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 Winter Conference
Washington, DC
March 10, 2020

Boy, it’s hard following Donald Trump, and it’s hard following Jenny Korn. (Laughter). I have to tell you. I just got an invitation to give the commencement address at Clemson University. The future champions. (Laughter). That creates a problem for me because I attended the finishing school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest. (Laughter). Our football dorm is named after Arnold Palmer. (Laughter). And our mascot is a Southern Baptist preacher. (Laughter).

So I actually addressed the Clemson team a couple of years ago and I said, “I was part of an organization that contributed to all of the great records at Clemson’s Memorial State. (Laughter). The most points scored by Clemson in the 1st quarter, most points scored by Clemson at half-time, it was, they scored 87 points that day.

And you know, they have a mascot, the Tiger, who struck fear into the hearts of Nick Sabin and those folks down in Tuskaloosa. But, they still are scared. And the Tiger does pushups to match the number of points Clemson has scored. It was 73 to nothing in the 3rd quarter. And the Tiger disappeared. (Laughter). And the only thing we saw was an ambulance coming out of the Clemson tunnel, the Tiger is splayed out in the end zone, little tiger hat’s off, his face as red as a Coke can, and they carted him off. And Coach Grobe, who went on to weave his magic at the University of Virginia later, had a press conference. One intrepid reporter said, “Coach, is there anything you can say about today’s game?” And he said, “Yeah Wake Forest University killed that damn Tiger.” (Laughter). And I’ll say to your national commander, my wife didn’t go to college, she went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (Laughter).

It is an honor to be here. It is an honor to be with the Legion. Many generations of my family in Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana have been amongst your ranks since the end of the Great War. And it is also an honor for me to be here with my fellow tar heel, and that’s little T, because I mentioned my wife going to Chapel Hill, she is a tar heel with a big T. But to represent a state where this year 1 in 9 North Carolinians will be a veteran. And I always say, having grown up at Ft. Bragg, the most important piece of highway in the United States of America is in eastern North Carolina. It’s North Carolina Highway 24 it connects to 70,000 troops at Ft. Bragg to 40 percent of the United States Marine Corp at Camp Lejeune at Cherry Point and America goes nine times out of ten it will be paratroopers from Ft. Bragg or Marines from eastern North Carolina who will be the tip of spear. So it is absolutely wonderful that you are the National Commander in representing all of you (Applause).

I also want to do something that is not often done in Washington, and that is sing the praises of someone who is leaving. And that is Lou Celli. The American Legion has been blessed to have, as its face, and its voice, someone who has served, someone who knows this town, but more importantly, someone who is passionate about those who have borne the battle. Lou is a towering figure in what we call our business. And an example is that the very first person I met when I was asked to do this job, having been the Under Secretary of Defense, who was a representative of the Legion, he is man of rare stamp, and it has been an honor for me to be by his side and you all have been very lucky to have him. So I thank you very much on behalf of VA and the President. (Applause).

Before I talk a little bit about the changes of VA, which I think many in America have seen in the last two years, I want to talk about something that the Legion has known for well over a hundred years, and that is the concept of why we fight. I mentioned growing up at Ft. Bragg. My father’s brave hero was Matthew Ridgway, the greatest of all airborne warriors. Ridgway had seen the world, World War I, World War II, Korea, and as an advisor to President Kennedy and President Johnson on what not to do in Vietnam.

And it was in, actually in, on the evening of D-Day, when Ridgway began to assume legendary status. He had led the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily and General Eisenhower and General Montgomery, Field Marshal Montgomery, had asked him to plan the airborne assault on Hitler’s fortress Europe. The All Americans, the Screaming Eagles and the Red Devils of the British First Airborne, and he was so restless on June 5th that he actually fell out of his cot. And he reached for the Old Testament, and he looked for purpose, for meaning for what was about to happen, because he knew that about 30 percent of his paratroopers would not survive the initial landing or the gliders. And he reached for the Old Testament and he pulled down the Book of Joshua. He looked to God’s promise to Joshua on the evening of the Battle of Jericho and he said, “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”

And Ridgway slept that sleep that night of the saved. But a few years later he was called back to another crisis in Korea. Some of the people in this room know that. And he was asked to halt the reeling 8th Army and turn it around to victory. And the first thing he did when he walked into the headquarters was to say, “What is you plan of attack?” The Colonel, who was the Ops Officer said, “General we will retreat.” Ridgway said, “Colonel, you are now relieved.” And he looked back and he said, “We will find them, we will fight them, and we will fix this.” And then he was asked later, by the Stars and Stripes, why is America here?

