Let me acknowledge the contributing and supporting organizations whose generosity and devotion to Veterans have made this important summit a reality. Please join me in thanking all of them.
Secretary Peake and Secretary Principi—thank you for being here. Your attendance underscores the importance of this women’s summit;
General Wilma Vaught—one of our pioneers in the military and among women Veterans;
Other flag and general officers; fellow Veterans; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen:
I am pleased to welcome all of you to this 2011 Summit on Women Veterans. We are on the eve of what I hope will be an historic conference for the lessons, the understanding, and the recommitments that are likely to come out of our deliberations over the next two days. For that, I am both excited and thankful to be associated with this summit.
As some know, I am both a suffering and an insufferable Boston Red Sox fan. Frank Sullivan is a Red Sox Hall-of-Famer who pitched for them for eight years, ’53-’61. In his autobiography, Sullivan describes sitting down to a dinner with his 86-year old father, who was living with him and his wife at the time. As Frank noted, “The everyday conversation had waned.” But then, he continues, “For some unknown reason, as I finished my last bite of food, the thought occurred to me I really didn’t know a damn thing about my father other than the years I had growing up under his wonderful touch.”
He would also say of his dad, “If every child had a father like him, there would be no more wars.” So, they were close. Yet at that dinner table, realizing that he knew so little about his dad, Frank describes asking, “the simple question I should have asked years before. ‘Dad, what was your life like before you met mom?’ It was as if I had torn the top off a new box of goodies. It was like opening a rare bottle of wine. It was what I should have asked when I was old enough to talk.”
Sullivan described being treated to a spellbinding, non-stop outpouring of his dad’s life tour that had him and his wife laughing, crying, mesmerized. He had never had a better night, and it convinced him to write his own story, which became Life Is More Than 9 Innings.
Well, I feel a bit like Frank Sullivan at that dinner table, trying to avoid the waning everyday conversations and wanting to ask the right question “that tears the top off the box of goodies.”
Where military women are concerned, there is so much to remember; so much to learn; so much to understand; and so much to get right before the growth in numbers of women Veterans puts us, at VA, forever in a cycle of forever playing catch-up. We still have a small window to be able to get out ahead of the surge that is headed our way. It’s already begun, but the crest won’t arrive for a few years.
There is much to address during this conference in order to put in place plans and strategies that will make a difference for women Veterans for the next two generations. I join you in celebrating America’s women in uniform and its women Veterans—with deep gratitude for their contributions and as an advocate for them.
VA has the moral obligation to create plans for serving our nearly two million women Veterans well—at this point, maybe even better than we do our men. By aiming high, we may get it about right.
The young women serving today carry with them the legacies of their intrepid forebears. From the oldest Veteran of our Greatest Generation to the youngest Veteran of our latest generation, they were the ones who, in Robert Frost’s words, “took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”—all the difference for women in America, all the difference for our military services, and all the difference for our great Nation.
The members of this audience continue to advance the cause of women who, in ever-increasing numbers, are navigating that less traveled road. One-by-one, issue by issue, you have helped us write equity, dignity, care, and compassion into the programs, services, and benefits that VA currently provides. More needs to be done.
Next to the Air and Space Museum, here in D.C., is a simple sculpture—a silver and bronze spire rising some 80 feet into the air. Its tip is surrounded by stars. The title of the sculpture is “ad astra per aspera”—“to the stars through difficulties.” Let’s all continue to aim high where women Veterans are concerned.
May God bless those who serve, and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.