Walter Reed Staff Appreciation

By:  Leon Panetta
Date: Dec. 4, 2012
Location: Bethesda, MD

Thank you very much, Admiral. I appreciate that very much and I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to be here at this one-year anniversary of bringing Bethesda-Walter Reed together. This was an amazing effort, not easy to do, but I commend all of you for your willingness to work together as a team and to make this a success.

I want to thank you for your leadership, because what you have here is a world-class center for healing, for compassion, and for empowerment. I am particularly honored today because, you know, in a holiday season, first and foremost I would like to wish all of you and your families and the entire Walter Reed community a safe and happy and healthy holiday season.

This is a season of renewal. It's a season of joy, of peace, and of looking to the future and being thankful for the past. And all of that is encompassed in these great medical centers because that's what it's all about, is giving people that second chance at life and that's what you do.

This is a time of year to reflect on all the blessings that have been bestowed on all of us as citizens of this great country, and in particular the blessings that we have to be members of the Department of Defense family. Someone asked me the other day, kind of, you know, reflecting on the job of Secretary of Defense what's the toughest part of this job and what's the most memorable part of this job?

And for me, it comes down to the men and women who serve this country in uniform. The toughest part of this job is to have to take the time to write notes to the families of those who have lost loved ones in war. And it's tough because as the father of three sons, recognizing the pain that that family must feel at the loss of a loved one is something that leaves a deep impact on me. And the ability to kind of take the time to write a few words of comfort, and there are no words that you can find that can do justice to the pain that's involved here.

But for each one, I try to write a note that not only expresses, obviously, my sorrow, but also says that their loved one loved them, loved their family, loved this country, and gave their life for all they loved. And that makes them an American hero forever. Those are the toughest moments in this job.

The most memorable moments are to come here and visit wounded warriors because the opportunity to be able to look into their eyes, individuals that have suffered the most horrendous injuries you can imagine, as all of you know, but then to walk into these rooms and to look into their eyes and see a spirit of wanting to fight on, and wanting to get back into the battle, and wanting to be whole again. And knowing that if they fight hard enough, they'll make that work.

I mean, to see that spirit -- to see that undying spirit of renewal is for me the most memorable thing because it represents, in my book, the spirit of this country. Each time I visit these heroes here, I come away very moved and very inspired by their dedication, by their patriotism, and as I said, by that sheer strength of spirit that they have.

We as a nation owe them an incredible debt of gratitude for their service and for their sacrifice -- men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for this country; who are willing to fight and die for the United States of America. That represents the great strength of our country.

I often say, we've got, you know, we have the very best in weapons. We've got great ships. We've got great planes. We're developing future aircraft that are going to be incredible, future fighter planes that are going to be incredible. You know, we've got great technology that's available. But none of that is worth a damn without the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line and help to protect this country. That is the real strength. That is the heart and soul of what makes us the strongest country in the world.

We owe them as a result of that the finest medical care that this nation can provide. And that's why I'm so grateful that we have the greatest medical healthcare system in the world, right here. And the strength of our system lies in you, and people like you. Thousands of dedicated professionals who are committed to caring for our sick and for our injured. It lies with each of you. This, as I have said before, is a place where miracles happen, and you are the miracle workers.

Today, I want to thank you, along with the entire military medical community, for the exceptional care, the exceptional support you provide our service members, for these men and women in uniform, for their families, and for our military retirees. You give them a second chance at life.

This community is particularly close to my heart. My wife was trained as a nurse, and one of our three sons is a cardiologist. For those of you that haven't had a wife as a nurse, you don't know what the hell it's all about.

Because there isn't a damn thing I can do without her being right there, and watching everything you do, and watching everything that our sons did, you know? It was incredible.

Their experience and I learned this from Sylvia, and I learned it -- and I see it now in -- in our son, who's a cardiologist. It is very important to understand that no matter how many people you have to deal with, you don't treat people by the numbers. Every one of them has to be special, and it's gotta show in your eyes.

