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

Fisher House Golf Classic
Landsdowne, Virginia
May 6, 2019

It is an honor for me to be here. It is an honor for me to be with those who support Fisher House and those who support America’s warriors.

I want to give you a figure. Forty-one million. Forty-one million Americans have put on the uniform since the shots were first fired at Lexington Green in April of 1775. Of those 41 million, 800,000 have paid the ultimate price. I was given a commencement speech at the Citadel on Saturday and I used that figure, and I quoted an Australian prime minister named John Curtain, who during the Reagan administration gave a toast to President Reagan and he said, “What would the world be like if there were not the United States of America? If there were not that gigantic country across the ocean, whose people sacrifice so much for the peace and well-being of the entire world?” And that’s what those 41 million represent.

I spent a lot of time this year talking about two conflicts, World War I and Vietnam, and on Veteran’s Day at Arlington Cemetery I started to talk about that forgotten war that sits in between the cataclysm of the Civil War, the cataclysm of World War II. And I was talking about ordinary Americans. One who was a farmer from Jackson County, Missouri, who lied and cheated to get into the field artillery because he could not bear of the thought of his friends and neighbors going off to war without him. He had glasses that were coke-bottle sized, and he memorized the eye chart. He would go on to be one of the greatest presidents in our history, Harry Truman. And my wife’s grandfather, 17-years-old, never ventured beyond two or three counties in South Carolina, but before he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-Elysees, into the blood cauldron of the Meuse-Argonne, and at the end of the column, was a really reluctant soldier, a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, who would go on to be the greatest hero of that war, Alvin York. Ordinary Americans, called up to do extraordinary things. And there were more ordinary Americans, who took up the uniform from 1965 to 1975, in Southeast Asia. The formative memories of my life were formed in that time. I can remember my mother, every Friday watching Cronkite. Now, she watched Cronkite every day, but Friday was different. Some of you may remember what Walter Cronkite did every Friday. At the end of his newscast, behind him were two flags. An American flag and a South Vietnamese flag. And underneath those flags were just raw numbers—raw numbers signified that number of Americans and South Vietnamese who had fallen that week. Some of you were here last year and heard me talk about the rest of that experience. My father was a big man—big man for his day: 6’2”, 240. Today that’s not ever a quarterback, but in 1970 that’s a big man. And he was badly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia. So badly wounded that he spent a year at Tripler Army Hospital before we saw him. When he came back to us he weighed 120 pounds. The uniform was like a drape, and only though the good graces of Craig Davis, who overruled the Army’s medical board to allow my father three years of recovery, so that he could go back one day to the 82nd Airborne, was he allowed to finish that career.

But there was another part of the story—this Vietnam story that I saw growing up. So, we’re heading southeast, to North Carolina. We’re not in Berkeley, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, we’re in the heart of American patriotism, and my father as a senior officer of the 82nd Airborne Division was not allowed to wear his uniform off post because of the times. What Fisher House represents to me is a negation of all of those things that I saw happen in the 1960’s and 70’s, when America forgot its purpose, and forgot its own duty when it came to the men and women who carry our freedom on their shoulders. Fisher House is a living, breathing embodiment of the American spirit every day. Eleven hundred American families are in a Fisher House. Last year, 32,000 families lived at Fisher House. Something that I didn’t have as a child as we wondered what was happening to my father during that one lonely year. The volunteer of the year is a fellow named Christopher Scott from Utah. He describes a feeling that he had in helping a family—a family that had been at Fisher House for almost nine months, and the soldier eventually passed away. And when the wife asked Christopher to take her home, he thought he was going to be driving her hours away into the wilderness of Utah, and when he went to turn onto the highway she said, “No, no, turn left.” She wanted to go back to Fisher House, and she told him Fisher House was home. It was not a hotel room, it was not a hospital room, it was home. And that is the glory and the beauty of everything that you are doing here today. Not only to support a great American organization, but to support those who have also served, the thousands and thousands of families who wait with hope—hope of a better day—but look for a shoulder to lean on.

I will finish my remarks with a story about Harry Truman’s nemesis, but also I think, next to Harry, one of the greatest presidents in our history, General Eisenhower. General Eisenhower was told, when he was inaugurated, the day after, that he had inherited a presidential yacht. Well, Ike, being a man of the heartland, thought that a presidential yacht was unbecoming for a democracy at war and he ordered it scrapped. There was one soldier whose orders General Eisenhower could not counterman, and that was Mamie, and she said, “No, no, don’t scrap it. But when you take it out, only take soldiers out on it.”

So, in May of 1953, five months after the inauguration, 40 Korean war veterans were on the deck of that ship. And you know the Washington Kabuki dance that followed: The President pulls up to the peer at the Navy Yard, Secret Service deploys to protect the President from his troops, but as only a five-star General of the Army could do, Eisenhower yelled “Halt. Get behind me. I know these men.” And he walked among them and he asked those who could to stand at attention, and he gave them one charge. He said, “You never put your uniform away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.”

And I can think of no better description of what we at the VA do, but no better description of what Fisher House gives to America. You live to remind our fellow citizens of the sacrifices that their fellow Americans made—those in uniform and those in their families—and you live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night. So on behalf of a grateful nation and on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I thank you for everything that you do for this wonderful country and for the men and women of our Armed Forces. And thank you for having me here again. God bless you.

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