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

VA-Elizabeth Dole Foundation Virtual Convening
Washington, DC
October 19, 2020

Thank you very much, Senator Dole. And I’m going to go off script here for a second and just say that it is always an honor for me to be in the company of a singular patriot.

Senator Dole’s work has been brought home to me in the last few years because my story starts as a youngster, a youngster like many others throughout American history who stood and watched their father go off to war. In my case, it was go off to war several times.

My father was a big man, weighed about 274 pounds. In 1970, that’s a big fella. Today, that’s not even a quarterback. But after being seriously wounded in the jungles of Cambodia and spending a year in an Army hospital, he returned to us weighing less than half of what he did when he went. Now, he eventually recovered, but the shock didn’t stop with the recovery from those wounds.

He returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to the All American Division – the most decorated combat force in all the armed forces of the United States. And, yet, he was not allowed, as a senior officer, to wear that red beret off post. Such were the times.

That’s why I said Mrs. Dole is a singular patriot. Not only has she taken up the cause for all of those who have borne the greatest burden in the defense of this nation and in the assistance that we provide to friends all around the world, she’s provided hope to people like my mother, who, in her later years, took care of my father at home at a time when, even then, America did not recognize the sacrifice of those hundreds of thousands who went on to Southeast Asia.

She has my undying thanks, but also the thanks of the entire nation.

I also want to thank the Dole Foundation for making Mrs. Dole’s vision a reality: Steve Schwab – he’s the CEO – and everything that he has done on behalf of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines across this nation and around the world; and on my own VA team Dr. Lynda Davis, who has been tireless in her advocacy not only for Veterans, but for those who care for our Veterans; Lisa Pape, who you heard from just a few minutes ago, has also been there on the frontlines making sure that we never go back to those dark days of the 1960s and 1970s.

I also want to thank Deborah Scher. She is not here, but she has been responsible for opening the aperture on our corporate partnerships so that all of America is involved in this particular battle to make sure that our Veterans are welcome home and their families are taken care of.

I mentioned the fight in Cambodia. Now, there’s another story from another, more distant battlefield. The 10th Mountain Division was engaged in vicious fighting in the mountains of Italy. In the middle of 1945, a young man from Kansas – like my father, a huge man for his time – was leading the soldiers, the infantrymen of his division across a hotly contested road when he, too, was cut down by enemy fire. His body was torn apart. In fact, he was left for dead when somebody realized that this young man was still alive.

He spent three years in an Army hospital, returned to Kansas, and he wrote a letter to his family who began to take care of him during his recovery. He said, “Everything that the nurses, attendants, and the Red Cross Gray Ladies had done in the hospital has to be done at home.” He wrote, “There was just Mom, Dad, and my sister, Norma Jean, to help.”

Those are the recollections of one of America’s great heroes, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. And his story continues to be an inspiration to all of us who have put on the uniform in the service of our country.

But that is just one of many stories – a multitude of stories, some we’ll hear today – that teach us that selfless service does not end when the guns go quiet. Many families, friends, and neighbors selflessly carry a part of the burden that our warriors shoulder . . . our caregivers, the nation’s hidden heroes, the indispensable Americans who help fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s promise and charge to care for all of those who have borne the battle.

So, caregivers to the forefront is the right theme for this meeting, and it resonates throughout American history. Caregivers have been at the forefront for as long as Sailors and Airmen, Soldiers and Marines have been fighting to defend our freedom. Long before the word caregiver was ever coined, our job was keeping you there, supporting you, and caring for you.

Keeping you at the forefront is why two years ago we stood at the state-of-the-art Elizabeth Dole Center for Excellence for Veteran Caregiver Research – to invest your unique perspective into designing the most innovative and the very best practices to support Veterans’ caregivers, Veteran caregivers like my mother.

Keeping you at the forefront is why a year ago the Elizabeth Dole Foundation launched a Campaign for Inclusive Care to ensure you’re an integral part of the VA healthcare team. We ran a pilot of the Academy for Inclusive Care in January at three of our VA networks to teach VA providers best practices and fully integrate you and your knowledge into Veterans’ healthcare plans.

And I’ll quickly say this on behalf of our VA employees. Our inclusive care approach is recognized by health professionals all across the country and is even improving care in the private sector. So, I’m happy to announce that we’re instituting our Academy for Inclusive Care training model across the entire VA, system wide. We need to quickly and fully integrate you into the fabric of VA healthcare.

Keeping you at the forefront is why we included caregivers in the design of the new electronic health record system that we will launch on Saturday, so that people like my father, when they come home from battle, will never again have to carry around a disintegrated, 800-page paper record.

Keeping you at the forefront is why under the Mission Act we’re expanding that caregiver program, now, to finally include the soldiers of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Let me put the Vietnam experience in perspective. Saigon fell 45 years ago this last May. Lyndon Johnson left Washington, D.C., 51 years ago this last January. That is how long it has taken us to finally close one of the last circles left from the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Veteran eligibility now includes those with a single or combined service-connected disability rating of 70 percent or higher, whether that’s a result of injury, illness, or disease. Veterans who now average above the age of 70, many with multiple complex conditions, need your assistance, and we want to keep them at home with family and friends, receiving great care and support, not in a hospital.

We expect this first phase of expansion will let us enroll twice as many eligible Veterans and caregivers. And remember, wraparound caregiver support is always available to caregivers and families, now, of Veterans from every era. This is peer-support, mentored self-care, coaching support groups, skills training, and local resources to bring together Veterans Affairs Department and communities across this country.

And again, we ask you, we urge you to take full measure of the benefits that you have so rightly deserved.  

I want to finish with something that I think of often when I think of Senator Dole’s contribution to the warriors who have borne the burden of freedom on their shoulders for so long.

The numbers are staggering. Since the first shots were fired at Lexington Green in April of 1775, 41 million Americans have put on the uniform. Of those 41 million, over a million have paid the ultimate price. What Mrs. Dole has done to honor all of those who served is revolutionary, it’s uplifting, and it is what we all owe the Americans who have taken care of us in times of great stress.

So I want to finish with a story that was very popular where I grew up. I mentioned that my father was a senior leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. And the greatest of all airborne heroes was a fellow named Matthew Bunker Ridgeway.

General Ridgeway commanded the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily. General Eisenhower tasked him with planning the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. And he laid out the operations for the All Americans, the Screaming Eagles, and the Red Devils of the British 1st Airborne.

But he was so restless that the night of the invasion he actually fell out of his cot, and he reached for sustenance from the Old Testament, the Book of Joshua, and the description of the Battle of Jericho – up to that time the greatest battle in the history of the Hebrew people. And he reached for God’s promise to the great general, “I shall not fail nor forsake thee.”

In 1986, Ronald Reagan gave General Ridgeway the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He said, “Heroes come when they are needed, but great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.”

That’s what Mrs. Dole is about. She’s about the great American men and women who have stepped forward when courage was in short supply. But she’s also about the men and women and children who have supported those warriors when courage seemed in short supply.

So that is the legacy, that is the promise, never to fail nor forsake.

And that is why I am so proud to stand here and say thank you – not only to Mrs. Dole and the man I’ve called the leader for almost my entire political career, Bob Dole of Kansas.

I say thank you for never failing nor forsaking those Americans who have done so much to make sure that we are, indeed, in the United States of the last best hope for man on this planet.

Thank you all very much, and God bless you.