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

SECVA at Dayton VAMC history center
Dayton, Ohio
August 10, 2020

I am not going to be so gauche as to talk about college football. (Laughter) coming from Clemson and LSU. I am going to talk to you about what veterans in Ohio have meant to my family and I’ll tie it into football.

My father was a big man, great athlete, at about 6’2”, 240, which in 1970 is a big man; today it’s not even an Ohio State quarterback. He was grievously wounded in Cambodia. In fact, about six months into his recovery at the Army Hospital in Hawaii he weighed about 120 pounds. He was visited by a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander who was known for his compassion to troops and his ability to motivate anyone who stood in front of him.

And that Lieutenant Commander told this terribly wounded and sad young major, “Son, you will recover. Recover for your family, you will recover for your nation. And I predict that in a few years you’ll be back at Ft. Bragg once again jumping out of the airplanes with the red beret of the 82nd Airborne Division.”

A few years later we were attending the Ohio State-Alabama game at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. My father had recovered his strength. He was walking amongst all of the Alabama fans, and towered over many of them, and on his head was a simple declarative statement in scarlet and gray that said, “Woody is God.” (Laughter).

That was the impact that Ohio had on my family. A man from Columbus who motivated a soldier who was just clinging to life. And that’s another reason why it is so important to be here in Dayton.

Dayton and Ohio really is the crossroads of America. No story of veterans is complete without being here. This was one of the three places Abraham Lincoln himself chose to serve the veterans from that pestilential conflict that he had overseen. In fact, one of the last acts of his life was to create the soldier’s and sailor’s home here in Dayton, Ohio.

Lincoln’s proximity to that war had a profound effect on him. He would often trail the ambulances of wounded soldiers going to hospitals north of the White House. He would peer in and he would ask, “How are you doing? How is it going?” And it was that second inaugural address, which I believe is the most biblically righteous address ever given by a president of the United States that set us on a course to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, the words that became the very seeds of what we do today as we serve all veterans, no matter where they come from, no matter who they are.

It was the success of this place that gave confidence to the nation that it could live up to Lincoln’s promise. That home was open here in 1867 and in 1871, it received its very first presidential visit, a native of Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant. You know Grant was the indestructible and indominable leader of forces during the Civil War, but in may ways Grant represented not only the spirit of Ohio, but he represented the spirit of those 41 million ordinary Americans who have taken up the uniform since the first shots were fired at Lexington in April of 1775.

Grant had failed at everything he ever did in life, except marriage. But when the war came, there was a higher calling for him. He ended up commanding Union forces at Shiloh, and he suffered a terrible defeat on the first day. His flanks were caved in, his back was to the river, 10,000 of his soldiers quit. He was sitting in the rain whittling a stick when his friend, General Sherman, came up and said, “Grant, we’ve had the devil to pay today.” And Grant didn’t even look up and he said, “Look at tomorrow though.”

That is the indominable spirit of the American soldier, and the indominable spirit of a place like this. You know, Grant had a soldier’s humility of his experiences, which he shared with people here in Dayton when he came, including looking out into an audience where a 4-year-old Orville Wright was standing. Grant had this to say. He said, “There are many men who have done better than I did, and would have done better than I did under the circumstances in which America found itself. If I had never held command, if I had fallen, there were 10,000 behind me who would have followed the contest to the end and never surrendered.”

At the chapel, just a few feet from where we are today, he echoed President’s Lincoln’s words by saying, “Veterans had received their wounds in an honorable cause and deserve the eternal gratitude of the American people.” Caring for heroes who raise their hands, swear the oath, and fight for this nation, has now become part of the American ethos. But that ethos was fully formed right here in Dayton.

And now the story of how we care for veterans starting here at Dayton is going to become a national one. As Mike said last April, I formalized plans to establish the National VA History Center here in Dayton. This is its home. This is where it has to be. This history center will let VA tell the public about those 41 million veterans who have served in extraordinary circumstances. And that is why we are here.

And I want to thank the folks at the VA History Center Foundation, the congressional delegation, and the community leaders for believing in that vision, and also cementing Ohio’s place as the home of America’s veterans. I had the privilege a few, many months ago of cutting the ribbon at the VA Center, the VA Museum in Columbus, with General Powell. This is the shining end to that journey. This will keep hope alive and make sure that the story of the men and women who have carried the burden of freedom on their shoulders is never forgotten.

I want to finish with two stories that I’m fond of telling. One involves another common man, a man of the American Heartland who, when World War II began, was a 54-year-old Lieutenant Colonel with very little prospect of advancing, but at the war’s end he had defeated Nazi Germany as the commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force – of course, it’s Dwight Eisenhower.

When General Eisenhower became president, he was informed that he had inherited a presidential yacht, the Williamsburg. But being a man of the American Heartland, Eisenhower felt that a presidential yacht for a democracy at war was an extravagance unworthy of the people, and he ordered it scrapped. But there was one person in Washington whose orders General Eisenhower could never counterman, Mamie’s.

She said, “No. Keep it. But when you take it out, just take it out with soldiers.” So five months after he was inaugurated, you know the kabuki dance that followed, the President of the United States pulls up to the Washington Naval Pier and immediately the Secret Service deploy to separate the President of the United States from 40 soldiers who had assembled on the deck of that ship. Most of them were missing limbs, the rest were horribly disfigured, and as only a five star General of the Army could do, Eisenhower yelled, “Halt. Get behind me, I know these men.”

They asked those that could to stand, and they did. And he said, “You have one charge from me. You never put that uniform away. You live to remind your fellow citizens every night why they sleep soundly.”

A few years later, I told the story of the greatest of all airborne warriors, Matthew Bunker Ridgway. General Ridgway had commanded the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily, and he was tasked by President Eisenhower, or General Eisenhower, with leading the airborne assault on Hitler’s fortress Europe. He commanded the All American Division, the screaming Eagles and the Red Devils of the British 1st Airborne.

But the night before he was to launch 35,000 paratroopers, he was so restless he fell out of his cot, and he reached for the Old Testament, and he pulled down the description of the Battle of Jericho and the Book of Joshua, and God’s promise to that great general that “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” In 1986, General Ridgway was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Regan. Regan said, “Heroes come when they are needed, great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.”

That is what this history center is about. It is about America never again failing nor forsaking the men and women who carried the burden on their shoulders, and it is about those heroes and those great men and women who step forward always when courage seems in short supply.

So again, there is no better home for the veteran’s story that this place, that has been sanctified by the signature of Abraham Lincoln and blessed by the presence of Ulysses Grant, but also blessed by the presence of thousands and thousands of veterans who have come through its doors, and by the thousands and thousands of Ohioans who have made the personal sacrifice to care for all of those who Lincoln said borne the battle. So thank you all. God bless you all, and God bless this wonderful history center. Thank you. (Applause).