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

Washington, DC
July 7, 2020

Thank you very much Barbara, and thank you Mrs. Pence for bringing your attention and passion to this most important of issues. Barbara mentioned those magic words from my youth, Ft. Bragg, and I’m going to keep returning to that time in my brief remarks.

Growing up, the looming presence at Ft. Bragg was General Matthew Ridgway. He had commanded the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily, and he had planned the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe and one day he was sitting on his porch at Ft. Myer when President Truman called and said, “It’s time for you to go to Korea.”

He was sent to salvage what was left of the 8th Army on the Korean peninsula. In fact, in his very first briefing, he asked the operations chief, “What is you plan of attack?” The operations chief said, “We don’t have one.” He was relieved on the spot.

In his memoir, about the Korean War, he explained how he was able to motivate troops who were in a bad way. He said that the fighting spirit of American soldiers is “rooted in the individual sense of security, of belonging to a unit that will stand by him.” He knew that men in combat were vulnerable to, as he said, “That awful sense of aloneness that can sometimes overtake anyone in battle. The feeling that nobody gives a damn, and that that man only has his own resources to depend on.”

That is what Mrs. Pence was talking about. Ridgway might as well have been talking about Americans today who were at risk of suicide, because they feel they don’t belong and they feel nobody cares.

Back to my youth at Ft. Bragg, my father, who recovered from grievous wounds, was a senior officer in America’s most decorated combat unit, the 82nd Airborne Division. And yet he was not allowed to wear his uniform off post, because the American people had rejected those who had borne the burden in Southeast Asia.

So, Ridgway’s solution to that was as Mrs. Pence said to spend time with people. Talk with them frequently. As he said, cultivating the assurance that they belong to a group that will return their loyalty no matter what danger threatens.

And today, we are launching a public health campaign to end suicide in America that is based on the same idea that General Ridgway discovered in Korea. Early intervention helps and connecting with people can give them a sense of belonging that keeps them in the fight. The effort that was made in Korea is now the effort we must make to help end veteran suicide. It is preventable. And thanks to this initiative, we are committed to working together to identify veterans and non-veterans who are at risk and direct them to a growing network of resources.

Mrs. Pence pointed to the numbers. Back to my youth. In high school, in southeastern North Carolina, the leading cause of death for my peers was automobile accidents. Today, in southeastern North Carolina the leading cause of death for junior high school and high school students is suicide.

This is not a new issue for the military. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison began to receive disturbing reports of death by suicide amongst officers and men in the frontier army. And he asked for reports from the war department to inform him as to what was actually going on.

That was 130 years ago. And since that time we have seen steady numbers. They peak right before World War II, they accelerated explodingly after Vietnam, and finally, finally we as a nation are finally getting around to address not just the last tragic act in a veteran’s life, but those things that we have not had that national conversation about: mental health, addiction and homelessness. Sixty percent of the veterans who take their lives by suicide are not part of our VA family. The majority we know are from my father’s era in Vietnam.

As Mrs. Pence said, we now have the wisdom to see that the answer lies outside the walls of government. That’s why we’re working on every level with faith-based organizations, NGO’s, companies and schools and anyone else who can help provide resources to help their fellow citizens.

As Mrs. Pence said, that’s the purpose of REACH, the REACH campaign that we are launching here today, to remind everyone that they can make a difference by learning how to connect with those at risk, and point them in the right direction. Nobody knows better than you all how to connect with family, your neighborhood, your workplace, your faith, and this campaign will give people more tools to have an impact.

For the last year or so, as I mentioned, I have been calling for a national conversation about mental health so we can finally address this national tragedy of suicide. President Trump actually started something bigger than that: the PREVENTS initiative and this campaign is an attempt to change the culture of the country.

Back to my youth. The notion that my father or any of his colleagues, his comrades who had fought in Southeast Asia, some of them actually fought in Korea and in Vietnam, would discuss any apprehensions or anxieties that they had with any of their comrades was anathema to the ethos. In those times, those feelings were suppressed and the human tragedy was incalculable.

That’s not how we should be as a society. It takes strength to talk to others, and that is in large part what this effort is about. No matter where you are in life, no matter what profession that you follow, it is talking, it is looking to higher power, and it is looking to your fellow man. We are much farther along because of what has happened in the last year than we have been in a long time, but we are not close to home. As we make progress, I hope we can all remember that our veterans are leading the way.

In 18634, when President Lincoln was thanking the military regimen from New York for supporting his government, he told them that veterans would have a voice in his administration. He said, “To you who render the hardest work for its support, should be given the greatest credit.”

For so many years it was veterans who bore the brunt of the tragedy of suicide, and we should thank them once again and give them the greatest credit for the lessons we’ve learned.

And I will close again with General Ridgway. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986 by Ronald Regan. Ronald Regan said that, “Great men step forward when they are needed. Heroes come when courage seems in short supply.” This effort is about great American men and women and heroes who step forward when the country has asked them to do things that many of their fellow citizens would not. And this is a service that we owe to them, we owe to their families, and we owe to our nation.

So Mrs. Pence, I thank you for everything that you’ve done; Barbara, for leading this effort; our Deputy Colonel Pamela Powers; my friends Matt Donovan and Elise Van Winkle; as well as the Surgeon General for taking this on and setting a new course for those who bear freedom on their soldiers and a new course of the country. Thank you all very much.