Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this special and exciting day for Steve Muro, his friends, and his family—and an equally exciting day for VA.
What a fabulous turnout to honor Steve—a great day, clearly, for Steve; a great day for VA; but most importantly, a great day for Veterans. Thank you all for being here to share in this with Steve and those closest to him.
I have previously recounted for some of you how, shortly before I joined VA, a friend of mine—a retired army colonel—lost his dad, a World War II Veteran. Hit hard by his loss and not quite sure what to do or how to go about it, he found our Memorial Affairs website and phoned in. He described later how, as soon as the connection was made, he was literally transported through the entire burial process by a woman, who began, up front, by expressing deepest condolences over his loss of one of our heroes and assuring him that we would do everything possible to arrange for a respectful and dignified farewell for his dad. In about 15 minutes, all arrangements were completed.
Tom, my friend, further explained that he takes his family to Disney world every year. His judgment: “You guys are better than Disney world.” Think about what Tom was saying. At Disney world, customer satisfaction is a practiced art-form, and NCA outperformed one of the best at this. So, it was no surprise to learn, after my arrival here, that NCA leads the Nation in customer satisfaction—public, private, for profit, non-profit.
This is a reflection of NCA’s leadership, past and present, and its focus on getting it all right on the one day when it must count. And with Steve Muro’s continuing leadership, this metric will only grow stronger.
So, with that as preamble, Steve, I am most honored to be able to swear you in as VA’s new Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. I have taken great pleasure and pride in each of these swearing-in ceremonies, but this one’s unique and, therefore, somewhat special.
Some of you know that I taught literature for a brief period of my life—here are a few lines of poetry by Walt Mason, a late 19th century American poet, noted for plain writing:
There is a man in this world
who is never turned down
wherever he chances to stray.
He gets the glad hand
in the popular town,
or out where the farmers make hay.
He is greeted with pleasure
on hot desert sand,
or deep in the aisles of the woods.
Wherever he goes there’s a welcoming hand –
he’s the man who delivers the goods!
OK—those lines may sound sophomoric, but they describe perfectly Steve Muro, our next Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs.
There simply isn’t anyone who has more consistently “delivered the goods,” year-in, year-out, for an entire career, than Steve Muro. And he has done it with unwavering commitment; an uplifting, positive attitude; deep compassion; great respect for others; and absolute professionalism.
President Obama’s appointment is his stamp of approval on Steve, his work, and his leadership performance. All our jobs at VA are important, but only one comes with the sacred responsibility for perfection on the one, most painful day in the life of families whose loved ones are entrusted to us in perpetuity—the last bivouac of our Nation’s heroes.
Steve, you have really been preparing for these responsibilities for 32 years since you first signed on with NCA. I know that several of your mentors are in this room today, and they certainly contributed to your development, but what brings you here today are some personal values, skills, and attributes that you honed over time.
It would be impossible, frankly, to bring on-board anyone with more knowledge of, and experience with, NCA. You know the cemetery system’s every nut and bolt—literally.
From your first day as a mechanic at the Los Angeles National Cemetery’s motor pool, to the directorships of seven national cemeteries—reaching across the country from California to Louisiana to New York to Minnesota—to director of the memorial service network, to Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs for the past two-and-a-half-plus years, you have experienced first-hand the innermost workings of the organization you will now officially lead.
You are clearly a role model to the men and women with whom you work. You train them and grow them into leaders—a lesson and legacy worthy of emulation in every part of our department. Your inspiring leadership was recognized with a 2008 Presidential Meritorious Rank Award—richly deserved for a lifetime of leadership.
Under your guidance, a new NCA training center was established that graduated its first class of cemetery director trainees in April 2005. Such personal investment in your staff’s professional growth in changing times, earns you the unwavering loyalty of your subordinates.
More importantly, as a group, their behaviors and disciplines reflect your own compassion and sense of sacred trust in their daily work, whether in our largest cemetery, or in our smallest. I have seen their admirable work, and that sense of loyalty, displayed time and again in my trips to our NCA facilities.
You bring to this office a deep and abiding compassion for Veterans and their families, as they cope with the most difficult passage in life. You have long provided a good, strong, and caring shoulder that many families have relied on during your career.
When Steve was still in leadership training at the Riverside National Cemetery, he conducted his first interment. It was a service for an infant. And in an interview last year with The Washington Post, Steve said, “It was a tough service, but I conducted it—I did it—and I learned from that.”
He went on to say, “They’re all that way, whether they’re a small casket or a full-sized casket, someone just lost a loved one—and they’re trusting them to us to take care of them for eternity. When we're all long gone, and someone's going to be managing these national cemeteries, someone's going to come out and visit those headstones. You can walk through some of our cemeteries and see lipstick on the headstones.”
These are the words and insights of someone who has dug the holes, clipped the grass, held hands with the bereaved, and reached out to steady the survivors on their most difficult days. This is why today is unique and exciting—something special.
Leading NCA is a noble calling. It requires passion for the work and compassion for the Veterans we honor. We have been brilliant in selecting “the man who delivers the goods” to continue our magnificent record in memorial affairs of setting the high bar in caring for Veterans and their families.
Please join me in welcoming Under Secretary Steve Muro.
Now, let’s go make this official!