Don, thank you for that kind introduction, and thanks for your leadership of the West Point Society of Monterey. Tom Forsythe—it’s been 36 years since we played round-ball at Fort Shafter. Thank you for inviting me to be here this evening. Let me further acknowledge some other special folks in attendance:
I am honored to be here to help celebrate the founding of a National Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1802. This observance provides an opportunity to renew old friendships, revisit old memories, and recommit ourselves, as Omar Bradley once noted, to the “cadence which echoes and re-echoes deep in the heart of each of us.”
General Bradley rose to fame as one of the great field commanders of World War II, but it was in the shadow of Battle Monument that his life changed, as many of ours did, reshaped from carefree teenager into a future Soldier’s general and leader of large armies.
In the 208 years since its founding, graduates of West Point have served as the living embodiment of its highest ideals of “Duty, Honor, Country.” We were lectured about the great privilege and responsibility of leading Soldiers and accepted those sermons without fully absorbing the weight of them. Not until we commanded our own first formations, which for some came in combat, did we fully appreciate the magnificence of the American Soldier and the significance of those earlier lectures we had received.
One extraordinary Soldier, who lived up to these ideals, was Captain “Rocky” Versace, West Point class of 1959. In 1963, he extended his tour of duty in Vietnam, which was ending in two weeks, to go on a mission with a South Vietnamese self-defense unit. The mission began to go badly when the Vietnamese militia was surprised by a very large Viet Cong main force attack. On 29 October, 1963, Captain Versace volunteered to cover the withdrawal of the Vietnamese, fighting courageously until he expended all his ammunition and was grievously wounded.
For the next 23 months as a prisoner of war, he demonstrated both leadership and heroism through his exemplary actions: immediately assuming command of his fellow Soldiers; resisting every attempt of his captors to break his spirit and gain information other than name, rank, service number, and date of birth; arguing with his captors in Vietnamese, in English, and in French—demanding that they abide by the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of fellow prisoners; deflecting attention and punishment away from others, absorbing the worst of the punishment himself. He repeatedly attempted escape, the first time just 3 weeks after his capture, crawling back into the jungle, unable to walk due to painful, infected leg wounds.
He provided strength for other prisoners, encouraging them, defying the guards, keeping them together, reminding them they were Americans, by God. Nothing instills confidence like leaders, who take charge at their own peril and lead by example. Rocky Versace provided that example. It would have been much easier to bend, even a little, to accept desperately needed rations, medical attention, and relief from the torture and beatings. But he refused. There was no quit in Rocky Versace; there was no compromise with his captors, no matter the consequences.
Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America, his captors executed him on 26 September, 1965. The last time his fellow prisoners heard him, Rocky Versace was singing “God Bless America” at the top of his voice to rally his fellow prisoners and strengthen their resolve in resisting the enemy’s efforts to break their spirits. For his valor, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Where do we find warriors such as this?
Shortly before we both retired in 2003, then-Secretary of the Army Tom White and I commissioned the Warrior Ethos Study to better define for us the profession of soldiering. The attacks of 11 September, 2001, confirmed for us the danger represented by the shadowy forces that had been moving across the landscape for much of the previous decade. The Warrior Ethos Study resulted in what is today called “The Soldier’s Creed.” In part, that creed makes four simple, declaratory statements:
Now, to some, these come off as just words—words that roll easily off the tongue. But for those, who endeavor to live by them, these are promises warriors make to one another about being able to be counted upon in the heat of battle, when fear, stress, and danger reign.
America expects its men and women in uniform to be loyal, and they more than meet those expectations—loyal to the constitution; loyal to the nation and its people; loyal to the government and its leaders; and loyal to each other in uniform—Soldier to Soldier, leader to led, unit to unit, the Army to the Nation. In return, they deserve our loyalty and respect for all that we ask them and their families to bear in the name of the American people.
Today, magnificent young Americans continue to shoulder the duty of venturing into and controlling the dangerous places of the world like Afghanistan and Iraq, where uncertainty reigns, and where the outcomes are never assured. Our men and women are willing to be our assurance that crises will be resolved in our favor, not by high precision weapons or by hi-tech platforms, but by men and women who stand and do their duty. And we, in turn, must and will do a better job of taking care of them.
Over the past 15 months, I’ve rediscovered what was so very special about General Bradley. As some know, he single-handedly modernized VA’s pre-cabinet predecessor, the Veterans Administration, in the wake of World War II. Over a period of two years, he rebuilt the Veterans Administration from the bottom-up, laying the foundation for much of what exists today in terms of benefits, programs, and services. It was Bradley’s leadership, lessons he learned in command of large combat formations, and his determination that leveraged change in a rapidly expanding organization.
