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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
Washington, DC
May 31, 2019

Thank you all on behalf of your Department of Veterans Affairs, but more importantly, thank you on behalf of thousands and thousands of warriors and their families.

I’m going to take a bit of a pause here and recognize a friend in the audience. Pete [Dougherty] was very kind to talk about my background, but there is someone out there, a colonel in the United States Marine Corps, and that is a title that never expires. (I’ve made the mistake of telling Secretary of State George Schultz in an introduction that he was an ex-Marine. The side of my head was caved-in with more ferocity than any of the Jesuits did when I was growing up.) But Tom Bowman is here, the former Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs—someone who has spent a life not only in uniform but also serving America’s most deserving. So good to see you, sir.

Leo Shane from Military Times is here, and he can’t get enough of me. He’s got an hour with me on C-SPAN later today, but he’s here waiting to ask questions. But Leo, thank you also for everything that you do to keep out military community aware and active when it comes to those issues that mean the most. But because Leo is here, I’m gonna repeat a story that he’s heard often. And I will start our time together with a little bit of history.

I often refer back to President Eisenhower when I think about the world that all of us inhabit. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this military world 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. And it probably seems a little strange that I’m constantly contemplating the meaning of service and does that meaning ever change.

Well, I found, in my past, I had a wonderful opportunity to get to know a fellow by the name of Ned Beech, Captain of the United States Navy. You probably have heard of his book Run Silent, Run Deep. Well, Captain Beech had many lives. One of them was as General Eisenhower’s Naval Aid, and then later, when I met him, he had been serving in the United States Senate on various staff positions. He told me about what he considered the most profound experience that he had with that great man, Dwight Eisenhower.

When President Eisenhower was inaugurated, he discovered that he inherited a presidential yacht—the yacht Williamsburg. And Eisenhower, being a man of the heartland, thought that the notion of the President of the United States having a yacht during wartime was something unworthy of a democracy, and he ordered the ship scrapped. But as Beech told it, there was one soldier in Washington whose orders Dwight Eisenhower could never countermand. That was Mamie. And she said, “No, don’t get rid of it, but when you use it, only use it for soldiers.” And so five months after President Eisenhower was inaugurated, he took it out, and there were 40 Korean War soldiers on that vessel. Some of them were missing limbs. The others were horribly disfigured. And Ike went up, and he asked those that could to stand at attention. And he gave them a charge. He said, “You never put your uniforms away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.”

I can’t think of a more noble way to describe what you all do on a daily basis than to remind all of your fellow citizens that they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices and exertions of the folks that you serve.

We have come a long way in this country. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I refer back to my childhood. I mentioned my father was gravely wounded in the invasion of Cambodia. It took him three years to recover, and he was back at Ft. Bragg in the mid-seventies with the 82nd Airborne Division. But the times were terrible. Here was a senior officer in the most decorated combat unit in the Armed Forces of the United States but was not allowed to wear his uniform off post because of the times. It is my prayer that we never go back to those times. But is also my prayer that we never forget what you all are doing for those who, like some of the Vietnam Veterans, have been forgotten.

Now the problem of homeless Veterans is not new to our generation or to the generation that came out of Southeast Asia. We really started to see it in World War I. So much so that the plight of homeless Veterans actually brought down a President of the United States. As you know, in the last years of the Hoover administration, Veterans who had been promised support after their service in the Great War were denied that. Many of them were homeless. They built their homes, their cardboard homes, across the Anacostia River, and sadly, they were greeted with the United States Army. I would argue that it was that and not the Great Depression that ended that presidency. One Veteran remarked later that there was a great difference between the reaction of the Hoover Administration and the Roosevelt Administration. Hoover people sent the Army. Franklin Roosevelt sent Eleanor to walk amongst those men and say that there will be a better day.

But even since those times, we have experienced homelessness for World War II Veterans, Korean War Veterans, most prominently those from Vietnam, but even today with Iraq and Afghanistan. Roosevelt himself heeded the lessons that he saw in those streets by—75 years ago next week—signing the GI Bill, the most transformative piece of legislation in this country’s history, other than the Civil Rights Act. But there were still American Veterans who were not made whole.

Now today, because of your efforts, we are seeing a change in the way this country addresses those Veterans who have fallen on hard times. There are a number of states who can tell you to this day that they have effectively ended Veteran’s homelessness by making it rare, brief, and non-recurring. Hundreds of communities have made that same claim: New Orleans, Houston, Jacksonville, just last week the City of Lexington, Kentucky. The number of homeless Veterans in this country has dropped by half since 2010, and it fell by five percent last year. That is progress.

