veterans or the American people know that the VA care system continues to out-perform the private sector in the quality of care and patient care that we give to America’s warriors. We are at the cutting edge of medical technology, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord treatment, opioid management, mental health care, tele-health, and community care. Community care is where one third of our veteran’s appointments reside. And for the first time in many years, as has been reported by many of you, our overall VA customer satisfaction rate is finally on a steady rise.

So today we are working to give veterans more choice in their healthcare decisions because of the MISSION Act. We are increasing accountability and protecting whistleblowers with the Whistleblower Act. We are improving transparency. VA is the first hospital system in this country to post wait times, opioid prescription rates, accountability settlements, and, more importantly, chief executive travel. We are adopting the same electronic healthcare record as the DoD so that there is finally a seamless transition from active and reserve service into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

I will tell you, from a personal note, why that is important. My father was gravely wounded in Vietnam. After three years of recovery, he returned to the 82nd Airborne Division. After thirty years in the service, he retired. But after a lifetime of physical punishment he came out of the service needing two new knees, two new hips, had a bad back, and had lead in his body left over from the invasion of Cambodia. For the rest of my father’s life, he carried around an 800-page paper record. If it is anything to do with me and to the team that I am proud to lead, those warriors will no longer have that burden, and we will finally have an interoperable medical record for them to carry forth for their benefit.

So in my view, we are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in the history of VA, at least since Omar Bradley sat in the chair that I now occupy. And when people come up to me and say with a scowl or a look of amazement, “Why did you take VA and aren’t the problems intractable,” I think about General Bradley. Think about this. Eight weeks after he became the head of the Veterans Administration, 11 million Americans demobilized. Omar Bradley had to create a system to take care of not only those who had survived World War I, but 11 million Americans who were coming off of the active roles, coming home, needing a place for their medical care, needing a place to implement the GI Bill. And he did it without computers. He did it with carbon paper and a telephone. And that is why I am so honored to be part of an organization that he created, and that is why no problem is insurmountable today.

So let me describe my four priorities for VA and the veterans that we serve. My number one priority is customer service. First, not necessarily in the way that you think of it. Customer service within the VA—cutting across compartments and cross-pollenating ideas in people so there’s no longer homesteading in one office. We have to share our ideas with each other and instead of talking at each other talking with and to each other. That is the first, first commandment.

But also, for the customer service that you are acquainted with. When an American Veteran comes to VA, it is not up to him or her to employ a team of lawyers to get into the system. It is up to us to say yes to all of those who have borne the battle. It is up to us to train all of our employees to get that Veteran to yes.

I mentioned the MISSION Act. That’s priority number two. It will fundamentally transform our healthcare by consolidating all of our community care programs into one single program that is easier for our Veterans to navigate, it is easier for their families to navigate, and it is easier for their community providers to navigate. The MISSION Act finally expands family caregiver support. We have finally righted a great wrong of the 1960s, 70s and 80s by saying to those families who support the warriors from Vietnam that you are now on an equal footing, and we finally say, “Thank you for everything you have done for this country.”

So I mentioned the electronic heath record. And it is more than providing just an iterative history of a Veteran’s health. It is about automating our disability claims and payment claim system, connecting VA to DOD and, more importantly, connecting VA to the private sector. So for the first time when someone who visits the VA facilities in my hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, goes out to a private pharmacy or a community hospital, that pharmacy, that community hospital will be able to augment that Veteran’s healthcare record. So we at VA do two things. We remain as the central node in all of our veterans’ health, but we have a complete picture of what that veteran is experiencing, and what we need to do to help him.

The other part of that that I insisted when I approved this as the Acting Secretary was to find a way to allow VA to address the opioid epidemic. We are doing miracles. Our opioid prescription rate is down 51 percent. We have launched into the world of alternative therapies. Bob Wallace of the VFW is sitting out there. He’s of my father’s generation. If I had gone to him in the 1970s and told him that in order to [alleviate] the burdens of the wounds that he carried from Vietnam with tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture—if he didn’t punch me in the nose he would have just looked at me with a quizzical expression. But we are on the front lines of those alternative treatments in order to get the pain that our veterans come to us with down.

