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

Eighth Annual Jesse Helms Lecture
Washington, DC
October 25, 2019

Thank you so much Colonel, and thank you Brian, and I will make a confession right at the beginning. Yes, I am the one who broke the mold in the family. I have my hearing. I’m not a field artillery officer.

But it is an honor for me to be here. I was thinking, as the Colonel said, about the times I’ve stood up here. And, the roll call of Americans and foreign dignitaries who have delivered this address is not only impressive, but I think it is indicative of a better time in Washington, when there were fewer barriers between those who might have had differing views but, as Senator Helms used to say when he would quote Lyndon Johnson, people that you may have disagreed with in the morning but walked out arm in arm at the end of the day. He used that in his eulogy of his very good friend, and one of the great Americans of the second half of the twentieth century, Hubert Humphrey—two people who you could have not found on more polar opposites, but came together in one regard, and that was their love of country and their belief that the security of the United States meant that the world had a hope to be free.

So, amongst those who have stood in this place—John Kyle; Marco Rubio; John Bolton; Mike Lee; Ted Cruz, my friend; the Ambassador to the United States from the State of Israel Ron Dermer; and Nile Gardiner’s friend, Daniel Hannan, conservative member of the European Parliament. So this is about them, and this is about the legacy of Senator Helms, as Brian said so eloquently.

But I’m going to go back to the 1970s. Not in this country, but in the United Kingdom—the aircraft carrier of freedom, the place where democratic representative government began.

In the 1970s, when Senator Helms came to the United States Senate, the United Kingdom was on the eve of destruction. I saw it as a young American whose father was stationed on a British military base. What we now know as the Soviet-backed labor unions were holding the UK hostage, the welfare state drew the life out of the people, and the socialist labor government timorously accepted the United Kingdom’s devolution into third world status.

Out of the depths of those times came two remarkable leaders. One was a Methodist grocer’s daughter. The other was a Baptist sheriff’s son. They became united in an unapologetic defense of the belief that western civilization was worth celebrating and defending.

It was Britain and her progeny the United States that created the notion of a limited government in which the democratic impulse was balanced by political traditions resting on order, faith, liberty, and justice.

Margaret Thatcher and Jessie Helms were cut from the same cloth. The Protestantism of their youth forged in the small towns of middle-England and western North Carolina taught them that a nation is built on the home and the family, not with programs and bureaucrats. Their Protestant morality informed their politics. Churchill and Jefferson were their lodestars. Evil to them was not an impolitic term to shy away from. Evil was a threat to be confronted and destroyed.

In the mid-1970s when Mrs. Thatcher was first elevated to the leader of the conservative party, her avowed purpose was to reach-out to potential allies across the ocean. And she decided to come to the United States, but the Socialist Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, James Callahan, denied her the use of the British Embassy where she could have set up an office and actually conducted meetings with famous Americans.

Enter William F. Buckley, who called his friend Jessie Helms and said, “I need a favor. I need an office for somebody I want you to meet. She’s sort of like you. She’s just from middle-England. But she wants to meet your friends.” And out of that one phone call, Mrs. Thatcher began a journey that not only transformed the United Kingdom, but led her to a role as John the Baptist heralding the arrival of Ronald Reagan a few years later.

In Senator Helms’s senate office, Margaret Hilda Thatcher sat down with Ronald Reagan, Milton Freedman, Billy Graham, Barry Goldwater. And the forging of a blueprint that swept away the sclerotic, democratic socialist governments in London and Washington was formed. Thatcher saved Great Britain, much to the chagrin of the old boys in her own party. She set an example that the stronger partner personified by Ronald Reagan used to restore American pride and vanquish Soviet tyranny.

But in all of her trials, and all of her trials through almost 13 years leading the United Kingdom, she never forgot the role played by Jessie Helms. Not in robust health, she made the journey from London to Monroe, North Carolina, when the Helms Center was dedicated in April of 2000. And as Brian said, she noted on that day that Jessie Helms’ record as a freedom fighter for the West is unmatched, and his convictions so triumphantly validated and circumstances so embarrassing for his critics that they have been rewriting them ever since. As she said, Senator “No” always said yes. Liberty. It was not easy for Margaret Thatcher and Jessie Helms to stand athwart the tides of global totalitarianism and yell, “Stop!”

