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

Appeals Modernization Act Implementation Ceremony
Washington, DC
February 19, 2019

So, I mentioned the byproduct of athletic mediocrity [referring to his foot in a cast]. I have to tell you, I was profiled by my university magazine, Wake Forest [Magazine]. And instead of cataloging my excellence on the athletic field, they cataloged the number of broken bones that I had during my career. But this is a school whose football dorm is named after Arnold Palmer, which ought to tell you something.

It is a great day. Churchill’s advice was to be bold, be brief, and be gone. And I have often talked about his great rhetorical antagonist the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. And Shaw sent a note to Churchill before the opening night of his play Pygmalion, which was turned into My Fair Lady by Lerner and Lowe about 40 years later. He said, “Dear Winston, please come to the opening night of my play. Bring a friend, if you have one.” To which Churchill said, “Dear Shaw, occupied by the business of government. Will come to the second night of your play, if there is one.” And then later that week, Shaw was walking across Parliament Square in London, and he saw the former prime minister James Ramsey McDonald coming toward him. This is a man Churchill said was a sheep in sheep’s clothing. And he said, “Shaw, I’ve been asked to give the commencement address at Oxford, and they’ve only given me 15 minutes. How could I possibly tell those young Britain’s everything I know in fifteen minutes?” And Shaw said, “Speak very slowly.”

I will try to do more justice to this occasion. This occasion is important to me on a family level. Cheryl and I have had discussions about the benefits that I have from my family’s long history of service. My great aunt Lucy Somerville Howorth was the first woman to serve as a judge on the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which is why this issue is so important and vital to me. But let me talk about where we are and how this day stands in the progress of this department.

Paul Lawrence said that he would one-up me by quoting my great hero, Omar Bradley. I have said, in my speeches, that we are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in the history of this department since Omar Bradley ran it. I’m gonna change that presentation now. We are now in the middle of the greatest transformative period in the history of this department. In the last few weeks, those in this department have had their work validated by several things. First of all, Partnership for Public Service for the first time in its history said that the Department of Veterans Affairs is now one of the best places to work in the United States government. Dartmouth, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, said that the Department of Veterans Affairs has healthcare that is [as] good or better than any region in the country. And the American Medical Association said that our wait times are [as] good or better than any in the private sector.

In terms of transformation, with the MISSION Act, with the electronic health record, with the reformation of our supply chain, we are making VA a twenty-first-century healthcare administration. And now, today, we have the fulfillment of the Appeals Modernization Act, on time, for you, for Veterans. There is no greater testament to the work, to the dedication, and to the fact that we have the most outstanding federal workforce in this country than this department’s ability to deliver appeals modernization to 21 million Veterans should they decide to use it.

So, where are we? In the last year, VBA completed over 273,000 appeals actions that resulted in 135,000 resolutions in FY 2018—a massive amount of work. We launched the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program to give every eligible Veteran early access to our system’s benefits, while lowering the number of appeals pending in the legacy system. In short, from the earliest beginnings until today, appeals reform has been about great people and public servants making government work for those we are charged to serve.

Great Alexander Hamilton—before he became a Broadway star—believed that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration. And a good administration, Hamilton believed, is fitted to a nation as much as a coat is to the individual. He was talking about customer service. He was talking about how we interact with those who have borne the battle. I’ve said it before, that it is not up to a Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States to get us to say, Yes. It is up for us to get that Veteran to yes. And customer service means not talking at each other but talking with each other about the needs that all of our Veterans have. So it is my great honor to stand here before the leaders of outstanding Veteran service organizations, the outstanding public servants who come to this, the best place in the federal government to work and, more importantly, to those who have borne the battle.

I will conclude as I have concluded with many of my remarks about what our mission is, because we can never forget it. And that goes back to a thought of General Eisenhower when he visited with those 40 Korean War Veterans on the presidential yacht, Williamsburg, five or six months after he had been inaugurated—men who were either missing limbs or terribly disfigured. He said, “You never put your uniform away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.” And I cannot come up with a better way to describe the mission of this department, the mission of those who have served and continue to serve in Veteran service organizations, [than] that we exist to help America’s Veterans remind their fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.

So I thank you. I thank you for everything you do. We’re in the midst of the most exciting period in this department’s history. And it’s all because of the work of the people in front of me.

So thank you. And God Bless.