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Wounded Warriors Family Summit (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Monday, October 20, 2008
Lynda, thank you for that very kind introduction, and all you have done to organize this summit, the first of its kind. This afternoon I’d like to share some reflections on where we stand when it comes to taking care of our wounded warriors.
A few months ago, there was a ceremony held in this very auditorium to unveil an exhibit on the surviving veterans of World War One. The man we honored that day was Frank Buckles, 107-years young. As a young man, he served as an ambulance driver in France and, after the Armistice, helped escort and transfer German POWs back home.
When Frank Buckles returned to the United States after the end of World War I, he and other war veterans got a $60 bonus. The local YMCA also gave him a free one-month membership for his military service.
Sixty bucks. And a free pass to the Y.
Those who fight and suffer in America’s wars deserve far more. And today they are honored and cared for in a much more fitting and proper way. Of course, government action such as the creation of the Veterans Administration, G.I. Bill, and establishment of a military health system has made an enormous difference.
But so too has the involvement and support of ordinary Americans and the volunteer organizations that work on behalf of troops and their families, some of whom are represented here. Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get – you make a life by what you give.” You live this motto. And you have much to be proud of. So, I would like to thank all of our non-profit partners and the family support professionals here. You have helped uphold this country’s eternal commitment to all those who serve, and I am deeply appreciative of the special, selfless ways you serve our wounded warriors.
And to the families of the severely wounded and the fallen – you have sacrificed and suffered for our country in the most challenging ways. An all-volunteer military means that we recruit individuals, but we must retain families. As we say in the military, spouses are “mission essential” – none more so than those caring for the gravely wounded. One-third of the injured war veterans from Iraq report that a family member or close friend had to re-locate to care for them. Family members know as much as anyone about military healthcare, as they patiently shepherd a loved one through rehabilitation and recovery. America’s grateful and in your debt.
To our wounded warriors: I have been amazed by your grit and resilience. To be honest, when I first learned that part of my duties as Secretary of Defense was to visit the wounded at Walter Reed and other hospitals, I wasn’t sure I could handle it – or what I would say. Seeing firsthand the incredible sacrifice our men and women in uniform had made, I wasn’t sure I could keep it together. But people kept telling me, “You don’t understand, they’ll lift you up.”
And they did. And they do whenever I visit there and other facilities. Like the wounded officer Lt. Dan Moran at Brooke Army Burn Center who reminded me that I handed him his diploma at Texas A&M in August of 2002. He also told me he had the doctors play the “Aggie War Hymn” during his surgery. Former President Bush and I presented him with a medal for valor at half-time at a Texas A&M home football game in front of 85,000 wildly cheering admirers – the kind of public acclaim all our wounded warriors deserve.
Or Lieutenant Jason Redman. He is a SEAL – part of the Navy’s elite Special Ops team – who took rounds from a machine-gun in his face and arm in Iraq last year. Jason posted a bright orange sign on the door of his hospital room at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. It read: “Attention to all who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.”
Conferences like these are vital to keeping focus and attention on heroes like Jason and their families. In a few days, the Department will also launch [Warrior] Care Month. It will provide an opportunity to highlight the sacrifices of wounded troops and their families, take stock of how much has been achieved in this area, and reflect on how much more needs to be done.
I take the issue of wounded warriors personally. I will repeat here the pledge I made to myself, to Congress, and to countless moms and dads, husbands and wives: Other than winning the wars we are in, my highest priority is providing the best possible care for those who are wounded in combat.
Picture a quiet Sunday morning at home, almost exactly 18 months ago. I picked up the Sunday edition of the Washington Post and noticed an article by Dana Priest and Anne Hull on Walter Reed. I brought the news paper to my morning staff meeting. All agreed we had a serious problem.
In many cases, well-intentioned individuals have been stymied by the kind of frustrating and endless bureaucracy that is endemic to large organizations. It has been that way for a long time. It’s been rumored that during the Civil War, red tape was used to bind the personnel records of soldiers. Clerks literally had to cut through the red tape to access to a soldier’s records, which gave birth to the unfortunate term most of you know all too well.
Teddy Roosevelt once said: “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.” Over the last year or so, the VA and the DoD have worked to ensure our returning wounded warriors get that square deal.