The best caretakers are the ones who have the compassion to work with people, and to treat them with dignity, and care, and understanding. That's not always easy, because you're dealing with a lot of people, and it can be really tough, but the reality is that, that sense of compassion, of making every patient feel special is what it's all about.

I know how tough this job is. I know how difficult it can be, and how hard it is for each of your, and the amount of work it takes, and the amount of sacrifice that it takes to do your job. So, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the commitment that all of you make to this -- it's challenging work, but I can't tell you how important it is to -- not only healing those that have been wounded, but healing our country when we fight in wars makes the hell of a difference in terms of our ability to sense that as tough as these battles are, as tough as these wounds are, that somehow we are strong enough to be able to go on. And that's what you do.

This country, and our armed forces, are emerging from over a decade of war. This is the longest sustained period of war in the history of the United States. There's been a non-stop flow of casualties from distant battlefields. And our military medical community has, I believe, risen to the challenge time and time and time again.

You have provided thorough and effective care for over 50,000 wounded warriors, 50,000 wounded warriors. And you've helped ensure that millions of our men and women in uniform are healthy and able to perform their vital missions.

Thanks to the advances in medical technology and the innovations in medical training -- the incredible amount of innovations and development over these last few years 98 percent of the wounded who reach our combat support hospitals survive their injuries, the highest rate of survival this country has ever achieved.

You made this happen by standing side by side as one team, as one joint facility, Army, Navy, Air Force. You have become one of the best medical teams in the world. And by raising expectations, by making clear that there is always hope, that good things can happen by advancing training, by increasing responsibility, our corpsmen, our medics are now capable of delivering life-saving medical care right there on the battlefield. This is the new standard of medical care, and I'm very proud to say that it is the most advanced in the world.

A real revolution has taken place in battlefield medicine. It has truly been a revolution and in our ability to care for the most serious combat injuries. We have also seen that a higher survival rate can result in a new set of complex injuries when our soldiers return home. And you're responding to that challenge as well.

Here at the center of healing, the center of miracles, you have treated diseases that we've never seen before on our soil. You perform life-saving surgeries that are the first of their kind. And you've developed the most advanced prosthetics in the world. It's thanks to your extraordinary talent and dedication that we are able to provide the level of care that we owe to our wounded warriors.

And I see it when I go into those rooms and talk with them that they know. They've seen the fact that others get their life back as a result of what's been developed here. And that, too, renews their spirit that ultimately they're going to make it and they're going to be okay.

In the decade to come, we're going to be challenged in new ways, and we've got to be ready to meet those challenges as well. Thousands of service members are going to be coming home soon over the next several years, the end of the war in Iraq, beginning to draw down in the war in Afghanistan. We have got to be ready for their arrival by supporting their physical health, their emotional well-being, and their successful transition back into society.

Some of our returning service members will bear both the visible and the invisible wounds of war. Since 2001, nearly 250,000 men and women of the armed services have suffered traumatic brain injury and many more remain undiagnosed. To care for them, this department instituted new guidance in September. We built concussion restoration centers in theater. We've developed traumatic brain injury centers at many of our military bases around the world.

Thanks to the efforts of our military medical professionals, we now have specific guidelines and treatments for what is one of the most elusive injuries that we've ever seen. We've also developed way to better identify traumatic brain injury and we're training our medics and our corpsmen to respond more effectively when a service member experiences a potential concussion.

We have also discovered the value of rehabilitation, and how. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence right here on campus, built by the generous donation of the Fisher family, is a world model, a world model for recuperating the human being, and not just treating the disease.

Let me also note, if I might, that yesterday you dedicated another world-class facility here, cancer treatment center, in honor of Jack Murtha. Jack was a dear friend of mine, had the honor of serving with him, passed away a couple years ago.

We served in Congress. We worked together on a range of issues. He was a legendary advocate for our men and women in uniform, and he was strong supporter, strong as I've ever seen in the Congress of the military's medical community in particular. Jack loved earmarks.

