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

American Legion National Convention
Indianapolis, IN
August 28, 2019

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.

This is the second time I’ve had to follow your National Commander on the stage, the first was on National Public Radio this morning, and I always benefit from the encounter. So thank you. Thank you all for your kind welcome. Thank you to your past National Commanders, thank you to the men and women of the Legion, but I also want to single out one person, and hopefully not embarrass him.

You know Washington is a place full of those folks who pretend to know a lot about how government works. They get paid a lot of money. They go to a lot of parties. But there’s one person in your midst who knows a lot about how government works. There is nobody better, and whenever he does something it is always with the goal of putting Veterans at the front of the line, and I want to thank your executive director, Lou Celli for everything that he has done for America’s Legion.

He is the reason that the President of the United States signed the Legion Act. And he is the reason that you all were able to stand up and say, no matter what Washington calls an international conflict, everyone who serves deserves recognition. So I thank Lou for his leadership on that legislation.

Just weeks ago, we celebrated two very important anniversaries. The 75th anniversary of the assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe and the 75th anniversary of the signing of the GI Bill, probably the most important legislation signed by a president of the United States with the exception of the Civil Rights Act.

I also had a more somber anniversary. Some of you who have heard me speak talk about growing up at Ft. Bragg, as the son of an Airborne Ranger.

There were many times in my childhood when kindergarten and elementary school classmates were called to the principal’s office, and they weren’t going there because they had a doctor’s appointment. They were going there because there was bad news from Southeast Asia. That is what happened on April 4th, 1975.

Just before Saigon fell, President Ford ordered the evacuation of all of the orphanages in Saigon before the North Vietnamese arrived. He asked for volunteers from the United States Air Force to aid in the effort. One of those volunteers was Master Sergeant Danny Cicero Johnson from my neighboring county, Harding County, North Carolina.

On April 4th, his C5 lifted from Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It didn’t make it to the end of the runway. A faulty cargo door forced that plane down. 138 lives were lost that day—mostly children, but eleven airmen who had volunteered for that humanitarian mission. Sgt. Johnson was one of the last to die in Southeast Asia. On April 4th of this year I escorted his daughter, Denise—my classmate, a childhood friend—to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, 44 years to the day after her father passed. She touched his name on the last row on the last panel, panel 1W at the center of that memorial. The names on that wall mean something to me, and they mean a great deal to the members of the Legion.

I will note in the years that have passed since the end of that conflict, that much has changed for Veterans across America. My memory of that conflict was my father coming back from a year at Tripler Army Hospital weighing half of what he did when he went to Vietnam, and then struggling three years to get back into sufficient shape to return to the Army. I also remember in those days, how our Veterans were treated. There was my father, a senior officer in the most decorated combat unit in the Armed Forces of the United States, the All American Division, who was unable to wear his uniform off post because of the treatment our warriors were getting at that time. That was in southeastern North Carolina.

The 60’s and the 70’s were a dark time when America forgot that freedom was not guaranteed by protesters or professors or journalists. It was guaranteed by the souls of 41 million Americans who have served their country since the first shots were fired at Lexington in 1775.

But today, thankfully, we are a pro-Veteran country. We see it everywhere. We see people standing for Veterans at the ball games and in the airports. Videos of Veteran surprising their children after coming off of a long deployment automatically go viral. It seems that even most celebrities in Hollywood say they are pro-Veteran. And in a political climate as charged and divisive as this one is, Veterans are the only things that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree with.

And there’s a reason for that, it is this Legion. This Legion knows something about where we came from, and the importance of reminding us all of the shared sacrifice that these members have. You were chartered one hundred years ago, at the end of World War I. My family’s contribution was that my great-aunt, who was the first woman to serve as a judge on the Board of Veteran’s Affairs, started the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary in the great Magnolia State of Mississippi shortly after that war.

