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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

National Press Club Washington
Washinton, DC
November 8, 2019

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for having me back for an encore.

I said last year that I wanted to be one of you, that I was, like some of you, a high school newspaper editor. I learned how to cut out column inches on my easel in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at Reed Ross High School. I had a dog-eared copy of Dan Rather’s The Camera Never Blinks, and the collected broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow. I was taught at an early age, by my father—who was an incredibly decorated combat soldier—that Edward R. Murrow represented other people who were on the front line of freedom, on the front line of history.

In my father’s time, he saw many of your colleagues give the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. During the invasion of Cambodia, he was in the sector when two NBC news correspondents and cameramen did not come back from doing the job that they had sworn to do. So whenever I speak to journalists, as a group of journalists, I thank you for defending the ideals that I hope all of us in national security strive to uphold. Because without you, the rest of it wouldn’t be worth very much. So thank you all very much.

The other item that I want to use as a point of personal privilege—I just came back from New Orleans. And visiting the VA hospital there, I broke ground on a new Fisher House. My parents are New Orleanians, many generations. In our family’s history, we were privileged to get to know one of New Orleans’ most prominent families, a fellow who ended up being one of the great majority leaders of the United States House of Representatives and his wife, who not only took his seat in the United States House, but went on to be our ambassador to the Vatican. Of course, I’m talking about Hale and Lindy Boggs [parents of journalist Cokie Roberts].

We lost a great American earlier this year, Cokie Roberts. I first met her when she would frequent my family’s bakery on Toledano Avenue in New Orleans. She was a regular customer. I became reacquainted with her as I became an adult, and then through her work in New Orleans helping Loyola University get back on its feet after Katrina. She had one piece of advice for me, and it came from her father, and it was about doing business in Washington—particularly in the Congress—when she said that the fellow that you are arguing with in the morning will probably be the fellow that you walk out of the chamber with your arm around in the evening. I think we would all be much better as a people and a country if we stuck by Cokie Roberts’ dictum.

So I will say I’m glad to be back at the Press Club celebrating the anniversary of the American Legion Post #20, here, a post that was inaugurated by the only man who is below George Washington on our protocol chart, or the first man below George Washington on the protocol chart, General Pershing, the General of the Armies, General Pershing a member of this club, and also the person who found the post here that is one of the oldest and now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Since the first shots were fired at Lexington in April of 1775, more than 41 million Americans have put on the Nation’s uniform to defend freedom. Today, America’s Army is comprised only of citizen-volunteers who have determined to defend this country. And our history is filled with heroes who found a way to fight, even after being told they either weren’t healthy enough, or young enough, or were not the right color or gender to walk onto the battlefield and defend those colors.

So who were these Americans who were told that they could not serve? One of them was a 33-year-old bookworm-slash-farmer from Jackson County, Missouri. He lied and he cheated to get into the field artillery prior to World War I because he could not bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war and he not being there to support them. What he was saddled with was a battery called Battery D of the 29th Field Artillery of the Missouri National Guard. In France, they were known as the Dizzy Ds. The Dizzy Ds was the hardest drinking group of Irishmen ever to stagger around the streets of Kansas City, and they were saddled with a bespectacled, Baptist 33-year-old who had never commanded anything in his life except a plow. And before his first battle, he sent a note to his future wife, and he said, “I have my doubts about my bravery when the explosive shells began to explode, and the gas attacks start.” But when Battery D came under fire for the first time in 1918, one private said of Captain Harry S. Truman, “I don’t think he’d ever been under fire before, and I don’t think it bothered him a damn.”

About the same time, thousands of young African-American soldiers marched to the colors before they could vote in most parts of the country and before they were recognized for the foundational role that they played in the creation of our great Republic. The legendary 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem, New York, signed up before anybody else in America. But they were not permitted to joint the farewell parade down Fifth Avenue. But these dedicated Americans were attached to the French Army because there were parts of our Army that would not accept them. They spent more time on the front lines, they suffered over 1,500 casualties, they received 100 French Croix de Guerre. They were on the line longer, suffered more casualties, and received more commendations than any other American infantry unit in World War I. And when they returned home in 1919, the City of New York insisted that they lead the parade down Fifth Avenue. Just a few years ago, President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Needham Roberts and William Johnson, the two most decorated soldiers of the most decorated unit of the United States Army, almost 100 years after they so richly deserved it.