And Ridgway said it this way: “America was here, because this is about whether the power of Western Civilization, as God has permitted it to flower in our own beloved country, shall defy and defeat communism. Whether the rule of men who shoot their prisoners, enslave their citizens, and derive the dignity of man shall displace the rule of those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred. It has become and continues to be a fight for own freedom, for our own survival.”

I think that sums up the spirit of the Legion, and it also sums up the spirit of those 41 million Americans who have put on the uniform since the first shots were fired on Lexington Green in April of 1775. And of those 41 million, over a million of our fellow citizens have paid the ultimate sacrifice. So that is why VA is here. It was 155 years ago last week that Abraham Lincoln created this institution that we all love, in the most spiritually powerful of addresses ever given by a President of the United States, and said it is time to bind up the Nation’s wounds and to care for him who shall borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan. And one of the last acts of his life before he went to the theater, was to sign charters creating soldiers’ homes in Togas, Maine, Dayton, Ohio, and Toma, Wisconsin. And those homes are still with us today.

So how is, what is the state of your VA? The state of your VA is good. We are not rocked by systemic scandal, by people waiting to see the doctors that they’re entitle to see. We are in the middle of the most transformative period of reform since Omar Bradley stood in the spot that I now occupy. We have seen more veterans this last year than we have seen in our history – 60 million appointments within VA took place in 2019, that is 2 million more than took place in 2018. (Applause). Our wait times are as good or better than any in the private sector. And what I predicted to Lou and to this leadership, has happened.

Veterans are voting with their feet. We have given them the opportunity with the Mission Act, when we can’t provide a veteran with a service he or she needs in a timely manner, that veteran has the opportunity to go into the private sector. But veterans want to go where people understand the culture and speak the language. (Applause).

So, only in Washington, DC, could someone like me present a budget that is $243 billion strong, calling for 400,000 employees and somebody still says we’re trying to privatize an institution. Only in this town. But back to veterans voting with their feet. Our veteran satisfaction scores are at an all-time high. They sit at 90 percent. And that is a testament to the confidence that you have placed in this remarkable institution. And your brothers at the VFW in their most recent survey not only validated that, but they said that 90 percent of their members are urging those veterans who are not part of our system to join us, and that too is a testament.

So, lets talk about those organizational changes. The Mission Act. We already talked about given veterans choice. But for me, the son of a highly decorated, but gravely wounded combat soldier from Vietnam, most important part of the Mission Act was to finally close one of those last loops left over from that fight in Southeast Asia. We have finally published the regulations that give financial and material support to the families of our Vietnam warriors who take care of those warriors at home, and it is long past time that we did that. (Applause).

And let me, let me digress for a minute, that is why the Legion is so important. Those were dark times. Those were my earliest memories of the world beyond the military post.

I’ve said many times that my father was gravely wounded in Cambodia, it took him a year to recover in Tripoli before they let him come back to North Carolina. And then three years more before he went back to the 82nd. But one of the things that stuck in my mind as a youngster, was here was a soldier, as part of the All American Division, he wasn’t even allowed to wear his uniform off post. That was not Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was not Berkley, California, that was southeastern North Carolina, the heart of Richard Nixon country. What the Legion means, is that we never return to those days when American turned its back on those men and women who provide us the very freedoms that we breathe and live every day. So I thank you for that. (Applause).

We have begun closing that other loop with the Blue Water Navy. Those benefits are out. We expect 70,000 veterans to apply and receive those benefits that are long overdue. We started processing them on New Year’s Eve in the Philippines because their day was before ours, and we have ramped up that system and I thank you very much for your support on that.

The other thing that is out there that is, it is more sublime and that is suicide prevention. In a couple of weeks, I will be standing with the President to launch a national roadmap on suicide prevention with veterans at the center of that effort. It’s called PREVENTS. Ladies and gentlemen, suicide amongst those who have carried the battle is not a new issue. The Army started taking statistics on this in 1892 and it has been steady since then, but no one has bothered to add a national conversation about the toll that battle takes on those who have come home.

