Former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Reminds Us Why We Celebrate Memorial Day

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On Memorial Day, America honors the more than 1 million men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. 

Robert Wilkie, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Trump administration, says Americans owe a great debt because without those who laid down their lives, “we wouldn’t have very much to stand on.”

Wilkie, who grew up in a military family, learned from a young age that freedom has a cost. Also a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, he says it is imperative that young Americans are taught U.S. history and the values of our nation. Otherwise, he says, they won’t understand why America is worth fighting for. 

Wilkie, now a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, our parent organization, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the history of Memorial Day and how we can honor those who fell in defending our freedoms. 

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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: I am honored to welcome to the show the former United States secretary of veterans affairs, Robert Wilkie. Mr. Wilkie also serves as a reserve officer in the United States Air Force Reserve and is a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow. Mr. Wilkie, thank you so much for being with us today.

Robert Wilkie: Virginia, thank you very much for having me. It’s an honor.

Allen: Today we are remembering all of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. Today is Memorial Day. Mr. Wilkie, as we remember those individuals, what are some of the stories that come to your mind, maybe of family members that you have spoken with who have lost loved ones in the service?

Wilkie: Well, I will relay two stories that I gave to President [Donald] Trump when he asked me to leave the position as undersecretary of defense under Gen. [James] Mattis to go to VA.

I grew up at Fort Bragg, the home of the armed forces’ most decorated combat force, the 82nd Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps, which, when I was a little boy, just consisted of the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne Division. My father was a senior officer, an artillery officer.

And I told the president that growing up in that world, particularly during Vietnam, the news was real to us.

When you sit in an elementary school class and you hear a fellow student’s name called over the intercom, in a regular setting, that means that child’s either going to a family event or there’s a doctor’s appointment. Growing up where I did, nine times out of 10, when a child was called to the principal’s office in those years, there was always a chance that there was bad news from Southeast Asia. And that’s certainly what I experienced many times. That came back to me as the secretary of veterans affairs.

I took a classmate, Denise Johnson is her name, to the Vietnam wall 44 years after her father had perished. We had been classmates growing up, and her father was part of an operation known as Operation Babylift.

As the North Vietnamese got closer to Saigon, President [Gerald] Ford ordered all of the orphanages in Saigon evacuated. And there were volunteers from across the Air Force to get on C-5s and go and get those children and bring them to safety.

Well, on May 4th of 1975, a C-5 carrying Master Sgt. Denning Cicero Johnson of Harnett County, North Carolina, took off with 178 orphans and about 25 Air Force personnel. It didn’t make it past the end of the runway, and Sergeant Johnson was killed. I took his daughter to see his name on that wall, one of the last from that conflict.

But the other thing that struck me about growing up in that world, and I’ve said this during my tenure as VA secretary, we reached a low point in this country when it came to recognizing the valor of our fellow citizens. And I’ll give you an example.

My father, senior officer in the All-American Division, incredibly decorated combat soldier, was not allowed to wear his uniform off post. That wasn’t Berkeley, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was southeastern North Carolina, the heart of Richard Nixon country. And the Army was afraid of the reaction that the soldiers would get from a population that in general was tired of Vietnam, or at least, we were told they were tired of Vietnam. And I told the president that we could never let those days return.

So growing up, the sacrifice of families in particular was what stuck with me because there were so many children with whom I played whose fathers never returned. And that’s why Memorial Day is special. It’s sacred, and it reminds us of the sacrifice of over 1 million Americans who have fallen since the first shots were fired in April of 1775 at Lexington Green in Massachusetts.

Allen: And what is the history of Memorial Day? When did we first decide as a nation, “We need a specific day to celebrate those men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice”?

Wilkie: It came from, really, the United States Army in the form of its senior officer, William Tecumseh Sherman, who had been Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant’s right hand in the Union armies of the Western Theater of the war. Sherman replaced Grant as the commander in chief of the United States Army.

And in 1868, they had what was known as Decoration Day, where Sherman ordered flowers and garlands to be placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers—620,000 Americans had perished in that war.

Sherman, the most ferocious of warriors, certainly most ferocious on the Union Army’s side, ordered the observance and recognition of the valor of all Americans. And from that day, it began to move.

