Transcript: Gen. David Petraeus’s speech on military veterans at USC

Partial transcript of remarks by former CIA Director and retired Gen. David Petraeus on military veterans at the University of Southern California on March 26, 2013:

I’m very pleased to be here tonight with Trojan nation, and I think it’s a nation – not just a family…because USC stands out as a leader in the effort to support our country’s families, veterans, active duty, and to support those who currently serve our nation in uniform and will serve in the future as well…

From your impressive ROTC program to your world-class military social work initiatives and your recent Serving Those Who Served endeavor to your office of veteran’s affairs and Student Veterans of America chapter, USC’s programs are truly exemplary and I know that all here appreciate that deeply. Well-done on that as well.

Again, it truly is a privilege to be here with you this evening – all the more so given my personal journey over the past 5 months.

I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago when [USC] President [C.L. Max] Nikias and Jane Harmon kindly invited me to speak at this event.

I’m also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing. So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret and apologize for the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends, and supporters.

But tonight is not about me; it is about your veterans, your active duty military, and your ROTC cadets, and USC’s impressive efforts to recognize and support them and their families, particularly those who have sacrificed so much in the difficult campaigns of the past decade.

As one who was truly privileged to serve with many in this room in Cold War Europe, Haiti, the Balkans and, above all, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as various other places in the Middle East, I am very grateful for the opportunity to say a few words this evening.

But let me turn now, if I could, to the focus of my remarks this evening: Our veterans, especially our newest veterans.

With them in mind, I should begin by noting that the post-9/11 generation of veterans has deservedly come to be known as America’s new greatest generation.

Like their grandparents who endured a Depression and won a world war, the members of the post-9/11 cohort have responded with valor, purpose, skill, and courage to the defining conflicts of their day. In so doing, they have earned their place in the long line of patriot soldiers on whom our country has always depended.

We should also note that America has never had a group of men and women who, on average, have served so long in combat or have spent so many tours down range. This is, of course, the result of our country’s shift from the drafted forces that fought our past wars to the professional force that has prosecuted our post-Vietnam and, in particular, our lengthy post-9/11 engagements. That’s a policy with which I strongly agree but one that obviously means that the burden of military service are borne disproportionately by those who volunteer.

Well over 2 million service men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places in the post-9/11 era. Many have left the military. Hundreds of thousands more will take off the uniform in the years ahead.

In view of that, the focus on my remarks this evening is these young veterans who have done so much for our country.

In particular, I want to offer my view that while our country continues to improve its support for and recognition of these and all our veterans and their families, we can and must do more, particularly in certain respects.

It is in fact appropriate at an event such as this to ask what our nation owes our veterans? What are our obligations to those who have risked everything in the service of our United States?

I believe that our responsibilities are four-fold:

We must look after the families of our fallen heroes.

We must take care of our wounded service men and women.

We must help our veterans transition successfully to the civilian sector.

And we must recognize and honor our veterans’ service.

First, it goes without saying – it goes without saying first that we must do all that is humanly possible to look after our gold star families.

Our fallen, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, gave the last full measure of devotion in the service of our country and we must see to the needs of the loved ones they have left behind.

Second, our nation has to take care of those who return from war with wounds seen and unseen.

War changes everyone who has experienced it first-hand. In some cases, the changes are positive; many veterans return home with greater resilience, a firmer sense of purpose, and a keener awareness of the blessings of life. Others, however, come home scarred and wounded. This group includes, of course, those with physical scars and wounds to limbs and sight and increasingly the brain. It also includes those with the so-called unseen wounds, in particular, post-traumatic stress and other mental health challenges that if left unchecked can lead some of our veterans to a spiral of hopelessness that contributes to a suicide rate that remain far too high.

Regardless of the injury, we must provide the assistance that is needed by those who have been wounded waging our country’s wars.

Third, I believe our country must help our veterans transition successfully to the civilian world. Doing so will help enable those who have served to continue to be all that they can be in the next chapter of their life’s journey. Such efforts will not only strengthen our veterans, they will also strengthen our country.

Some veterans make the transition relatively seamlessly. They begin applying their skills straightaway in school, another form of government service, or in the private sector.

Others, however, struggle with the transition. We see this most starkly in the post-9/11 veterans unemployment rate, which is typically several percentage points above the national average.

We also see transition challenges in some veterans who enter school or find new employment but still have difficulty developing new skills, relating to new peers, or finding the meaning in their new pursuits that they experienced while in uniform.

Let me elaborate. There’s often a view that because an individual who was a great soldier, he or she will naturally do well in the civilian world. In this view, military experiences are seen as so exceptional that they assuredly would carry veterans on to further success. In reality, the transition from military service to civilian pursuits is often quite challenging.

As many here know, hanging up the uniform and leaving one’s comrades are very difficult, and neither going back to school nor entering the civilian workforce is as easy as it might seem.

In light of this reality, we need to ensure that the right transition programs are in place, whether they are the improved military transition assistance program now being offered at the conclusion of the active duty service or other initiatives such as a college refresher course, better job skill training, transition mentoring, or more in-depth assistance programs for veterans struggling with persistent unemployment or even homelessness.

But it is not enough just to have all these programs. We must also work hard to connect our veterans to them.

There are two reasons why it is important to help veterans realize their goals in civilian life. First, helping those who have given so much is simply the right thing to do. Second, it makes good business sense. Veterans do bring distinct capabilities and valuable leadership experiences that often are exactly what businesses are seeking in today’s marketplace.

