Wilkie reminds graduates of their responsibilities as citizens during commencement address
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie has vivid memories of his North Carolina childhood in Fort Bragg as the Vietnam War lingered—the death toll appearing at the end of the CBS Evening News broadcast that his mother watched every night; a child being pulled from class at the same time a chaplain arrived bearing a folded flag; his father not being able to wear his uniform in town because of anti-war sentiment.
“The country as a whole was ugly to people from that conflict,” he said in an interview Friday before speaking at commencement exercises Saturday afternoon for The Citadel Graduate College.
Last July Wilkie was confirmed as the 10th secretary of the VA. He previously served as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. His father was a highly decorated artillery officer from the 82nd Airborne Unit, and Wilkie himself served in the U.S. Navy Reserve with the Joint Forces Intelligence Command, Naval Special Warfare Group Two, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. He is currently a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve assigned to the Office of the Chief of Staff.
The Citadel’s Swain Department of Nursing, which partners with the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, was established in 2016 to help address the nation’s nursing shortage. On Saturday, The Citadel’s first class of nursing students graduated. There were 21 members.
Health care is one of the most important benefits awarded to veterans. According to Wilkie, the turnover for nurses in the VA is low at 8 to 9 percent, while in most health care systems, it’s 18 to 20 percent.
“Serving those who have served, I think, is the most noble mission in the government,” Wilkie said.
Watch Secretary Wilkie’s full commencement address to The Citadel Graduate College Class of 2019
The Citadel is known for both its contribution to the nation’s military and its friendliness to veterans. Approximately 35 percent of the Corps of Cadets earn a commission to serve in one of the armed services. In 2019, U.S. News & World Report named The Citadel the No. 1 Best College for Veterans in the South, up from No. 2 in 2018. In the spring semester, The Citadel veterans program numbered 236 students.
“We hear a lot in the United States about our rights as citizens,” Wilkie said to the graduating class. “What we don’t hear enough about are our responsibilities as citizens.”
As he concluded his speech, Wilkie reminded the audience that the founding fathers fought for their freedom.
“They gave us more than a nation,” he said. “They brought to mankind for the first time the central idea that we are born free, that each of us has inalienable rights, and that the government was created for our convenience, having only the powers people chose to give it. That is the heritage that you are about to claim, and that is the heritage that many in this audience have already defended in uniform. We need you. We need your great ideas, your strength, and your idealism to help us make right that which is wrong.”
Honorary degree recipient
During the commencement ceremony, Wilkie was awarded an honorary degree for his service to veterans.
The Honorable Robert Leon Wilkie is dedicated to the veterans whose selfless service and sacrifice protect America’s freedoms and ensure its democracy. As the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, one of the largest government agencies, Mr. Wilkie is responsible for providing veterans and their families with the benefits and services they have earned. The son of an Army artillery commander, Mr. Wilkie grew up in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He currently serves in the United States Air Force Reserve in the Office of the Chief of Staff. With more than twenty-five years of federal service at the national and international levels, Mr. Wilkie has an impressive resume that includes serving as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. In this role he was the principal advisor to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense for total force management as it relates to readiness, National Guard and Reserve component affairs, health affairs, training, and personnel requirements and management. For his tireless work in support of veterans and their families and for his lifetime of public service, The Citadel Board of Visitors is proud to award the Honorable Robert Leon Wilkie an honorary Doctorate of Public Administration.