Actually, if you want to go back, it was President [Abraham] Lincoln, I believe in 1864, who ordered, by executive order, a national day of prayer and fasting, which he called a Memorial Day. That also had a connection to what we now know as Thanksgiving.

So it comes from those very dark times in what Lincoln called America’s most pestilential war. And still to this day, of the 1.1 million Americans who have fallen, 620,000 of them fell in that one war.

Allen: For you, having grown up in a military family and at Fort Bragg, and having served as the secretary of veterans affairs under President Donald Trump; and prior to that, you served as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness under Trump; and then under President George W. Bush, you were the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs.

So in all of these roles, I know that you’ve had the honor of interacting with many of our service members, our veterans, and their families. As someone who has worked so closely with our armed forces, why is Memorial Day so important to you personally?

Wilkie: Well, let me start with a criticism, and you’re absolutely right. I’ve been able to move in and amongst heroes, and not just those who carry weapons, but the families who support them.

I have argued, with all due respect to Tom Brokaw, that there’s no such thing, at least in uniform, as the “Greatest Generation.” The same acts of valor, the sacrifices, the same sacrifices occur today just as they did in World War II, or World War I, or any of our other conflicts.

I remember one story from childhood. Mr. Donahue was on television, Phil Donahue, and he had Bob Hope lined up as one of his victims. And he kept goading Hope into saying that the troops that he had entertained in Vietnam were different, that they were broken, and Hope refused to take the bait.

He said, “The troops that I saw in Da Nang, and Hue, and at Tan Son Nhut Air Base were the same faces that I saw at Saipan or Guadalcanal in the Pacific. They’re young Americans doing a job that most Americans would find unfathomable.”

And that’s the lesson that I take. Without that sense of duty, without the sacrifices of these people, these Americans, mostly young, we wouldn’t have very much to stand on.

I don’t know the exact quote, but I’ve said it many times: “It’s not the professor or the pundit, the activist or the critic who ensures our basic freedoms. It’s those who carry the weapons, carry the load.” As I said, [they] live in circumstances that their fellow Americans could not even imagine.

Allen: I know you addressed this fact in a recent Daily Signal piece for Memorial Day titled “Memorial Day Vow: ‘Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another‘” that that phrase is so powerful: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” Where does that come from?

Wilkie: That comes from the folks at the Vietnam Veterans of America in the early 1970s, during the height or the beginning of an awareness of the plight of [prisoners of war] in North Vietnam, during a time when there were massive protests in the streets across the country, where people like my father weren’t even permitted to wear their uniforms in public when they came home.

We have had dips, valleys in our history when our veterans were forgotten. If you look at what happened in between World War I and World War II, where veterans actually marched on the Capitol for bonuses that they believed were due to them from their service—today, we would call that a pension from World War I—and the Army was set upon them. We forgot those lessons.

We also forgot lessons when it came to making VA a robust institution. Four years ago, it was a disaster, had a 37% approval rating amongst veterans. As you know, the stories were rampant. Veterans dying in the halls and waiting rooms. Morale was at an all-time low. I look back on that time and there was just an attitude, “Well, this is not a relevant issue anymore.” And as a result, VA collapsed in on itself.

The last administration made a vow to change course and ensure that that didn’t happen. And the sad thing is we have to keep reinventing the wheel every generation or so. It’s not new. Rudyard Kipling wrote about it during the height of Britain’s imperial wars in magnificent soldiers poetry, where the sacrifices of Tommy, the British soldier, were forgotten or looked down upon by … his society.

We can’t afford to do that again because unlike my father’s day, where the majority, the vast majority of those serving were drafted, were draftees, it was a conscript army, today they’re all volunteers. If the soldier’s not happy, the family walks. If the family’s not happy, the soldier walks.

And if we go down the road where service is not honored, and I’ll just say it, because I’ve also written this for Heritage, if we go down the road where military service becomes a social petri dish for whatever liberal clerisy happens to be in the ascendancy, then you’re going to start seeing the well of volunteers dry up real fast.

It’s already started just when it comes to physical fitness, that maybe 1% or 2% of young Americans can even qualify to serve in the military. That’s a societal problem that we, for all our sakes, just forget the military side for a minute, that we all have to confront.