One of the most significant changes has been the new way our injured receive medical treatment through “Warrior Transition Units.” These units are responsible for shepherding injured Service members back to their units or helping them transition to veteran status. During the last 19 months, the Army has dedicated more than 3,200 permanent cadre and staff to this effort and treated nearly 8,500 soldiers, who have either returned to duty or transitioned to civilian careers under VA care.
I saw one of these units in action during a visit to Fort Bliss earlier this year. A “triad of care” approach provides each soldier a case manager, squad leader, and a primary care provider – all focusing exclusively on a single individual. In addition, the Wounded Warrior Programs offer a full range of support for military families – including personnel benefits, financial counseling, employment support, education counseling, childcare, and so on. Assigned coordinators make it easier for the troops and their families to understand and navigate the system.
Another change is to streamline the Disability Evaluation System. In the past, Service members received two separate disability ratings from DoD and the VA. We are now converting the disability evaluation system into a single and transparent process in which one disability rating would be legally binding on both organizations. One Service member. One exam. One rating. Testing this new pilot process began last year around this time. Findings suggest that a better handshake between the DoD and VA could cut in half the time required to transition a veteran to full VA compensation. We’re making progress in improving the Disability Evaluation System, but we still have a long way to go to make it as easy as it should be. Some of the obstacles are statutory and we will be seeking congressional help to find remedies.
As in every conflict in America’s history, many of our troops have returned bearing the scars of war – scars both seen and unseen. The invisible wounds can be so pernicious and so grievous because they are not readily apparent and have not always received the attention they should.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, improvements in armor protection and battlefield medicine mean that many troops survive or even walk away from explosions that in previous wars might well have been fatal. But, one of the consequences has been an increase in cases of traumatic brain injury – a condition that is still not well understood.
The military now has more thorough reporting mechanisms for TBI, requiring that anyone affected by a blast or blunt trauma in theater go through an evaluation and screening. We have a single TBI registry and a single point of responsibility – the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center – to consolidate all TBI-related incidents and information. We’ve invested $900 million in this effort, which includes $300 million in research. And while we’ve learned a lot about how to better care for those with TBI over the past few years, we are poised to learn a great deal more.
In addition, the military, along with our partners in the VA and private sector, have gone a long way towards putting programs and processes in place to deal with the psychological consequences of what has turned out to be a very long war.
To this end, when I was at Fort Bliss I was given a tour of a restoration and resilience center and was impressed, and indeed awed, by what I saw. In June, we also broke ground on the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda for psychological health and TBI. These facilities use a holistic approach featuring the latest advances to provide care for troops and their families throughout the recovery process.
As we all know, not every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is getting the mental health treatment he or she needs. An important element of removing stigma and encouraging people to get help has been changing the question about mental-health on the security-clearance application. Too often, troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance, and perhaps their career. Earlier this year, we announced that the question about mental health, as a general matter, will now exclude counseling related to service in combat – post-traumatic stress in particular. We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help if they need it.
During World War II, General George Marshall said, “We must do everything we could to convince the soldier that we were all solicitude for his well being. I was for supplying everything we could and [only] then requiring him to fight to the death when the time came … you couldn’t be severe in your demands unless [the soldier] was convinced that you were doing everything you could to make matters well for him.”
Although we have made significant progress in the last year and a half, there is no doubt we still have a lot more work to do. Paperwork can still be frustrating, adversarial, and unnecessarily complex. Some patients still see a changing kaleidoscope pattern every time they look for a single, definitive answer to a question about pay, or benefits, or compensation. We need to continue refining roles and responsibilities between DoD and the VA, and finding better ways to share information. And we will keep chipping away at the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress – a task that, like any cultural sea change within a large organization, will take some time.
As long as I am in this job, we will continue to press forward with a sense of urgency, and do everything we can to set up the next leadership team for success. As long as there are wounded warriors in our care, we must – and we will – continue to fulfill our obligation to them.
I would like to close with this thought. The conflict we are in is the longest America has waged with an all-volunteer force since the Revolutionary War.
At the heart of that volunteer force is a contract between the United States of America and the men and women who serve in our military: a contract that is simultaneously legal, social, and indeed sacred. That when young Americans step forward of their own free will to serve, they do so with the expectation that they and their families will be properly taken care of should something happen on the battlefield. That eternal commitment is engraved in granite, high on the walls of President Abraham Lincoln’s memorial. His words echo through time, calling on us today to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”
You have helped answer that call, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
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