Senator Helms used to say, “They don’t understand. I don’t care what the press says about me and neither does Maggie.” But no one was ever neutral about either one of them. And that is a testament to what they thought politics should be. Not a tussle of banalities, but a battleground for passion and ideas. They never lost an election. And that’s what’s often forgot. And they understood freedom better than many of their critics. Senator Helms resolutely believed that American freedom required massive national defense. He told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the old Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel in Raleigh back in 1973, “Sooner or later a weak America will be challenged. Sooner or later a weak America will have to fight or surrender.”

Senator Helms, from that small town in southwestern North Carolina, understood better than anybody who did the fighting. He said on that day that the fighting will be done, but it will be done as it is always done by the average man, by the fellow who runs the gas station, and the fellow who runs the little grocery store in North Carolina, and the barbers of North Carolina, and people carrying rifles and not typewriters.

And he understood better than anyone else what a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, meant when he said, “Liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you don’t fight to win them once and then stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win, and then keep fighting eternally to hold them.” That fellow was Alvin York, the greatest of American soldiers of the Great War.

So, let me tell you for a minute why the Department of Veterans Affairs exists. It exists because this nation knows the values of the prize that Veterans have won and defended. The Veterans Affairs Department exists to care for those who defend this country, as Senator Helms said—the gas station men, the small-town grocers, the barbers, ordinary Americans asked to do extraordinary things to defend this country, just like Alvin York.

I’ve been spending a great deal of time in the last year talking about the end of the War to End All Wars because that’s the war in which the United States of America erupted onto the world stage. 4.7 million Americans served in that war. And they came from all corners to plant the American flag on the globe. There were others other than Alvin York. There were ordinary Americans like Needham Roberts and William Johnson, members of the legendary 369th Infantry regiment from New York. One hundred and ninety-one days on the front lines—more than any other American regiment. Fifteen hundred casualties—more than any other unit in the American Expeditionary Forces. They were so ferocious that the Kaiser himself called them the Harlem Hell Fighters. Over 100 soldiers from that unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre. No unit received more recommendations and honors, and no unit had more holders of the Medal of Honor, even though some of those honors came long after the recipients had passed away.

Another ordinary American at that time was a nearsighted farmer from Jackson County, Missouri, who lied and cheated to get into the field artillery because he could not bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war and he not being there to support them. He had two horses shot from under him during the Muse Argonne offensive, and he would go on to be one of the greatest presidents in our history—Captain Harry S. Truman.

My own great-grandfather was there. He left a small-town law practice in the Mississippi Delta and a part-time teaching job at Ole Miss to join up with the American Army assembling in Camp Gordon, Georgia.

In another part of Georgia was my wife’s grandfather, a teenager from southeastern North Carolina who never ventured much beyond two or three counties in the Carolinas. But before he was 18, he was marching up the Champs Elysees into the bloody hell of the Muse Argonne. 4.7 million Americans took up arms, 200,000 wounded, 150,000 did not return. At that time, America was not ready for them.

Chaotic and insufficient series of organizations tried and failed to serve people like Roberts, Johnson, Truman, Bullard, and Somerville. Veterans care was a national embarrassment. Major General Frank Heinz, a World War I Veteran himself and the VA’s first administrator, led the consolidation and reform that unified and improved responses for Veterans across America. In the wake of World War II, with 16 million returning World War II Veterans, after 22 years at the helm, General Heinz stepped down, and a grateful President Truman turned to the one man that he knew could carry on the legacy, General Omar Bradley.

When anyone tells me the problems in this town or this country are intractable, I ask them to think about the first eight weeks that Omar Bradley served as the head of the Veterans Administration. Eleven million Americans demobilized. In two years, General Bradley built 52 hospitals and established the academic relationships that today serve as the core of Veterans’ care in 172 hospitals and 1,200 clinics. The Washington Post praised Omar Bradley’s revolution: “VA Brings New Hope to Disabled Veterans,” “Medical Care of Veterans Care Rated at Top.” He turned the VA on a dime and completely overhauled and revolutionized the system.

