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

25th Anniversary, Center for Women Veterans
Washington, DC
November 7, 2019

Before I start, I’m going to read off a roll call of honor here, and I’m going to take a risk, because Winston Churchill said you never, you never acknowledge people in the audience because there’s a chance that you’re going to miss someone and you’ll have an enemy for the rest of your life. But I want you to listen to this roll, and then I am going to talk about someone who is probably more responsible for this roll than anyone in this country today.

Our Chief of Staff is Colonel Pamela Powers, United State Air Force. Behind her, the Senior Advisor to our Deputy Secretary, is Colonel Christine Bader, United State Army. In the front, the person who is probably as responsible for the greatest transformation in terms of public approval of VA than anyone is Captain Linda Davis, United States Army. And the person who probably speaks to the heart as much as anyone is Lieutenant Colonel Jackie Hayes Byrd, United State Air Force.

So let me take speakers’ indulgence for a minute and talk about what I meant by people responsible for that roll call of leadership. The very first speech I gave as the acting secretary of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs was at your museum [The Women In Military Service For America Memorial]. It was the highest honor that I think I’d ever had in terms of giving a speech in public. And I used it as an occasion to look back on the world that I grew up in and how that world was transformed by several figures in American history. And you can probably tell by my accent that I’m from a region of the country that thinks football is a religion—although I went to Wake Forest University, where the mascot is a Baptist Preacher and our football dorm is named after Arnold Palmer. So that tells you how good we are at football.

The person I’m going to talk about likes the University of Alabama, the Empire. But in the 1950s, there were two eruptions out of the Deep South. One, everybody knows about—a preacher who transformed, first, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, and, then, transformed America and the world. But there was somebody else coming out of Alabama in the 1950s whose presence and perseverance is the reason I was able to read off the names of those senior officers, commissioned in the United States Air Force at a time when you had to fit into a very slim category in terms of commissioned service if you were an American woman. And instead of fitting into that category, she actually volunteered to go to where my father was, in Southeast Asia. And she served with the bombers and became a brigadier general—so important that my wife’s aunt, Colonel Eva K. Tyler, United States Air Force, once said that because of what this Alabamian did, “I could walk into every operating theater, be it in the field in Southeast Asia, or the hospitals at Eglin Air Force Base or Andrews Air Force Base, and I had total command.” And that’s because of General Wilma Vaught.

And I’ll tell you one other manifestation of that. The second speech I gave as the acting secretary was to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the North American Aerospace Defense Command—a command created by General Eisenhower a year after Lieutenant Vaught was commissioned. And I was introduced by a four-star Air Force General, Laurie Robinson, my friend, the commander of NORAD, on that 60th anniversary. She was there because of what somebody from Alabama did. So that is a testament that is unlike any other.

Now you all know the stories, American history—Margaret Corbin, Mary Hays, collectively known as Molly Pitcher. The part that was never told in the history books was that it was their manning of the guns in Monmouth, that Washington himself spied, as the American Army was breaking from the assault of the British Grenadiers. And he said, “Stand behind those guns.” And then they were able to turn back the tide of the world’s most formidable soldiers. And then there was Mary Walker—in the Civil War, holder of the Medal of Honor, doctor, assistant surgeon, United States Army, in one battle operated on over 4,000 troops in a matter of one week. And then there was Private Opha Johnson, first woman in the United States Marine Corp. She volunteered for service on the western front before she could even vote. That is American history. And that is why we are here today.

And so now I will come back to what I originally said about my own experience. I am the son of a combat soldier, a grievously wounded combat soldier in the invasion of Cambodia. When my father was commissioned two months before John Kennedy was inaugurated, less than one half of one percent of the Armed Forces of the United States were women. When I served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, 17 percent of those on active duty were American women. That is a revolution that is still going on. If you had told me that I could watch a parade down Hay Street in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when my father was a senior officer in the All American Division—the most decorated combat unit in the Armed Forces of the United States—that I would see American women wearing the red beret of that division, I would have thought that unthinkable. It ain’t unthinkable, now. You go to that same parade, which will take place this weekend, down Hay Street in Fayetteville, and the red beret will be worn by Americans of every stripe, every color, every gender. That is a revolution.