And there are some other characters. At the outset of World War II, there was a very small accountant from Chicago by the name of George Rumsfeld, who wanted to join the Navy. He was told that he was too light. He spent months drinking milkshakes and eating banana splits just so he could pass the weight requirement. He couldn’t do anything about his age, but he could do something about his strength. And he spent months in the gym trying to build up his endurance, and the Navy finally allowed him to enter service. But the Navy actually moved young Ensign Rumsfeld to a blimp base in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, much to the consternation of his young son, who told his daddy that he needed to start writing letters to President Roosevelt to convince him that he needed to go to the Pacific. Well, they wrote those letters, and George Rumsfeld persevered, and the Navy finally agreed to let him go serve in combat in the Pacific. My father didn’t want to spend the war in North Carolina, Donald Rumsfeld said, and he did what every American was proud to do, go where the country sent them.

So one our strongest bonds as Americans are those stories that we share about military service and how we come together as a nation to protect individual freedoms we love and enjoy. This year, I was reminded of my own childhood at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg when I was visited by a classmate and a friend. In the 1960s and 1970s when a child was called to the principal’s office either in kindergarten or elementary school where I grew up, there was always a chance that that child wasn’t going to a doctor appointment, but that there was bad news from Southeast Asia.

My own father was so badly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia that it took him three years to recover. It was a year after he was wounded before we saw him, and he came back weighing half of what he did when he left. But that wasn’t the end of the story for those times. When he recovered, he joined the most decorated combat division in all of the military of the United States, the All Americans, the 82nd Airborne Division. And in that time, and in that place, he was not allowed to wear his uniform off post for fear of the reaction from his fellow citizens. Ladies and gentlemen, that was not Berkeley, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was Southeastern North Carolina, the heart of Richard Nixon County.

But people still stepped forward. One of those who did in the 1970s was Master Sergeant Denning Cicero Johnson of Harnett County, North Carolina. He was an Air Force medic. And in April of 1975, Donald Rumsfeld and Gerald Ford decided to evacuate all the orphanages in Saigon ahead of the advance of the North Vietnamese army. They called it Operation Babylift. Sergeant Johnson volunteered for that mission. And on April 5th, 1975, as the guns of the North Vietnamese could be heard, he boarded a C-5 with 178 Vietnamese orphans. The C-5 did not make it to the end of the runway at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. One hundred and thirty-eight children lost their lives, and 11 airmen. One of them was Master Sergeant Denning Johnson.

This year, forty-four years later, I accompanied my classmate, Denise, to Panel 1W of the Vietnam War Memorial where she was able to touch the name of her father, one of the last from that conflict. And if you look just under his name, on that same panel, is the name of one of the eight women officers of the United States Air Force—nurses and doctors who lost their lives in Vietnam. Captain Mary Therese Klinker, [who] was on that plane when Sergeant Johnson went down, is the name right below his.

So next week, we start out second century of remembering America’s heroes on what used to be called Armistice Day, the 11th day, the 11th month, the 11th hour that marked the end of the forlornly named War To End All Wars. In the mid-1950s, after more wars demanded more from the American people, America began celebrating not the stopping of the guns, but the men and women who made them stop. And under General Eisenhower, Armistice Day became Veterans Day.

We rightfully call our Veterans heroes. But I can think of an even higher compliment than that. These men and women rise to the defense of this nation because I think they see more clearly than most of us that our way of life is not guaranteed. It must be fought for as members of this profession have done throughout its history. Alvin York started life in the Army as a conscientious objector but soon became the greatest American hero of the Great War. And by the time World War II came around, he had been sounding the alarm as to what he saw happening in the place that he fought in in 1917 and 1918. And he went around the country reminding America that America is the last best hope on the planet. He said of those who wanted to avoid fighting Nazi Germany, the thing that we forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and then stop. Liberty, freedom, and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and to keep fighting them eternally to hold onto them.

I am privileged to be part of an organization that stands with men and women who talk like that, and that is why I appreciated Richard Nixon’s grand gestures to Veterans when America withdrew from Vietnam. In those days, the counter-culture was rampant. Something I said, I saw as a young boy, when my father, as I had mentioned, could not wear his uniform off of Fort Bragg. But Nixon actually saw clearly that we had to value our soldiers no matter what the outcome. He signed legislation boosting education and work training as a way of reaffirming our respect and gratitude toward all of those who had borne the battle. He praised them when they came back for the job they did in Vietnam, which, he said, was honorably undertaken and horribly ended. And he said that our American soldiers are the strongest hope for America’s future.

