Bob McDonald Receives Service to Veterans Award from NECHV

Bob McDonald has been awarded the Service to Veterans Award from the New England Center and Home for Veterans (NECHV). The (NECHV) equips Veterans who are facing or at-risk of homelessness with the tools for economic self-sufficiency and to provide them a path to achieve successful and dignified independent living.

The award was presented at the 21st Annual Leave No One Behind Gala in Boston, MA which is the NECHV signature fundraising event to support Veterans experiencing challenges.

Below are Bob’s keynote remarks after accepting the award.

I am humbled by this award.  I must start by thanking my beautiful wife of 44 years, Diane, who has been my partner on this global journey of life, and who has taught me how to really care for others.  Unfortunately, she could not be with us tonight.  Diane and I were well-known in The Procter & Gamble Company.  In 1989 when we moved as a family from Toronto to Manila, Mt. Pinatubo exploded covering our soon-to-be house in ash and causing our insurance company to cancel our property insurance.  When we moved from Manila to Kobe, Japan in 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred causing us to live in a hotel in Osaka for the first six months in Japan.  The company line was you wanted to know where the McDonalds were moving next to make sure you weren’t there!  Diane and I promise no natural calamity will befall us tonight.

I want to thank one of my heroes, Andy McCawley, for his leadership of the New England Center and Home for Veterans.  I first met Andy when I was Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs touring the Boston facilities, I knew he was the real deal.  A Naval Academy graduate, fighter pilot, test pilot, and former commander of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, who dedicated his life after military service to “leaving no one behind.”  I don’t know if Andy will remember this, but we talked to a former homeless Veteran who had kicked a drug habit which had caused him to steal from his Mother and children, who with tears in his eyes thanked Andy because, in his words, “His Mother and children were proud of him again.”

I love the theme of tonight’s gala—Leave No One Behind.  This is the philosophic value that is the foundation of our military, and arguably of our country.  We leave no one behind.  When I was a Cadet at West Point, I learned the officer always ate last, after the soldiers.  It wasn’t that we would run out of food, but rather it demonstrated that I put the lives of my soldiers above my own.  Similarly, as Jumpmaster when I checked my soldiers’ parachutes before a jump or when I put them out the door of the airplane, echoing in my mind was “leave no one behind”—cut no corners, do it right, as the West Point Cadet Prayer says “choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong,” lives are at stake.  There are eleven verses in the Bible which say, as John 15:  13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  This is our ethos—Leave No One Behind.

This is why it is so essential to close the military – civilian divide today.  To develop more citizens with this Leave No One Behind mentality.  In a democracy when the military gets separated from its population, it becomes too mercenary, and mercenary militaries don’t win wars.  Just look at the fight of the Ukrainian army against the Russian military.  One is an army that Leaves No One Behind.  The other is an army conscripted from jails.  Remember American history.  When General Washington crossed the Delaware on that Christmas night of 1776, who did he defeat in Trenton?  It wasn’t the British Army.  It was the Hessians, German mercenaries hired to fight an unpopular war for Great Britain.  Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military and only about seven percent of the population are Veterans.

I’m so thankful and proud of the work of the New England Center and Home for Veterans.  A service and care provider for former military service men and women, the NECHV offers a broad array of programs and services that enable success, reintegration, meaningful employment and independent living.  The Mission of the New England Center and Home for Veterans (NECHV) is to equip Veterans who are facing or at-risk of homelessness with the tools for economic self-sufficiency and to provide them a path to achieve successful and dignified independent living.  The NECHV has served Veterans facing homelessness in Downtown Boston since 1989.  Through the years, as society has developed a greater understanding of the causes and implications of the “homeless” condition, the Center has evolved and adapted, growing and adding comprehensive case management, education and employment services, focused recovery services, and behavioral health support.  From the Vietnam Veterans Workshop in 1989 to the Veterans Training School in 1993 to the first Women’s Dormitory in 1996 to the 2017 $35 million recapitalization to create 37 new efficiency apartments, and upgrade, renovate and reconfigure service space to enable newer and more varied models of service to Veterans for generations to come.  Leave No One Behind is such a fitting theme for NECHV and this gala.