I was deeply honored by President Obama’s invitation to serve Veterans as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs. It has provided me an opportunity to give back to those with whom I went to war 44 years ago in Vietnam, those I later sent to war as Army Chief of Staff, and those giants from World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders I and my generation stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.
Many see VA as a large health care provider, and for the most part, that is true—the largest integrated health care system in this country with 153 Medical Centers affiliated with 107 of the best medical schools in the Nation, 783 Community Based Outpatient Clinics, 271 Vet Centers, and a number of outreach and mobile clinics, which we activate in highly rural places where Veterans choose to live.
But, here’s what’s also true about VA:
We take our victories as they come, but we are also learning how to create our own successes. To this point, they have been few, but the needle is beginning to move. We have implemented the Post 9-11 GI Bill, and today, over 200,000 Veterans and family members are in school under this program, just a portion of the 565,000, who are in school under all of our education initiatives. They remain our best hopes for the future of our country.
The decisions of the past decade, of which they were a vital part, will be with us for longer than most may appreciate. After all, we still carry two children of Civil War Veterans on our beneficiary rolls at VA and another 151, who go back to the Spanish-American War—presidential decisions of Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley.
Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam almost 40 years ago. We just granted Vietnam Veterans a presumption of service connection to Agent Orange exposure for three additional diseases, and almost 20 years after the Gulf War, we recently granted nine diseases presumption of service connection to those who served in the Gulf War and Afghanistan.
To further investigate the connection between a series of undiagnosed, chronic, and unexplained, multi-symptom illnesses and service during Operation Desert Storm, we have created a Gulf War Veteran Illness Task Force to challenge all pre-existing assumptions—and we will go where the facts lead us.
We are committed to transforming VA into a high performing, well-disciplined, transparent, and accountable organization. We will become the Veterans’ advocate in thought, word, and deed. Transforming VA is, in part, intended to help harmonize two very distinct, and incongruent, images of the men and women who have served our Nation in uniform.
The first image is this, and it is one most familiar to everyone in this audience. Each year, something around 60 percent of all high school graduates go on to universities, colleges, community colleges—some version of higher education. Of the remaining 40 percent or so, some undergo vocational training, and others immediately enter the workforce. Fewer others still join the less than 1 percent of Americans who volunteer to serve in our Nation’s Armed Forces.
After basic training and arrival at their first units, they quickly become valued and trusted members of high-performing teams—tough, motivated, and extremely dedicated. With excellent leadership, they go forward, each and every day, to perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous missions. On some days, they are asked to do the impossible. Think of what they’ve been asked to do, and what they’ve accomplished, with unwavering commitment and without complaint, these last eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there is a second image—Veterans suffer disproportionately from homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides, and they are well up there in joblessness, as well. 107,000 of them sleep on the streets of our Nation each night. Another 40,000 Veterans are released from prison each year.
What’s wrong with these disparate images? To be sure, there are far fewer Veterans in the second image than in the first, but they are the same youngsters. How did we fail to continue the kinds of successes they achieved while in uniform? How do we keep them from entering that downward spiral of joblessness, depression, and substance abuse that often leads to homelessness and, sometimes, to suicide?
It’s not about them; it’s about us.
At VA, our goal is to never allow those youngsters in image #1 to become part of image #2, and to return those in image #2 to lives as productive as possible. If you wonder what the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is working on for the next several years, this is it—insuring that the exceptional performance of our men and women in uniform is matched by the exceptional performance of our men and women at VA, many of whom are Veterans.
Not every Veteran entering a VA facility carries the credentials of a Rocky Versace or a John McEnery or a Bill Mullen. But those who have been privileged to command know this—given the right circumstances, many of them could and would have scaled those lofty heights of conspicuous gallantry and indomitable will in keeping their promises to their comrades.
So tonight, as we celebrate the 208th year of West Point’s founding, I am privileged to join you in this annual tradition, held close by the members of the Long Gray Line. As I sit for a period of time at General Bradley’s desk, I seek your counsel and your support in the effort I will lead in the days ahead.
West Point’s mission to provide men and women of character to lead the Nation in peace and in war has never been more crucial. Two hundred years from now, I hope graduates of West Point are still gathering to remind each other of the enduring legacy of our alma mater that is captured in the following refrain:
‘Let Duty be well performed,
Honor be e’er untarned,
Country be ever armed,
West Point, by thee.’
God bless our men and women in uniform. God bless West Point. God bless our Veterans. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.
Thank you, and good night.