So what are we doing at VA to make sure that that transformation is permanent? Well, we reflect the makeup of our Armed Forces now. Ten percent of those we serve are America’s fighting women. Our budget is about 10 percent of what we spend on health. There are women’s clinics in all of our VA hospitals. We are on the cutting edge when it comes to sexual trauma and research on cancer. That is the very least that we can do for those who have sacrificed so much.

Now, this is the center that we are celebrating today that punches way above its weight. And that’s because, in part, of the traditions that have been built up in my lifetime, but also because of Colonel Byrd’s leadership. It’s four pillars are advocating to increase women’s access to the VA; educating women Veterans on benefits and services; integrating efforts across our department to create a culture—the key, culture—where women Veterans’ needs are recognized and met, and, finally, energizing and collaborating with networks to build networks where none had existed before. That is the revolution.

Now, separate and apart from that are changes that I think will impact America’s Veterans as a whole. I use my father as an example. Badly wounded, he was allowed to recover for three years, then went back to the Airborne. But after 30 years, he left service needing two new knees, two new hips. He had a bad back. He had lead in his body that they could not take out and looked at the rest of his life in chronic pain. But he had to carry around an 800-page paper record for the rest of his life. Next year, we put on-line the electronic health record starting in the Pacific Northwest that will finally eliminate the burden that all of our Veterans, men and women, carry, so that there is a holistic record of their service from the time that they walk into that military entrance processing station. Everybody will know. And we are tracking the quality of care by gender in a way that no other healthcare system does, because we not only recognize the service, but we recognize that we are still in the mode of catching-up to the reality of 21st century America.

What I ask you, and I think what the mission of the Women’s Center is, is making sure that we get enough of the word out so that women are comfortable coming to VA. I’ve said it before: This is not my father’s VA, this is not my grandfather’s VA. But we still have a way to go to make sure that that 17 percent of those who serve on active duty—and that number is going to hit 20 percent by 2025—are comfortable and welcome, and safe coming here.

Do we have issues? Certainly, we do. We serve 9.5 million people. We’ve got 400,000 employees. There will be issues. But the point is to tackle them head on, and I think that this is the one place in America that can provide the way forward for the rest of the country.

So I’m going to return back to that first speech that I gave in your presence, Ma’am, to the marble walls that are in your museum and the words . . . I usually talk off the cuff. But these words, I have to get right and read word for word: “Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom. That our resolve was as great as the brave men, who stood among us, and with victory our hearts were just as full and be just as fast.” So it is our job, here, to make sure that generations know that women in uniform guarantee the freedoms for this freest of nations.

And the last thing I will read [are] the words from somebody from our part of the world—the towering figure of 20th century American literature, Mr. William Faulkner. In 1950, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he did something that politicians rarely do. Wish we could follow his example. He actually gave the shortest speech in the history of the Nobel Prize. And I have done something sacrilegious. I have actually changed a word or two in his address, because what he was talking about was the role of the writer in American society.

Now, William Faulkner was a strange man. You’ve probably heard this story. He wanted to be a great soldier, but he ran off to Canada—not the way some people ran off to Canada—and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was a mechanic. When he returned to Oxford, Mississippi—I know this, because my grandfather, who lived there at the time, told me about it—he would walk up and down the streets of Oxford wearing the uniform of an officer in the Canadian Air Force. And he had a swagger stick. And I’ve always thought about Faulkner as wanting to be that soldier that he never was. And I think he was trying to address that when he spoke to the Nobel Committee. And I’m going to read, with my addition—I substituted the word soldier for writer. And I think this applies to everyone who has worn the uniform in this audience.

The soldier must teach that the basest of all things is to be afraid; teaching that, forget it forever, leaving no room for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths, lacking which any story is doomed. The soldier writes of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. The soldier grieves on no universal bones, leaving no scares. Until that soldier relearns those things, the soldier lives as though he stood among and watched the end of civilization. I decline to accept that. It is easy enough to say that mankind is immortal simply because mankind will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of the soldier’s inexhaustible voice still talking.

That is what you all represent—a glorious heritage and an inexhaustible voice still talking.

It is my honor to be here today and to be among heroes. And I thank you very much for everything that you do not only for the United States of America, but for the peace of the world.

Thank you all very much.