And for the opioid, this is how I envision it happening. If a veteran comes in to the Durham VA in Durham, North Carolina, that Senator Dole knows so well, and we give him medicine for pain, and if he happens to go to a pharmacy in Durham or an adjoining county and that doctor gives him something to make him sleep, that doctor then punches in that prescription to the VA system and the doctors and nurses at the Durham VA now know that we have an American warrior who is on a dangerous spectrum—either on a spectrum that indicates abuse, addiction, or possibly worse. The alarm flags will go up.

The same applies for indicators for mental health and suicide. We have to get this right to protect our Veterans and to address those maladies that are not just impacting Americans, but impacting our Veterans at a far greater rate than the general population. And this is the road to making that happen.

And fourth, we have to transform our business systems. If General Bradley walked in today, he would recognize a department that really hasn’t changed much since he and Harry Truman were in charge. The reason I know that, Colonel Powers, my Chief of Staff, discovered a series of letters from Harry Truman to the Department of Veterans Affairs warning the department about consultants, warning the department about excessive costs, but also warning the department to engage in modern business practices to allow our hospitals and clinics to function efficiently so that the Veteran gets the best service. Those warnings that Harry Truman put up in the 1940s are still with us, and in many cases, the issues have not changed.

But transforming business as President Truman envisioned means transforming our human resource system, our finance system, and, more importantly, our supply chain. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs engaged in four million individual credit card transactions, buying everything from x-ray machines to boxes of tongue depressors. The cost was in billions. We can no longer afford to have a haphazard supply chain that as, some of you have reported in here, has forced, in many cases, doctors to run across the street from one hospital to another, to get the equipment that they need. It doesn’t happen often. But only one time is enough if involves the life or death of an American veteran. So that is business transformation.

The other thing that I found out when I addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives a few weeks ago is that in a state like Alaska more than half of the veterans in that state are not part of the VA system. I asked the Alaskan natives to double the number of tribal representatives to help us get out into the wilds of that state and bring our veterans into the system. But that applies to the rest of the country. We need more robust relationships with our state and local governments, our community leaders, to finally get a handle on homelessness and to prevent veteran suicide. The good news is, as you’ve seen, is that the rate of veteran suicide has ticked down a little bit. Veterans homelessness has gone down a great bit. But we need to keep working.

The other area that is of vital importance, and I will once again give you a personal history. When my father was commissioned in the field artillery two months before John Kennedy was inaugurated, less than one half of one percent of the force was female. During my time as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, I looked at a manning document that said 17 percent of the active duty and reserve force was female. That means ten percent of the population of the Department of Veterans Affairs, those warriors that we serve, are American women.

We are adjusting our VA so that it is no longer your granddaddy’s VA. It meets the unique needs of American women who have chosen to volunteer and raise their hand to serve and fight for this country.

I have, in my short time, learned many things about VA that I did not know. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the response of this department to the hurricanes that impacted my southeast, Florence and Michael. I did not know until I became the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs that the foundational department for our emergency response to natural disasters is not FEMA. It’s not the Department of Commerce. It’s nobody. It’s the Department of Veterans Affairs.

We’re the ones who deploy the mobile pharmacies, the mobile clinics, the mobile nutrition centers. We employ emergency teams of nurses, engineers, and doctors. Prior to those storms hitting, hundreds, yes thousands of VA employees went into the communities of North Carolina and South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia and brought out Veterans with spinal cord needs. We distributed oxygen to all of our veterans who needed that oxygen. We made sure that dialysis was up to date and ready.

The best story I heard, and I see my friend, Virginia Johnson from North Carolina, here today, was when I visited Wilmington, and a spinal cord patient in Wilmington was evaluated. He was evacuated to Athens, Georgia. And because of the unique nature of the wounds he had suffered in 2002, he got to Athens, and our VA did not have the proper bed to use to treat him. The VA employees in Wilmington, North Carolina, got that bed to Athens and that veteran was able to rest comfortably even though his house had probably been destroyed by the hurricane that hit the southeastern part of my state.

So that is a testament to what I said at the beginning, that this is a noble mission and that even though I am a temporary custodian of the flame that 370,000 of my fellow Americans carry because of the decision that they made to join VA, I am very honored to be part of their team.

It is an equal honor to be here at the National Press Club—not only with those who serve our veterans, who have served in uniform, but also with the wonderful fraternity and sorority of journalists who have put their lives on the line to tell the truth, but also to serve the cause of freedom in their own special way.

And I thank you all for coming and I hope you have a wonderful and reflective Veteran’s Day.

Thank you all very much.