Leave No One Behind is why the Department of Veterans Affairs was started.  As Secretary of the VA, I visited Togus, Maine, in 2016 for the 150th Anniversary of our very first VA facility.  In 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln bought a bankrupt resort to create the first National Soldiers Home.  It was about giving an immediate safe haven to Veterans who had survived four years of vicious fighting.  Given the brutality of the fight, it’s not surprising that many simply could not care for themselves, and many families and communities were ill-equipped.  Further, almost half of the soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War were either immigrants or the sons of immigrants.  They needed government support because their family support was overseas.  Togus was about establishing a framework for what most everyone knew was coming as hundreds of thousands of Veterans aged and would need specialized care for injuries unique to warfare, and injuries unique to that very particular war.

So that first National Soldiers Home was about something more than taking care of the disabled at the end of the war.  It was about getting ready for the wave of disabled that would be coming.  You see, Togus was the cornerstone of the network of National Homes that in 1930 would become the Veterans Administration.  Here’s why all of that is so important.  Everyone knows that we age.  Everyone knows that we get sicker and need more care as we age.  But it’s visionary people like you here at NECHV who do something about it.  It was the visionary people who conceived of the National Homes—the first of their kind anywhere in the world—who did something about it for those Union Veterans.

Those visionaries gave generations of Veterans to come—indeed, all Americans—the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest integrated health care system in the United States, with over nine million Veterans enrolled.  Nearly four hundred thousand people working to care for Veterans at over 1,200 health care facilities across the country.  Today, VA invests nearly $2 billion annually on research that serves today’s Veterans, and prepares us for the Veterans to come.  Let me highlight some of the returns on those investments.

  • The nicotine patch;
  • Electronic medical records;
  • Patients with total paralysis using their minds to control robotic arms;
  • The implantable cardiac pacemaker;
  • The first successful liver transplants;
  • Proving an aspirin a day reduces risk in heart patients;
  • And identifying genetic risk factors for schizophrenia, for Alzheimer’s, and for Werner’s syndrome.

This VA research is not only essential for Veterans, but it is essential for American medicine.  Not only do we leave no Veteran behind, but we leave no American behind.  At the same time the VA trains over 70% of the doctors in the country and is the largest employer of nurses.  That’s a pretty good rate of return that results in breakthroughs for Veterans, and for all Americans.  No one is left behind.

For me being the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs was the honor of my lifetime.  My life’s purpose is to improve the lives of others.  No one is more deserving of care than Veterans and their families.  I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to serve that purpose, but I’ve got more work to do, and I’m not done yet.  After I completed my service at VA, I became the Chairman of the Board at RallyPoint, an organization that is using artificial intelligence to predict and reduce Veteran suicide so our Veterans who are struggling the most do not tragically decide to leave us behind.  Saved 61 Veterans so far.  And now, I currently serve as the Chairman of the Board of the West Point Association of Graduates, my beloved alma mater.  I’m not done yet.  I’ve got more to do.  Importantly, we all have more to do.

Recently when I was speaking to the Veterans Leadership Program cohort at the George W. Bush Institute, where I served as the April & Jay Graham Fellow, I spoke about the importance of being the person in the arena.  This cohort was comprised of leaders of organizations that improved the lives of Veterans and military families.  I reminded them of President Teddy Roosevelt’s speech at the Sorbonne in 1910.  Please allow me to paraphrase:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong person stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the individual who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; …who spends themselves in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

While I was preparing to deliver these inspiring remarks to the young leaders, I discovered this speech was not entitled by its popular and somewhat unfortunate common name, “The Man in the Arena,” but its real title was “Citizenship in a Republic.”  To me President Roosevelt’s words are even more insightful and inspiring now that I know the real title of the speech.  And they ring as true to us today as I am sure they have since the time he delivered them.  There are responsibilities that come with the blessings of citizenship in our democracy, our republic.  If we don’t like the way things are, we have an obligation to climb into the arena and change them.  It won’t be easy, success won’t be instantaneous, there will be sacrifice, but the republic, our republic, is worth our sacrifice.  That’s why I say we, collectively, have more work to do.

You, Veterans, and their families know this.  Veterans and their families have already climbed into the arena and fought the tough fight.  Yet Veterans like me are anxious they have not done enough.  In the last scene of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the aged Private Ryan kneels reverently in front of Captain Miller’s grave.  Captain Miller gave his life in combat to save Private Ryan’s life.  Ryan says to Miller and all Veterans, “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could.  I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”  I imagine myself saying that to every Veteran and their family.  I hope that in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.  I’m staying in the arena because I’m not done yet!  Let’s collectively Leave No One Behind.  I’m still working to earn all that’s been done for me.  Let’s all climb into the arena and make a difference.  Thank you for this recognition.

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