You helped establish the agency that is today your VA. And you wrote the biggest check to build the Vietnam Wall, where I was just months ago with those who continue to think about the effects of that struggle. So on behalf of the President of the United States, thank you. Thank you for reminding us. Thank you for reminding us of our great history of cherishing and caring for Veterans.

There is something else that is happening in this country that is reinforcing the importance of America’s Veterans. Many of the burdens borne by Veterans are now some of the same issues facing Americans in all walks of life, things like suicide and opioid abuse, and this VA is playing an important part in the President’s efforts to tackle these issues.

Suicide prevention is the number-one clinical priority for the President of the United States, and it remains my top priority for Veterans. As long as we are still seeing Veterans struggle, we must all guide them back to the community of this brotherhood and this military family. They need our love and support.

You know the statistics. Every day twenty American Veterans take their lives. About half of those warriors are over the age of 65, and the majority of those are soldiers of Vietnam. Let me put that into historical perspective. Lyndon Johnson left Washington, DC, fifty years ago in January, and we are still dealing with the effects of that conflict.

Of the 20 Veterans who commit suicide, that last tragic act, the VA only sees six. Here’s what we are doing for the six who do use VA care. Any Veteran who walks in our doors for healthcare is now screened for mental health. We also provide same-day mental health care. And just as important, we are talking about this issue more within the active-duty force of the Armed Forces. The practice of my father’s generation not to talk about these things is now giving way to an open discussion among our active service members who have now learned the importance of looking out for signs in themselves and signs in their comrades in distress.

No VA Secretary, no Federal Department can solve this problem in Washington, especially when most of those Veterans we need to reach are not in our system. We will not get anywhere on Veteran suicide until this nation has a national conversation about life. And that is a conversation Veterans can start today.

The Federal Government needs to build those partnerships with organizations like the Legion, our states, and localities, to get to those in the community to deliver aid directly to those Veterans in need. For example, there is important legislation in the Congress now that would let VA direct funding to groups like yours, to community partners across the country, so that they can support the Veterans at risk of suicide. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas introduced it in the Senate, and the former commander of the 3rd Marine Division, General Jack Bergman of Minnesota, introduced it in the House. And I know this has the full support of the Legion.

Opioid addiction. Opioid addiction is the bane of Veterans and non-Veterans. It’s another issue in which the VA is leading the way. When I was in the White House with President Trump last month, I told him that we have had success in reducing our opioid prescriptions by 51 percent during his administration and that we are continuing to make progress. We are looking at other options that would never have been considered in my father’s day: yoga, tai chi, acupuncture. If I had told my father that I would treat the pain of his wounds with acupuncture or tai chi, my nose would have been flat against my face. But the culture is changing, and we’re giving Veterans healthier alternatives as a result.

The VA is now also at the center of our successful piece of legislation since the GI Bill, the MISSION Act. The MISSION Act is the greatest change in our department since Omar Bradley sat at the desk that I now occupy. But while Bradley gave us the model VA system, this President has revolutionized the way we look at Veterans by saying, inclusively, that it is VA’s job to fit the needs of the Veterans instead of forcing American’s Veterans to decide their healthcare around the needs of the VA bureaucracy. Under Mission, Veterans can now get care in their community if a VA facility is too long a distance away or if the VA does not have the care that they need, or even if that Veteran says that it is in our best interest to go elsewhere. And finally, it begins to give Veterans what their neighbors have had for so many years—an option of getting urgent care close by and not having to drive to a VA, without having to go into an emergency room for a cold anymore. That means we are finally on the cusp of providing Veterans 21st century medicine.

Now some worry, that we are on some strange path to privatization. Let me address that as I have addressed it under oath. I was privileged to present the largest budget in the history of this department to the United States Congress: $220 billion dollars. I am the only member of the President’s Cabinet who was ordered not to present any budget cuts to the Office of Management and Budget, and I can tell you that I have the same standing orders for next year’s budget. The $220 billion budget, calling for a work force of 390,000 employees, is a very strange way to privatize a department.