I am very fortunate to be in this position, to be in a position where we care for our Veterans, we care for their families, and we remind people every day that they are sleeping soundly at night because of the sacrifices of their fellow citizens who have experienced the incommunicable experience of war.

A few years ago, VA was not in a very good place. There was scandal after scandal, as many in this department and this place have noted. I believe we have turned the corner. This year, I was able, on behalf of the President, to present the largest budget in the history of Veterans Affairs—$220 billion dollars, calling for 400,000 employees, over 172 hospitals. Our patient satisfaction rates are at the greatest in our history, 89.7 percent. We have embarked on the most transformational period in our history with the MISSION Act. We finally put the Veteran at the center of his care, not put VA institutional prerogatives at the center of that Veteran’s care. We are giving Veterans the option to choose the healthcare that they want.

But one of the things that I’m happy to say in an unfiltered environment is that Veterans are choosing with their feet. This year, Veterans have shown so much confidence in this department that we have already take care of three million more appointments than we did in all of last year. We have a department that is where Veterans can come because we understand the culture, and we speak the language. And that is why I’ve said in many forums, including today in front of the White House Press Corps, that if anybody accuses us of privatizing the system when we have a $220 billion dollar budget, 400,000 employees, 172 hospitals, and a patient satisfaction rate of 89.7 percent—only in Washington, D.C., would people say that that is an argument that others are trying to privatize an institution.

So what are my personal reflections as the leader of this wonderful department? I mentioned that we have turned a great corner. Customer experience—not customer experience as a way you would think about it, but customer experience within the Veterans department, amongst our employees—our satisfaction rates are at an all-time high. Underneath the headlines, we are embarking on the changes that will make our supply chain a modern 21st century supply chain. We are reforming our personnel system, and in memory of people like my father, for the very first time—even though generations have talked about this, administrations have spent barrels of ink on it—next year we will begin to roll out the electronic health record, the electronic health record that will be built the moment that young American walks into a military entrance processing station and is handed-off to the Department of Veterans Affairs. No longer will people like my father, after 30 years of jumping out of airplanes, being shot to pieces in Vietnam, have to spend the rest of his post-service life carrying around an 800-page paper record. Those days will be over.

We are on the front line, in the middle of two crises that are devastating this nation. The first is the opioid crisis. The last year or so this department has reduced opioid prescriptions by 51 percent, and we’ve done it in a very simple way. Instead of treating this [pointing at head], we have made a corporate decision to treat the sources of pain. We are substituting opioids with simple things like Tylenol and aspirin, ibuprofen and aspirin. But we are augmenting that with alternative therapies. Alternative therapies—so what does that mean? In my father’ day, if I had told him, “Colonel, we’re gonna make you feel better by doing Tai Chi and Yoga,” his nose would have been flat against my face. It was not part of the ethos. We are setting the standard for offering our Veterans a multitude of ways to address the pain that came as a result of their military service.

But the saddest thing that we encounter is Veteran suicide. I have been accused of being an amateur historian, so I think I will plead guilty to that and talk to you a minute about history. Now, some of you know, some of you may not know, who Benjamin Harrison was. His only mark in the history books is that he served in between two nonconsecutive presidential terms of Grover Cleveland. Benjamin Harrison had been a Major General in the Civil War. He had seen death on a massive scale. And one of the things that troubled him most in his four, short years in the White House was the avalanche of suicide notices he was receiving on his desk from the War Department. Suicide was devastating the frontier army. And Harrison ordered the War Department to begin taking count of how many American soldiers took their lives with their own hands.

This is a problem that has been with us for that long. We saw a massive ramp-up in suicides prior to the attack in Pearl Harbor. We saw a massive jump in the days after Vietnam. But this is a national problem. One of the days I testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the New York Times and National Public Radio ran stories about a 30 percent increase in teen suicides amongst those teenagers who watched a Netflix show called 13 Reasons Why. Today, suicide is the number one cause of death for American youth. The New York City Police Department, the finest in the world, is now being hit with an epidemic of suicides.