Everybody, including myself, used to line up and talk to Jack about earmarks, and if you -- somebody -- I haven't seen it, but in the Lincoln movie, talks about Lincoln sending people up to the Hill to basically hand out earmarks in order to get their damned vote. That's one of the reasons they may be having a tough time on Capitol Hill, is because they don't have earmarks to hand out. But, Jack knew how to do it, and I've never seen anything like it.

When the Defense Authorization Bill used to come up, and he use to be -- I mean, at the appropriations -- I mean, all these appropriations bills used to go on, they used to be amendments, they used to take days. I used to chair some of the discussions on the floor of the House on these other bills. But, when the Defense Appropriations Bill came up, Jack had basically distributed enough earmarks that, that bill took about 30 seconds on the floor.

So he understood what it meant, but more importantly, he did it in a way that benefited, in particular, the men and women in uniform. He was totally dedicated. Having been a veteran himself, having understood what it meant to go into battle, he really understood what men and women in uniform needed. And so, I am truly delighted that the John P. Murtha Cancer Center will stand as a monument to his legacy and to his commitment to our armed forces.

These centers provide extraordinary physical care for our military family. But here at Walter Reed you also understand the importance of caring for emotional health as well. Together, military medical personnel, and military families are raising awareness about those hidden wounds of war, that I talked about, particularly mental health.

Yet, as we know all too well, the historic rate of suicide within the military continues to haunt us.

Suicide is one of those great and terrible challenges to the health of our force, and one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation, not just a problem that's affecting men and women in uniform, it's affecting society, and it's reflected obviously in our men and women in uniform. Our greatest challenge is identifying those who need our help.

How do we identify those that are facing this kind of terrible crisis?

I know that all of you have not, and will not rest until there is a lifeline for every one of our nation's service members. We must make sure that they know they're not alone; that we're here and that we will stand by them.

This year alone, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have committed an additional $150 million to support efforts targeting mental health awareness, diagnosis and treatment. We're working to increase the number of mental health professionals, improve access to suicide hotlines, emphasize family counseling. We've got to continue this fight on every front. We've got to make people in the chain of command, people that serve next to each other in a squad, have a sense for looking out for one another, of spotting those conditions, of understanding that there may be trouble.

Now, this -- in many ways, it's a changing society. This is my theory and my theory alone, but, you know, part of the problem of working off BlackBerrys and working off computers is that you're focused on that element and you don't reach out as much to talk to one another, and to just communicate with one another.

And it's when you do that, when you talk to one another, that you understand what the problems are. You can look into their eyes and you can see it. You've got to make sure that people understand that there's a responsibility here to care for one another. We know that it's important to watch people's backs when you're in a foxhole. That applies here. You've got to watch each other's backs with regards to the kind of problems that can impact on people's mental health.

And that's something we've got to build into the force as well, and we will. As our troops return home, we will also help them convert their hard-earned experience into roles that are needed by both the military and civilian communities. That means new training programs, pathways, opportunities for our medics and corpsmen to become physician assistants or nurses, supporting advanced degrees, streamlining credential requirements. Because if someone can save a life in Afghanistan, then they can save a life here at home as well. We've got to make that possible.

We are working with other cabinet departments and with the White House to standardize the way state licensing boards recognize military training and experience. And we're also working with human resources and services administration to recruit members in the medical profession who are interested in pursuing similar careers in the private sector.

Having a job ready for our returning service members is an important piece of the larger effort to support our service members, our veterans, and our military families as we come out of this decade of war. And all of you have a critical role to play in that effort as well.

As you support our troops in their greatest time of need, I want you to know that I will continue to fight, continue to try to safeguard this department's support for your mission. You are, as I said, miracle workers, the absolute best at what you do. And we owe it to you to make sure that you have the full support you need in order to do your job. Your skill, you dedication -- that tender compassionate care that you provide those who serve in uniform, those qualities are second to none.

We are extremely proud and extremely fortunate to welcome our troops and their families back from war into your caring arms, into your caring arms. They have fought for us. We have to do everything we can to fight for them.

God bless all of you. God bless our military. And God bless this great nation of ours.

Thank you very much for having me.

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