I might add that I recently agreed to support several non-profit organizations – the Mission Continues, American Corporate Partners, Team Rubicon, and Team Red, White and Blue – and I likely will assist others as well. I’m doing so because of the importance of programs that help our veterans identify and then make the most of the opportunities available to them…

There is one additional commitment our country has to its veterans: the need to continue to recognize their service and their sacrifice. This is important not just for our veterans but for our country. Much has been made of the fact that a very small portion of the population is carrying out this generation’s wars. Honoring our veterans’ service is one small part of a larger effort we must continue to ensure that the so-called civil-military gap is as small as it’s possible. This is, I believe, a moral imperative.

With those four responsibilities in mind – taking care of our gold star families, supporting our wounded veterans, helping our veterans transition successfully to civilian pursuits and recognizing our veterans service I think it’s fair to ask how we believe our country is doing in meeting them.

As we do so, we should recall George Washington’s timeless admonition that the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars are treated and appreciated by our nation.

As an overall assessment, I think it’s fair to say that the United States has done reasonably well in meeting its obligation to those who have fought to help keep us safe. Even so, as with any endeavor, there clearly is room for improvement.

Now, over the last decade, the veteran’s administration has received significant budget increases – some 40% in the past 4 years alone. It’s established such programs as the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which some here are using, and enhancements to that that not only paid for college but also for technical and non-degree producing training and apprenticeships.

There are also other initiatives like the new automated veteran’s benefit management system and the integrated electronic health record that is so important.

Commendably, the President and Congress are ensuring VA fundings are sustained even in the face of the tough fiscal realities facing our country. This is hugely important as the VA works in particular to reduce the time required to see to our newest veterans’ needs and to process their claims in a timely manner – tasks that all involved recognize are absolutely imperative.

There generally has been heartening support as well for the programs overseen by the Department of Defense to care for our wounded warriors and the families of our fallen, and these and other national, state, and local programs are supplemented considerably by a variety of non-profit organizations devoted to providing additional support to our veterans and the families of our fallen and wounded heroes.

Beyond that, in stark contrast to the shameful way we treated those who returned from Vietnam, Americans have worked hard to honor those who have served even when the policies our men and women have been executing have been questioned by some of our citizens.

I remember, for example, driving from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the airport in Boston in 2006 after spending time with your son at MIT, here he was in ROTC by the way, and seeing on the bridge over the road a large sign that read “Hate the war, love the troops”. Well, I said to my wife, “50% ain’t bad,” adding that the sign maker had at least made the right choice if they had to choose between the two.

All of this notwithstanding, there is no question that we need, in some areas, to do more for the families of our fallen, our wounded warriors and their loved ones and those who return unharmed.

As I mentioned earlier, the veteran’s unemployment rate consistently exceeds the national average. There are post-9/11 veterans who do not have a place to sleep or call home, and some veterans are still struggling to get the care they require in a timely manner and to have their claims resolved expeditiously as well.

We must continue to devote the time and energy to address these issues in particular, and it was very important, I think, to see Veterans Administration Secretary [Eric] Shinseki emphasize on Sunday his commitment to doing just that – a commitment he reiterated to me yesterday when I talked to him about coming to this event.

As I noted, we must also focus on improving the transition veterans go through as they become civilians. This has to include ensuring all veterans are able to take advantage of the programs available to them to help them be all that they can be as civilians.

These actions in support of our veterans are, in truth, sacred responsibilities. And this event and USC’s many other initiatives to support veterans demonstrate that the leadership of Trojan nation understands and is intent on meeting its share of these responsibilities. And in view of that and for all that USC, I once again want to say thank you and well-done to President Nikias…and to all of you. And thank you again for that.

As I close, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you as well to those who provided words of encouragement to my family and me in recent months. That support meant a great deal as we sought to look forward rather than backward. This has obviously been a very difficult episode for us. But perhaps my experience can be instructive to others who stumble or, indeed, fall as far as I did. One learns after all that life doesn’t stop with such a mistake; it can and must go on.

And the effort to move forward over the rocky path of one’s own making is vital, inescapable and, ultimately, worth it. I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me and on a number of others. I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent to which I subscribe before slipping my moorings and as best possible to make amends to those I have hurt and let down, and that is what I will strive to do.

In the past, when I received an award I would note that I did so only inasmuch as I was able to accept it on behalf of the men and women in uniform and in the intelligence and diplomatic services with whom I was privileged to serve in the battles in the post-9/11 period. Any applause for me was, therefore, applause for them.

Tonight is an opportunity once again for me and for all of us to say “Thank you” to those selfless Americans who put it all on the line down range day after difficult day under the toughest of conditions against the most challenging of enemies to help safeguard our fellow citizens and preserve our interests around the world.

This room is full of such individuals and it was the greatest of privileges to serve with them and countless others like them during my time in uniform and at the CIA.

It’s has been a true honor to be here this evening to help you recognize your current and future veterans service as well as to discuss our nation’s obligations to our veterans and their families. In so doing, it has been a privilege to applaud USC’s very impressive initiatives to help the many veterans, active duty service members and ROTC cadets who are part of Trojan nation and to applaud the leadership of a great institution that shows its appreciation to those in its ranks who have served and who do serve.

May God bless each and every one of you, our veterans and their families, and all those in harm’s way tonight. Go Trojans. Fight on. Thank you very much.

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