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

United Services Organization (USO) Live Webinar
Washington, DC
September 1, 2020

I'm going to start with a little bit of a personal reminiscence, and it came to me a few months ago.

I was actually at Kwajalein Atoll. Kwajalein Atoll is the very end of the world of the United States Army. It is a coral reef thousands of miles from Australia, thousands of miles from Hawai’i. A ferocious battle was fought there in February of 1945, and there are 1300 soldiers and families who call that atoll home.

In the middle of the atoll there is a nondescript concrete slab, and it looks like any other former foundation for a house. But it is a special concrete slab. There is a marker that is next to it. It's in red, white, and blue, and it has a USO symbol on it. And that marker says that on this stage Bob Hope and his USO team comforted the soldiers and Marines who had fought to remove superior Japanese forces from the Kwajalein Atoll in 1945.

That's the USO.

Now I'm going to flash forward from 1945 to about 1975. I was a youngster at Fort Bragg. My father at the time was the executive officer of the division artillery of the 82nd Airborne Division. And I was at home. My mother was in the kitchen. And Mr. Phil Donahue was on TV with that famous microphone of his. And his guest was Bob Hope. And Donahue spent the first 15 minutes of his show trying to get Bob Hope to say that the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were somehow different from the soldiers that he had entertained in World War II and Korea.

And Hope had had about enough of it. And he said that the soldiers that he entertained at Danang and in Saigon and in Hue were the very same soldiers that the USO reached out to in Saipan and Kwajalein and Pusan and after the Bulge. And when he finished saying that, all I heard from the kitchen was my mother saying, God bless you, Bob Hope. I was happy to relay that story to Bob Hope's daughter Linda last year when I dedicated the reopening of our national cemetery in Los Angeles.

The common denominator in all of those stories is the United Services Organization, men and women who for more than 80 years have come together and helped give Americans a taste of home no matter where they are, no matter what corner of the world they are in. And it is my great honor to at least contribute in some small way to the efforts that you undertake.

We are in the midst of anniversaries. Today, 81 years ago, World War II began with the invasion of Poland, and 75 years ago tomorrow the forces of the Imperial Japanese Empire surrendered to General MacArthur on board the USS Missouri.

The mission that both the USO and the VA have was described, I think, by another great warrior of that era, someone that those I grew up around at Fort Bragg worshipped – General Matthew Ridgway, the greatest of all airborne warriors who led the all American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily and planned the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe on behalf of General Eisenhower.

And the day before he launched the All Americans, the Screaming Eagles, and the Red Devils of the British First Airborne, Ridgway tried to get some sleep. But he couldn’t. And he actually fell, tumbled out of his cot. And he reached for sustenance from the Old Testament in the Book of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, and the description in the Old Testament. And he underlined God's promise to the great general that “I shall not fail thee nor forsake thee.” And that, in many respects, is the mission of both the USO and VA: to never fail nor forsake those Americans who have put on the uniform voluntarily and carry our liberty on their shoulders.

I'm going to talk a little bit about the renaissance that has occurred here at Veterans Affairs. We are in the midst of probably the greatest rebirth in the history of our organization. A few years ago, this department was beset with scandal after scandal. The approval ratings hovered around 50 percent on a good day, but in the last few years we have made a dramatic turnaround. Where once we were 17 out of 17 or 16 out of 17 in terms of Best Places to Work, we're now up to six and climbing fast toward that number one position.

But more importantly, we have reached a 91 percent approval rating in terms of the health care that we provide for Americans. And that's not only validated by our numbers, it's validated by the record that we set last year with the number of appointments that this department handled – 59.9 million appointments. Veterans are voting with their feet. They’re voting to come to us. And this number of Veterans reached nine and a half million this year, and we expect we expect that to grow.

But in the meantime, we are embarked on the greatest transformative period in the history of this department. Next month we will launch for the first time our electronic health record so that, finally, when a young American walks into the Military Entrance Processing Station, an electronic health record will be created that can be handed-off to VA when that young American leaves service. The days of people like my father – after 30 years of service fighting in foreign wars – having to carry around an 800-page paper record are gone. That comes online this year.

The other thing that comes online this year is the closing of one of the last circles from Vietnam – something very important to me – and that is our financial and resource support for the family caregivers of those who served in Southeast Asia. In October, they will have access for the first time to financial and material resources to help them help those warriors from Southeast Asia. And it is long, long overdue. To put that in perspective, Saigon fell 45 years ago this last May. And we are finally, finally rectifying one of the last injustices from that period in American history.