It was Bradley who established the institution that we know now, and few know that he was behind the 1945 Homestead Program that meant World War II Veterans could get community care with a doctor of their choice and buy drugs from their local pharmacist. I doubt anybody on the other side ever talked about privatization when Omar Bradley ran the Department of Veteran’s Affairs—because it was about serving Veteran’s needs.

There are also other war stories that need to be told. In the 1960s and 70s, I saw, through the eyes of a child, that America forgot the wisdom of Alvin York and Harry Truman, that they forgot the important reasons why we send Americans overseas and why we must welcome them when they come home. As a child I learned at first hand the price of war. My father was grievously wounded in the invasion of Cambodia. We didn’t seem him for almost a year as he recovered. But because of how our Veterans were treated then, my father and his colleagues paid another price. He was actually allowed to recover for three years by the good graces of the great General Creighton Abrams. And he did return to Fort Bragg in the All American Division—the most decorated combat unit in the Armed Forces of the United States, the unit that Alvin York served on the western front in 1918.

My father as a senior officer in that division, was not allowed to wear his uniform off post because the leadership in Washington, DC, were afraid of the reaction that he would get. That was not Berkley, California. That was not Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was southeastern North Carolina, the heart or Richard Nixon country.

As a child growing up both at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg, I also saw this world through the eyes of kindergarten and elementary school classmates. There was always a chance in my world that when a classmate was called to the principal’s office, there was bad news waiting. It wasn’t a call to go to the doctor. Something had happened in Southeast Asia. That is what happened on April 4th, 1975. President Ford had ordered the evacuation of all of the orphanages in Saigon in anticipation of the arrival of the North Vietnamese Army. He called it Operation Baby Lift. One of the Air Force volunteers was a medic, a Master Sergeant from Hardin County, North Carolina, named Denning Cicero Johnson. He was taking care of 138 Vietnamese orphans on a C5 as it lifted off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It didn’t make it to the end of the runway. Over a hundred children died that day and 11 airmen. Forty-four years after that aircraft went down, my wife and I escorted Sergeant Johnson’s daughter, a friend of ours from our childhood, to Panel 1W of the Vietnam Memorial. We watched Denise touch the name of her father, one of the last four Americans to perish in that conflict.

So as the nation corrected the mistakes of the 1960s and 70s—in many ways it has—I had the privilege of speaking at the Nixon Library two weeks ago. And I said that President Nixon would actually be astonished to appreciate that even Hollywood stands up for Veterans. That has allowed us to make the important changes on behalf of Veterans because we actually are one of the few, few causes in the United States that can engender support from every corner of America. One of our efforts is to create a modern, 21st-century healthcare administration.

I referred back to my father’s wounds. After 30 years of jumping out of airplanes he needed two new knees, two new hips, had a bad back, and had lead in his body that they couldn’t take out. The rest of his life he carried around an 800-page paper record. That is what our Veterans have been subjected to for decades. But under this president’s leadership, we are finally able to begin putting in place an electronic healthcare record that will begin to be built the moment that young American walks into a military entrance processing station, so that by the time that American becomes a Veteran, we will know everything that had happened to her on her journey through the Armed Forces. No longer will Veterans be forced to travel to doctors’ offices with boxes of paper that disintegrate in their hands.

The other thing that I wanted to address is a charge that many of you have heard. On June 6th, ironically, the Congress chose D-Day for us to begin the implementation of the MISSION Act—the most transformative piece of legislation in the history of department, second only to the GI Bill in June of 1944. The MISSION Act says, finally, that if we cannot meet the needs of Veterans across this country, we will give Veterans across America the opportunity to get their care wherever they live. Let me tell you what else has happened. I’ve also been allowed to present to the Congress the largest budget in our history of department—$220 billion dollars calling for 400,000 employees across 172 hospitals, and 1,200 clinics. Only in Washington, DC, would somebody say that a budget of that size would be a clarion call to privatize an institution. So, let me tell you where we are. In the last year, we have had 3.3 million appointments over the rate that we had last year. More than 1.6 million of those appointments have been, as General Bradley predicted, in our communities. For the first time in history, our Veterans now have the same access to care that their neighbors do. They don’t have to go to the emergency room when they have the flu or a cold or a sprained ankle. We are giving them access to urgent care. And in the last few months we have approved over 6,000 clinics from Alaska to Florida to allow our Veterans the comfort and the safety of knowing that that treatment is there whenever they need it.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that we face is one that is outside the walls of our department. Senator Tillis has referred to me often as Forest Gump, because I tend to take every issue that I confront and refer back to the Roman Empire of this 19th century America. In fact, Senator Helms once confronted me, actually it was my first day of working for him, looked at my Wake Forest resume and said, “Son, that is a magnificent Wake Forest resume. Politics and classics. You are qualified to be a tour guide in Rome and have long conversations with 90-year-old priests.”