So, every day twenty warriors take their lives, the majority still from the Vietnam era. Sixty percent of those who take their lives we don’t see. So when the PREVENTS task for issues its report, it will open the aperture on how we get resources to groups like the Legion, to Catholic charities, to states and localities so that they can help us find those veterans we can’t see and bring them home to _____ VA.

But if we just look at that last tragic act in a veteran’s life, we will be doing the great injustice, if we do not speak to mental health, and I’ll give you a story about that. We’ve never had a national conversation about mental health. When I was little and it was the centennial at Ft. Sill, I was about this tall and all of the officers in the schoolhouse were sitting in bleachers and my mother and I were behind the rope. And all of a sudden, all of those officers snapped to attention in a manner that I’ve never seen, never saw before and I’ve never seen since. And a fellow about this tall walked past and my mother tapped me on the shoulder, she said, “You watch him on television.” And then I asked who it was. She said, “That’s Audie Murphy.”

Years later, I spoke to Audie Murphy’s wife, and she told me a story. He, being the most decorated American soldier. And for the rest of his life, after he returned from Europe, he kept a pistol under his pillow and woke up at night in a deep sweat. He had never had the courage to speak about those things that you all have experienced. I think that this PREVENTS task force is the beginning of that long overdue conversation. But if you don’t talk about mental health, if you don’t talk about addiction, if you don’t talk about the 38,000 veterans who are homeless, then we will be doing a disservice to you and to all that have worn the uniform.

The other thing, electronic health. We are on track to finally end the days of people like my father carrying around and 800-page paper record. (Applause). So that the minute that young veterans walks in to a military entrance processing station, a record is built of that service. You don’t have to guess, you will know where that veteran was, know where that veteran fought, it will be intraoperative so that when that veteran goes to his local hometown doctor, that doctor puts in information that we can use to create an entire picture of that veteran’s health. They will no longer have to guess. I think this is one of the most, if not the most important project that the federal government is working on right now. I expect it to be rolled out in Spokane and later in Seattle this year, and it will revolutionize the care that VA gives to those have done so much for our country. (Applause).

So, the last thing I will address with you is something that is on the minds of all Americans, and that is the coronavirus. I am on the President’s task force. I think I will be speaking at the Press Conference that Vice-President holds later this afternoon. As you know, in all of our VA facilities now, we stop you before you go in. We are making sure that those who come to us are screened, we ask questions, we take temperatures. I will also announce that for our 134 assisted living centers, that we will be going into an emergency situation, where we will limit visitors coming to our nursing facilities so that we can protect those who are in those facilities, most of whom are over the age of 80. We need to do that to make sure that those who use VA are protected, that they are cared for. And as with everything else, the Armed Forces of the United States does, we will get over this and we will make sure everything is done to protect those who have done so much for our country. (Applause).

Now, with everything else going on, clash in politics, coronavirus, we have not forgotten VA’s legacy of medical innovation that has done so much for the country. VA was the first to create a pacemaker. VA was the first to perform a liver transplant. VA was first, and I say this as North Carolinians, we were the first ones to develop that nicotine patch. We have been in the lead. A few weeks ago, I just approved the coming on line of America’s first 5G hospital, our hospital in Palo Alto, California. We are out in front of the rest of the country. So that now through 5G, through things like precision oncology, through tele-health, we are reaching veterans in ways that the private sector has never thought of. And that too, is another reason why our veterans are coming to us in records numbers.

I will conclude. I will end on a personal note. I was very happy helping General Mattis blow things up as the Under Secretary of Defense just a few years ago when this call came. I’m gonna tell you what I told Lou Celli that I have told the Legion, that for me, as the son of a soldier, and still serving in the Reserves, there has been no greater professional experience or higher honor than to be part of the veteran’s family. To be part of a family that represents the very best of what this country stands for.

So I will finish by going back to General Ridgway. In 1986, Ronald Regan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he said, “Heroes come when they are needed. Great Americans step forward when courage seems in short supply.” That is the American Legion, from that day right after World War I to today. It’s about great American me and women stepping forward when courage seems in short supply.

So on behalf of the President of the United States, on behalf of your Veteran’s Affairs Department, I thank you. God Bless you. Thank you for everything you do, not only to preserve the freedom of this nation, but to be a light for the rest of the world. Thank you all very much. (Applause).