Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Ralph H. Johnson VAMC Groundbreaking, North Charleston Outpatient Health Annex
May 3, 2019
Thank you, Mr. Isaacs, Mr. Walsh, Mayor, and Congressman Cunningham—thank you for getting me out of that other swamp.
I am no stranger to this area. Three hundred years ago, my ancestors landed in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved into the up-country. My wife’s family is from Warren County, South Carolina. And I’m going to insult half of the audience here: My son is a student wearing that gaudy orange and purple, surrounded by the finest football team in the world. And I say that as a graduate of Wake Forest, where our football dorm was named after Arnold Palmer.
But it is an honor for me to be here and to be in a place where nobody has to explain military service. The great Pat Conroy said there’s no place on earth like Charleston. The mayor mentioned Remount Road. Back in 1919 my wife’s grandfather and my great-grandfather were demobilizing right out [of] here. There was a Michigan artist who was demobilizing with them. His name was Alfred Hutton. And he sent a telegram, his first note out upon arriving back from France, and he sent a telegram back to Ann Arbor, to his wife and children. He said, “Come quickly—I’ve found Heaven on earth.” And I think that says it all.
You know, in our Nation’s history, 41 million Americans have worn the uniform—from the first shots fired in Lexington and Concord to the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of those 41 million, 800,000 have paid the ultimate price—ordinary Americans called up to do extraordinary things. In 1917, my wife’s grandfather, whom I had the privilege to know, had never ventured much beyond two or three counties in this state before he was called to the colors. And by the time he was 18 years old, he was marching up the Champs-Élysées into the bloody cauldron of the Meuse-Argonne. Down the ranks from him was a reluctant farmer from Jackson County, Missouri, who had lied and cheated to get into the field artillery because he couldn’t bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going off to war without him. And he would become one of the greatest presidents in our history, Harry Truman. So there they are, those ordinary Americans whose deeds evolved the world.
This facility is a monument to them. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the man for whom this facility was named—a Charlestonian, a young man who was known to his friends and neighbors as a selfless American. He was always willing to do something for his friends, no matter what the cost, no matter what the price. And that was the case on March 5th, 1968. Ralph Johnson had been in Vietnam for just two months when his firebase was attacked by two battalions of North Vietnamese regulars. The grenade came over the sandbags, and without hesitation he yelled “Grenade!!! Leave!” And he fell on that grenade. He made a split-second decision to offer his life for the lives of those young Americans near him. He died instantly, but he saved the lives of about 14 young Marines.
His example was why we all do what we do. And with respect to the Chaplain, I want to harken back to something President Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, which I happen to think is probably—next to King’s address in front of the Lincoln Memorial—the most righteous speech even given by an American citizen. In Lincoln’s day, he would have said rightness. And he said, as it was 3,000 years ago, the judgments of the Lord are righteous. And because of those judgments, we are sworn to take care of “him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and [his] orphan.”
We are still doing that, for all of those Americans—men, women, no matter what world they come from—those who are called upon to carry the colors behind me. It may seem a little odd for somebody who has spent an entire life either in uniform—watching those who serve, growing up on some God-forsaken places like Ft. Sill and Ft. Bragg—to constantly contemplate the meaning of service. And I’m going to harken back to one of the greatest Americans, if not the greatest American of the twentieth century, Dwight Eisenhower.
About five months after Eisenhower became president, he was informed that he had inherited a yacht, the presidential yacht Williamsburg. Well, Eisenhower being a man of the heartland, thought that a presidential yacht was an indulgence unworthy of a democracy at war, so he ordered it scrapped. Well, there was one authority who President Eisenhower could not buck, and that was Mamie. And she said, “No, keep it. But when you take it out, only take out soldiers.” And in May of 1953, 40 Korean War soldiers assembled on the deck of the Williamsburg. Some were missing limbs. The others were horribly disfigured. And you know what the Washington kabuki dance was: The Secret Service deployed immediately to separate the President of the United States 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 amongst them, and he said to those who could stand at attention, “Please, stand at attention.” He said, “I give you a charge. You never put your uniform away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.”
I can think of no better way to describe the sacrifice of the men and women of South Carolina, the support of the people of this community, and the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs than to say we exist to remind our fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.
So I thank you. I thank you for everything that you are doing.
God bless you and God bless this great country.
Thank you all very much.