In our Veteran’s world, 20 a day take their lives. Of those twenty, 60 percent have no contact with VA. The majority of those who take their lives are from my father’s generation from Vietnam. Ladies and gentlemen, Lyndon Johnson left Washington, D.C., 50 years ago in January. That is how long many of these problems have been brewing with so many of our warriors. So for the first time we are making a national call to combat this scourge. The PREVENTS Task Force from the President is the first attempt to bring a whole-of-government, whole-health approach to the issue of suicide. By bringing Indian Health, HHS, DoD, HUD, and the National Institutes of Health to come together and find ways to reach Americans.

Now, I have said, and it’s been pointed out, I am not a medical professional. I do know soldiers. It has been said that most Federal commissions write reports that the day after become doorstops. I had a great fear for this one, because if we just focus on the last tragic act in a Veteran’s life, this would be another report that serves as a doorstop for those doors over there. So I have asked us to take a deep-dive into mental health, into addiction, and into homelessness, that tragic continuum that leads to so many tragedies. I am confident that we will have a new direction come March, and I thank the administration for bringing the resources together to do that.

So I will conclude. And then we can have questions. But if I had one message for all of you, for the country, on Veterans Day, it would be to remind everyone that none of our great leaders of the past or present ever wanted caring for Veterans to be an activity for one day. When it comes to Veterans, some of our biggest successes as a nation have come from realizing that we have a special responsibility and that we can never go back to those days in the 1970s when those who put on those uniforms were shunned by the nation as a whole.

So every time a company hires a Veteran or provides a flexible work schedule for family members to care for Veterans that company sets and example for America. Every time you donate money, every time you donate time or food or work for causes like the Fisher House Foundation, which builds housing to keep families closer together when that Veteran or that soldier is getting treatment, you are serving the cause. And I am an example of what used to happen when a soldier came home. My mother was not even allowed to visit my father for the one year that he was recovering from his wounds because it was not part of the ethic. We now know that if a Veteran or a soldier on active duty is to recover, those Americans need the care and comfort of their families close at hand.

So at VA we are seeking more ways, more ways more often, to improve and to realize that the task is too big for any one federal department to organize a national thank-you for America’s Veterans. So we are working with the states and localities, the non-profits, and others that we see in the system to come together and finally say that the freedoms that we enjoy were carried on the shoulders of our fellow citizens.

I want to close before we begin questions with a little personal reflection, because I’m going to commit a sacrilege. I am from a part of the country that has contributed a few great things to western civilization: Louis Armstrong, Elvis, Coca-Cola, and William Faulkner. Last year I was a guest at Rowan Oak, the ancestral home of Mr. Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. And it was pointed out to me that my great aunt—who ended up being the first woman, American woman, to be the Chief Judge on the Court of Veterans Appeals during the Franklin Roosevelt administration—as a young student at Ole Miss she had convinced this rather eccentric gentleman who used to walk around Oxford, Mississippi, in the uniform of an officer of the Royal Canadian Flying Corp with two big boxers—he was known as Count No Count—she convinced him to use some of that eccentric imagination in the service of literature. And he wrote six short plays for the Ole Miss Marionette Society, and I was privileged at Rowan Oak to talk about that.

But I wanted to reflect when I was there what I thought William Faulkner always wanted to be, and that was a soldier. He came from a long line of soldiers, and he had been a mechanic in the Canadian Air Force during World War I, but he always dreamed of being on the front lines. The most profound speech I think any American gave in the 20th century was one dedicated to all of you in this room, to writers and journalists. It was Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It’s the shortest Nobel Prize acceptance speech in history, by the way, and the most powerful. But he was talking to you, to writers, to journalists. But I think in his heart he was really talking to soldiers, the soldier that he wanted to be.

So the sacrilege that I have committed is that I have substituted the word writer with the word soldier in the last two paragraphs of Faulkner’s address. And he said, with my addition, The soldier must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid. And, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room for anything but the old verities, the old truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed. He writes of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope, and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. But until the soldier relearns those things, he lives as though he stood among and watched the end of man. But I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure and that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging timeless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound, that of a soldier’s inexhaustible voice still talking about hope.

I think that is what we are about. We’re about hope. We’re about fulfilling a pledge never to fail nor forsake those who have borne the battle.

And as I said at the beginning, it is always an honor for me to be here to pay my respects to a profession that knows so much about those sacrifices, and a profession that those soldiers have sacrificed so much to keep vibrant and free.

So thank you all very much.