Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Veterans Day, Arlington National Cemetery
November 11, 2019
Thank you, Mr. Kowalski, and the Catholic War Veterans for this glorious day. Mr. Vice President, to my colleagues, and the cabinet, to the Veterans of the United States, to Chairman Takano of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, on behalf of the President of the United States, welcome to Arlington.
Today, we gather to honor Veterans. Just across that river, in the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln would ride alongside ambulances full of wounded soldiers as they were taken to hospitals just north of the White House, and he would constantly ask them, “How are things going? What are you seeing?” In those days, the weary president was constantly looking for ways to honor and to respect those who carried the nation’s future on their bayonets. He knew that if we were going to have a nation at all, it would be these men who would deliver our future. He thanked, in 1864, the 189th New York volunteers when he said, “To you who render the hardest work in support of this nation should be given the greatest credit.” It was Lincoln who set the tone for what we see today as our Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Generations after President Lincoln, Sergeant Alvin York showed America what it means to revere our country and to revere those who defend our country. York was America’s greatest hero. But having returned from World War I, he was besieged by advertisers and Hollywood types begging for his endorsement so he could profit from his heroics. He declined all those offers as only a mountain man from East Tennessee could. He said, “This uniform ain’t for sale.”
Years later, as the guns of Europe began to get closer and closer to the shore of our country, York reminded Americans again why Veterans fought. He said, “Liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and then stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and then keep fighting, eternally, to hold them.”
Sometimes, despite what our Veterans delivered, support for Veterans in this country has been fragile since Alvin York returned from France. In the 1930s, Veterans marched on this city and were greeted with tanks. Franklin Roosevelt knew what was going on. And as Veterans saw his wife pass amongst them to say that all things would come right in the end, one private from Alvin York’s division said, “They sent the Army a few weeks ago, and Roosevelt sent Eleanor.”
A soldier of the first war, Harry Truman knew what had gone wrong. And to make sure that those things didn’t happen again, he ordered his fellow Missourian Omar Bradley to take hold of the Department of Veterans Affairs, known then as the Veterans Administration. General Bradley built 150 hospitals. He administered educational benefits to 7.5 million returning Veterans. And he set America on the course for doing the right thing that it had forgotten in between the two great wars.
But things did not continue that way. When my father went to Vietnam, the tide had turned again. We forgot why we sent Americans overseas, and the wisdom of taking care of those who put this nation’s freedom on their backs. There were no welcome home parades. And my father, a senior officer in America’s most decorated combat division, was not even allowed to wear his uniform off of Fort Bragg. There was such neglect that our friends at the Vietnam Veterans of America created the most lasting slogan: “Never again will one generation of Veterans abandon another.” That must be our charge today and always. We must vow never to let those dark days return and to always be a welcoming family for those who have, as Lincoln said, “borne the battle.”
I will close today with the thoughts of the greatest of airborne warriors, Matthew Bunker Ridgway. He led the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily, and General Eisenhower tasked him with leading the airborne assault on Hitler’s fortress Europe. And he planned the operations of the Screaming Eagles, the All Americans, and the Red Devils of the British 1st Airborne Division. General Ridgway could not sleep. He was so restless that he fell out of his cot. He reached for the Old Testament and into the Book of Joshua, and he pulled down the description of the Battle of Jericho and God’s promise to that great general, “I shall not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”
In 1986, General Ridgway was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. And Ronald Reagan said, “Heroes come when they are needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.” This day is about heroes, but it is also about all of those 41 million American men and women who have stepped forward when courage seems in short supply from the moment the first shots were fired on Lexington Green. It is our duty never to fail, nor forsake thee.
And it is now my high honor and distinct pleasure to introduce to you the father of a Marine Corp aviator, a man who has spent his career making sure that those who have answered the call to the colors are treated with the respect and reverence that they deserve.
It is my great honor to introduce the Vice President of the United States, the Honorable Mike Pence.