But there is another catastrophe that is no longer on the horizon but that you are meeting every day, and that is suicide among those who have worn the uniform. I’m gonna throw away some of this script and just talk to you, hopefully one-on-one. Every day, 20 Veterans take their lives. One or two of those are on active duty. Two or three are in the Guard or Reserve. Ten of those twenty, the Department of Veterans Affairs has no contact with.

I’ve been charged to be the lead for the President’s Executive Task Force on Suicide. But as I have stated in several events—the most recent last Saturday—that if we just look at the last tragic event of the Veteran’s life we will never get our arms around what we need to do to prevent this National tragedy from continuing to grow exponentially.

If we do not look at homelessness, if we do not look at mental health, ladies and gentlemen, we are not even at the sputnik stage in this country when it comes to getting our arms around mental health issues. If we don’t do those things, then this will be just another task force. I do think that it is telling that the President has designated your Veterans Affairs Department to take the lead, because no community is more visible. It’s easy to explain to most Americans the plight of those who have served those Americans. That’s why it’s important for all of us to work.

I also want to tell you about one of the saddest sights that I’ve seen, and it is something that you are combating. I have, in my life, witnessed terrible injuries, terrible war wounds. Growing up at Ft. Bragg, when a classmate of mine happened to be called to the principal’s office, there was always a chance that that child wasn’t called to go to a doctor’s appointment or go to a family event. There was always the chance that bad news had come from Vietnam.

But the saddest sight I have seen, and it is one that I think has spurred so many of you into action: I was in West Los Angeles, where about 10 percent of the homeless Veterans population lives, and I watched, at dusk, cars come into that wonderful, wonderful facility, and Veterans did not get out of the cars. I was told that they all had jobs. They were contributing to the tax base and the prosperity of America’s second largest city. But because of government policy, there was no place for them to afford a decent living.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we have to build upon your work and bring together the whole of government to address this problem from the West Coast to the East Coast. Without that, then some of our efforts will go for naught.

I had the pleasure of having the last conversation with Governor Brown before he departed for Sacramento, and he did me the great favor of calling the mayor of Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti, and saying that his last charge to the mayor was to work with VA to help fix this problem. So I thank the people of California for recognizing that Veterans population is in need, great need of their help.

I also want to thank our folks at HUD for their VASH program and also for our Justice Outreach Program. I cut my teeth as a young law student in New Orleans working in our clinic and working with the Veterans Justice Program in our great city and saw first hand what my father had experienced with those under his command, but who had not returned to the good life of America. And I thank you all again for supporting those efforts. But the bottom line, as you all know, is we cannot do this alone.

I was privileged to present to the Congress last month the largest budget in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs: $220 billion dollars. I am a pariah in the cabinet room because I was the only one who was not required to come up with budget cuts. But $1.1 billion of that $220 billion is dedicated to you, to those who are out on the front lines helping our Veterans. And I will be able to determine by the time the next budget cycle rolls around, and for us that begins in July, whether that $1.1 billion is enough.

We are grateful to you. We are grateful for the states and localities who have helped in this great endeavor. So I’m going to close with a couple of stories. And these are stories that really mean something because they highlight everything that you are doing.

The first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War is a fellow named Sal Giunta. He joined the military right after 9/11. He was involved in numerous successful assaults on the Taliban leadership, but in 2007 he was ambushed. He ran into fire, directly, eleven times to save his fellow soldiers. And he prevented them from being dragged off by the enemy. But he was never comfortable as a Medal of Honor recipient, and he didn’t want to be singled out ever for those things that he had done on the battlefield. And he said, “Everyone did something. If I am a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero.” And his words remind us that this country owes an enormous debt to all the men and women who put on the uniform and that ending Veteran’s homelessness is the moral imperative for our country.

And I will leave you, as we begin to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the successful assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe—D-Day, June 6th, 1944—with the plea of the most famous of Airborne warriors, General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in North Africa and in Sicily and planned the Airborne assault on Normandy. On the evening of D-Day, he tried to sleep. He was so restless that he fell out of his cot. And he reached for the Old Testament, and he pulled down the Book of Joshua, describing the most ferocious battle in the history of the Hebrew people. And he went to the promise that God made to that great warrior: “I will not fail thee and I will not forsake thee.” That is the commitment that you have all made. To tens of thousands of American warriors.

In 1986 when Ronald Reagan presented General Ridgway with the Medal of Freedom, he said, “Heroes come when they are needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.” What you all do is about great men and women who have given everything that they have to this country and need this country to repay them. I cannot thank you enough for everything that you do.

God bless you, and godspeed in all of your wonderful endeavors.

Thank you all very much.