But in addition to that, we have carried on the fight on the COVID front. We are happy to say today that of our nine and a half million Veterans, today there are only 2,700 active cases among those nine and a half million Veterans. We only have about 350 Veterans in our hospitals who have COVID. Now, sadly, we have we've lost almost 3000 Veterans. But we have been able to respond in ways that that no one thought possible.

The Veterans got the message. And in this case, we're talking about men and women who've been in the toughest spots on the planet. And when we asked them to do things that were very tough, they responded. We had to stop elective surgeries. We had to stop routine visits. For those in our nursing homes – our 134 nursing homes – we had to stop those members of our nursing home community from receiving visitors, from receiving family and friends. But in so doing, we were able to protect the most vulnerable residents, most of whom, many of whom, come to us from World War II and Korea. We tested everyone, not just the employees. We tested those living with us. And as of today, there are three Veterans in our 134 nursing homes who have the virus. So, VA has responded magnificently.

Fifty-two of our employees have passed away. And we mourn them, we mourn them while we thank them for the magnificent services that they have provided to our country.

But in the midst of all of this, I mentioned before, we have been able to stress our system for the future. For instance, tele-health: in a normal month, let's use the month of February, we conducted 40,000 mental health tele-appointments. Well, with COVID, when we had to stop face-to-face encounters, in the month of June we conducted 905,000 mental health tele-appointments. We have expanded the footprint of VA to reach our hardest to reach Veterans, those in rural America and those in Native American, the two groups that served in the greatest numbers per capita of any Americans.

And we've expanded our partnerships with our corporate partners. A few months ago I was in Asheboro, North Carolina, and cut the ribbon on our first VA tele-health clinic inside of a Walmart. So, Veterans across the country will start going to Walmart, show their Veterans card, go behind the pharmacy counter, and move into what looks like their living rooms. And they're able to talk to VA professionals all across the country.

But on top of this, we have also finally, finally begun the first national conversation on Veteran suicide and mental health. We've never had one. The problem of Veterans taking their lives by suicide is not new. The United States Army first started taking statistics on this in the 1890s during the administration of Benjamin Harrison. And we've seen it pretty steady since those times. It spiked right before World War II, and it spiked right after Vietnam. But today, sadly, 20 Veterans take their lives every day. About three of those are on active duty or in the reserve component. But 70 percent, the vast majority, are Veterans we have no contact with. The majority of those are from my father's era, Vietnam.

The President launched the first national task force on Veteran suicide earlier this year, and we are opening the aperture to partners all across the country – non-governmental organizations, charities, religious organizations – to help us find those Veterans that we can't see, and, for the first time, engaging America in the national conversation on mental health.

So, in the midst of all of this, we performed. We have improved our standing amongst Veterans. We have launched new initiatives, both on the suicide front and the opioid production front. We are now resuming our in-person evaluations for compensation and pensions. That's back online. We have reduced the number of claims that were left outstanding four years ago from the tens of millions down to the most recent claims. So, VA is moving in ways that no one thought possible.

I've been privileged to offer to the country the two largest budgets in the history of our department. And as a result of this crisis, we've thrown away the hiring book. So, if anybody is interested in the most noble mission in the federal government, please tell us. Just in the last two months we've hired more than 30,000 Americans. Ninety percent of those are permanent. So, people are flocking to us in ways that we never thought possible.

And I want to conclude this first part by saying thank you. USO has been part of my life, really, since the day I was born. You were a constant presence wherever I lived, most of it at Fort Bragg, and in my very modest military service, first in the Navy and now in the Air Force. And wherever I travel, I not only see the USO’s presence, but I feel it, just like I did on that very remote Army base out in the middle of the Pacific, Kwajalein, where that simple concrete foundation memorialized a visit of Mr. Bob Hope and his USO troupe who were out there under blazing hot conditions with constant threat of sniper fire. And they performed their mission because it was the right thing to do, and  because they were proud to be Americans.

USO is in Afghanistan. USO is in Iraq. USO is wherever Americans serve.

I will finish with one more story from Matthew Ridgway. I mentioned his role in the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. And, of course, he turned the Eighth Army around in Korea. The reason South Korea is a vibrant, democratic colossus today is because of the efforts of General Ridgway in commanding the US Eighth Army during the Korean War.

In 1986, General Ridgway was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. And President Reagan said that heroes come when they are needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.

That's what the USO is about. It's about great men and women – not those in uniform, but the great men and women who volunteer when courage seems in short supply to provide sustenance, to provide comfort to those Americans who represent 41 million who have put on the uniform since the first shots were fired at Lexington Green in April of 1775.

So, I thank you thank. I thank you on behalf of a grateful nation. And I thank you for giving me the opportunity to say thank you.