But let me go back to the 1890s. Benjamin Harrison was in the White House. Now, nobody knows much about Benjamin Harrison other than his claim to fame was that he served four years in between two non-successive terms of Grover Cleveland. But before he went back to Indiana, he acknowledged something that began to bother him when he was a major general in the Civil War. He had noticed that the time between the end of the war and the time that he had been the governor of Indiana, U.S. senator, and then president, that so many of the colleagues that he had fought with were dying prematurely, not because of diseases of the 19th century, but because they had taken their own lives. The United States Army began collecting statistics on the suicide rate from officers and men in the 1890s.

Two weeks ago, I convened the very first all government council to finally have a national conversation on Veteran suicide in this country. They are bringing together DoD, HHS, HUD, the Indian Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, to finally reach-out and touch those American Veterans who have reached the end of desperation. Twenty Americans take their lives every day who have served in uniform. That number has actually been steady for well over a hundred years. But the tragedy for us is that 60 percent of those who take their lives have no contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs. We have to change that.

We have to open our efforts to combat suicide by using the free market, by opening up the aperture and providing support to charities, to non-governmental organizations, and to the localities to help us find those that we cannot touch. Sixty percent we do not see. And it hits all areas of life, but particularly in rural America. In Indian country. Places that are hardest for us to touch. But we need everyone’s help. And if we just focus on the last tragic act in that Veteran’s life, this will be another federal report that serves as nothing more than a doorstop, if we don’t have that national conversation on mental health, addiction, and homelessness.

So why are we doing that? I didn’t open-up with this, but I’m going to conclude with the reason that we are here. Since the first shots were fired at Lexington in April of 1775, 41 million Americans have put on the uniform. More than one million have died. Our department was created in the midst of the most pestilential war in American history. And not too far from where we are standing, a very tired and gaunt man stood up and created the charge that we live by. It’s probably—it is the most righteous speech ever given by an American President. And he concluded a talk on why the judgments of the Lord will eventually be righteous—or as he said, “rightyous,” and then called for us to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who’ll have born the battle, but more importantly, for his widow and orphan.

A few years before he passed away, Senator Helms introduced a fellow North Carolinian from Tarboro, General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, aboard the USS North Carolina. That is our state’s memorial to those who fought and died in World War II. There are 10,000 North Carolina names on that battleship. Ten thousand names of North Carolinians who never returned. Senator Helms said that the ultimate tribute to our American Armed Forces is to respect the legacy that we all have been given, and to preserve it for future generations.

In 1964, when Alvin York passed away, President Johnson sent the most formidable Army representative that he could send to the funeral of one of America’s greatest heroes—Matthew Bunker Ridgway, the man who had led the All American Division to victory in North African Sicily, that had been charged by General Eisenhower with planning the airborne assault on Hitler’s fortress Europe.

General Ridgway, on the night before D-Day, could not sleep. He was restless. He had given the orders to the All Americans, to the Screaming Eagles, and to the British First Airborne. He actually fell out of his cot. And to save himself he reached up for the Old Testament and he pulled down the Book of Joshua and the reference to the Battle of Jericho, for the promise that Joshua received on that, the most ferocious battle to that time in the history of the Hebrew people, that I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he said, that “Heroes come when they are needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.”

I cannot think of a better way to honor Abraham Lincoln’s legacy than to remind ourselves that we cannot fail nor forsake those who serve and have served in uniform, to honor the memory of those 41 million, and to honor the great men and women who always step forward when courage seems in short supply.

So on behalf of our department, I thank you all for your support. I thank you for honoring the great men and women of our nation. And I thank you for allowing me to honor a great American, Senator Jessie Helms.

Thank you all very much.