And I want to say that Veterans are voting with their feet. When the people warn us that the VA will be put out of business by the private sector, I remind them that this is not the same VA you were reading about five years ago. The Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Internal Medicine say that our care is as good or better than any in the private sector, and our Veterans are voting with their feet. This year alone, we have had over 1.5 million more appointments at VA than we did in all of last year. That is an improvement that Veterans across America are taking in, and it is an improvement that we will continue to build on.

Our force is also changing. In my father’s day, when he was commissioned two months before President Kennedy was inaugurated, less than one half of one percent of the force was female. The force I was responsible for under General Mattis was 17 percent female, and it has gone up to 20 percent. What does that mean for VA? That means that 10 percent of those we serve are America’s women warriors. By the end of the next decade, that figure will be at 25 percent. I just returned from my boyhood home, my hometown, Fayetteville, North Carolina. At the Fayetteville VA already, 20 percent of those that we see are women. So the future is not only happening in North Carolina, it is happening across the country.

So, while the Mission Act gives Veterans the option of permanent choice, it is our goal, again, to make it a tough choice. And we know that America’s Veterans who have served prefer VA because they want to go where people speak the language and understand the culture.

I will conclude with two more items that this group cares, cares, cares about. One is electronic health records. You will be glad to know that we are about to launch the first testing of the new electronic health record in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in the next few months. No longer will warriors have to carry around hundreds of pages of paper records that are disintegrating in their hands. That means doctors will never have to guess again what you went through at Chosin Reservoir, at Da Nang, at Hue City and Khe Sanh, Grenada, Panama, and the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. It will be there.

The other advantage that it will have is that it will finally be interoperable. That means, if you go to that urgent care facility, if you go to your private doctor, those doctors will have the ability to tell VA what they have done for you and what you need for your future care, so that regardless of what anybody says about the future of this institution, the VA will always be at the center of your healthcare.

The last is the blue-water Navy, one of the last circles that we close from that conflict that I have been talking about throughout my remarks. On the 1st of January, we will begin giving the benefits to those who sailed in the waters of Southeast Asia. As we speak, we are focusing on training, hiring over 2,000 people to put in place the processes and the procedures needed to make sure that these claims are finally awarded—benefits that 75,000 sailors and Marines deserve and deserved a long time ago. So that is underway and it has the full support of the President of the United States.

So we’ve had a lot of victories. As I said, this is not the same VA that it was five years ago. But in an organization of 400,000, there will always be a hiccup, there will always be one or two people who aren’t doing the right thing. That is where you come in, and that is where the vigilance of your executive director comes in. We have an open door. This VA is a creation of the American Legion. You remind us that a broad community of service exists far outside the swamps of Washington, DC—a community that cares not only about warriors today but warriors in the future, caring for them while they are in uniform and also when they return home. The Legion is the force that fulfills the fondest wish for America’s warriors—that they live full and engaged lives in the country they fought to defend.

I want to close with two stories from the greatest of all Airborne warriors, General Matthew Ridgway. As you know, General Ridgway commanded the All American Division in its victories in North Africa and Sicily, and he was terribly disappointed when he couldn’t jump in with the 18th Airborne Corps on the evening of D-Day. He was asked to plan the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. He planned for the 82nd, the 101st, and the British 1st Airborne. And he tried to get some sleep that night because there was nothing left for him to do. He actually fell out of his cot, and he was in great distress, and he reached for the Old Testament, and he looked at the passage in the book of Joshua, the battle of Jericho, the greatest battle in the history of the Hebrew people. And he asked to say, over and over again, God’s command to Joshua on the evening of that battle, that “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”

In 1986, President Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and President Reagan said about the general that “heroes come when they are needed, great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.” That is the American Legion. A group of American patriots who do not fail, nor forsake their warriors or their country, but heroes and great men and women who step forward when courage is often in short supply.

So, on behalf of the President, I thank you for everything that you do. Not only for the freedom of our country, but for the freedom of the world. God bless the Legion, and may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you all very much.