Allen: And how do we go about confronting that societal problem and actually, from one generation to the next, teach our children how to honor and respect the military?

Wilkie: Sure. Well, let’s start off with a negative. There is a terrible movement now on many levels, academically, journalistically, and politically, particularly from one group of politicians, to erase our history.

We’re witnessing a revolution to reshape the core of the American ethos, that somehow we are a fallen nation that is irredeemably corrupt. And the point I was making is that, if you are able to describe the past the way you want it, you control the present.

If we don’t keep our young people enthused about their history, enthused about their country, then the next step is, “Well, what’s worth fighting for?” And I have to believe that there is going to be a swinging back of the pendulum all across the country to respond to what we have been seeing.

There’s an effort now in the Congress, and I’ve talked about this with Heritage, to remove Abraham Lincoln’s words from our VA hospitals and our VA headquarters, because there are members of Congress who consider his words, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan,” from the second inaugural address, they consider those words to be sexist and exclusionary.

My view is, if there’s no room for Abraham Lincoln in the American story, then we’re all in very serious trouble. And I quote the great English lay theologian G.K. Chesterton when he said that, “The democracy of the dead that refuses to submit to a small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are merely happy to be walking about.” And that’s what we’re seeing, and it is very dangerous.

So it’s a long-winded answer to say that the most important thing we can do as a people is to say over and over again, not in a jingoistic way or to gild the lily, “There’s a reason people fight and die to get to this country every day.”

Lincoln said, “We’re the last best hope of man on Earth.” Harry Truman was right when he said, “We’re the only country in the history of the planet to ever offer a helping hand to all the peoples of the world, including our enemies.” And those are the kinds of things that we need to keep in the forefront and in front of America’s young people.

Allen: That’s so powerful. And as you wrote, and as we know, more than 41 million American men and women, they’ve served our country in wartime, but 1 million have given the ultimate sacrifice. And today is really about those 1 million men and women. As we’re going about our day, as we’re having backyard barbecues and picnics, how do we actually honor the lives that have been lost?

Wilkie: I’ve wrestled with that throughout my career around the military, I think. And I think I’m in the minority when I say this. There needs to be more than the perfunctory “Thank you for your service.” If you’re a small business, hire veterans. If you’re a big business, hire veterans.

I used to say that by the time a young soldier is 24 years old, he or she has made more life-altering decisions than the average American will make in a lifetime. They know how to look you in the eye. They know how to carry out incredibly difficult tasks. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is to make sure that we support the American story. When the school boards go astray, or people tell you that the country is not worth defending, strike back. Offer a response.

It’s a precious thing that we have here. We’re still a very young nation, and we still have a long way to go in terms of what we give to ourselves and what we can give to the world. But in order to do that, we have to remember what makes us different, what makes this system different, and what makes this place the one spot in the world that people will fight and die to this day to continue to come.

Allen: As you speak with family members who have lost loved ones serving our country, what is it that they say to you that maybe we need to be keeping in mind today?

Wilkie: We need to be keeping in mind what the day says: memorial, memory. When I talk to them, I talk to them as families who are part of 3,000 years. The Heritage Foundation, one of its great, great pillars was a fellow named Russell Kirk, really the father, the intellectual father of modern conservatism. Kirk was instrumental in putting Heritage on the map.

And he talked about the United States representing the historical and religious memory of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London, that we have been built on what they had given us. And I talk to families about their loved ones being part of this great span of history, that without them, there would not be all of these bountiful blessings that Americans enjoy.

They don’t want the “Thank you for your service.” They want to know that their loved one fought in a just cause for a just nation. And that goes back to what we were saying about the need to defend the very meaning of America.

Allen: Yeah. So critical, certainly something that we aim to do every day here at The Heritage Foundation, and I know that you have aimed to do your whole life, Mr. Wilkie. And so we thank you for your service to this country and your leadership.

Wilkie: Well, it’s modest compared to my ancestors, but I certainly thank you, and thank you for everything that Heritage does to keep this flame of memory alive.

Allen: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. We really appreciate your time.

Wilkie: Thank you, Virginia.

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