2:21 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. (Applause.) Please. Thank you. Good afternoon.
And, before we begin, five years ago, nine innocent parishioners of a historically black church — you all remember this horrible event — were tragically killed during an evening Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. That was a despicable act of evil.
Today, we remember this somber day as our hearts still break for the victims, and our prayers go with all. That was a terrible event. That was a terrible day. Terrible, terrible day for our country, for the world to witness.
Thank you very much for being with us at the White House as we reaffirm our sacred promise to support and protect our great veterans. We love our veterans — and great they are. With honor and courage, these incredible patriots perform their duty to America, and now we must fulfill our duty to them. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re doing it beyond what anyone has ever done, as President or as an administration.
We’re gathered together to address an especially urgent struggle. Today, we’re unveiling our Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide. A tremendous problem. Tremendous, tremendous problem.
My administration is marshaling every resource to stop the crisis of veteran suicide and protect our nation’s most treasured heroes. They’ve been through so much, and it’s such a deep-seated problem. And we’re doing tremendous research and everything you can do, but it is something that nobody quite understands. And they are gaining knowledge, but they don’t quite understand it.
And I want to thank our Vice President for being with us. And I especially want to thank, frankly, wonderful Karen Pence, who is so committed to the veterans and this particular problem. And thank you very much, Karen. We appreciate it. (Applause.) Thank you.
Here, as well, are several members of PREVENTS Task Force. “PREVENTS,” it’s called. “PREVENTS.” Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie. Robert, great job. Ninety percent approval rating, the VA. It’s way, way up. Ninety percent. (Applause.) That’s a number that has never — not even come close to attaining that number, so it’s a tremendous job you’re doing. Thank you very much.
Secretary of Labor, Gene Scalia. Gene, thank you very much. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. Alex, thank you. Secretary of Housing and Urban — Housing and Urban Development, the great Ben Carson. Thank you, Ben. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Thanks, Betsy. And Acting Director of OMB, Russ Vought. Thank you, Russ, very much.
Also with us are Surgeon General Jerome Adams — where is Jerome? Jerome? Hi, Jerome. And he got a standing ovation the other day. I introduced him. He got the only standing ovation — Jerome. What was that all about? (Laughter.)
And the executive director of PREVENTS Task Force, Dr. Barbara van Dahlen. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thank you, Barbara. And representatives from several of our nation’s leading veterans groups.
We have tremendous people in this room — people that work so hard for the veterans. And they love our military, they love our country, they love our veterans. Thank you all for being here very much. Very much appreciate it.
From day one, my administration has been on a mission of historic scope and scale to deliver results for our great veterans. After years of shameful scandal and neglect under the Obama-Biden administration — and scandal and neglect it was — we have fundamentally reorganized the VA from top to bottom, and we’ve reestablished a crucial principle: American veterans deserve the highest standard of care anywhere in the world, and that’s what they’re getting. Great leadership.
To help veterans get the care they need when they need it, we approved Veterans Choice and made it permanent. And that was a big deal. They’ve been trying to get it for decades and decades and decades. And we got it. We got it done. And basically, that means if you have a problem and you can’t get to a doctor — if it doesn’t work, you end up going outside, you get your doctor, we pay the bill, and they get immediate service.
Some of the veterans were forced in past administrations for a long time — beyond the Obama administration, even — but for a long time, they were expected to wait a week and two weeks and three weeks just to get to see a doctor. It was a terrible situation.
Now we have Veterans Choice. They’ve been trying to get it so long. And it works incredibly well. And I would say that’s a reason why, when I say 90 percent approval rating, that’s probably one of the big reasons.
Before I took office, every month seemed to bring a new story of crisis at the VA by our friends from the media. But the days of endless and deadly waitlists are over, and they are never going to come back. We’re never going to allow them — nobody can allow that to come back, what our vets had to put up with.
I signed the VA Accountability Act into law, and we’ve removed more than 9,000 VA workers who were not giving our veterans the care, respect, attention that they’ve earned. And now that we have Accountability — it’s “Accountability”; a very nice word — if an employee of government mistreats our veterans in any way, does something wrong, isn’t good for the VA, the Secretary looks at them and says, “You’re fired. Get out.”
Before, you couldn’t do that. We had people for years and years. We had stories — I could tell you story after story how bad it was. You had sadists. You had thieves. You had some bad, bad people. So 9,000 have been fired, and they should have been fired a long time ago. But we got Accountability — VA Accountability — passed.
We secured record funding for the VA, including $9.6 billion for mental health services in 2020 — $9.6 billion. Every VA medical facility now offers same-day emergency mental health, something we didn’t have or even come close to having.
We have dramatically expanded telehealth for our nation’s veterans. And, with COVID, it’s really become probably the hottest thing there is in medicine. Wouldn’t you say? I think so. It’s gone up, in terms of usage, by hundreds of times. It was not picking up until COVID came along, and now it’s one of the hottest things you have going in the medical world, allowing people to consult with doctors from the comfort of their homes and not having to go out and not having to make long trips. And they get tremendous advice, I hope.
The promised White House VA hotline that I’ve been talking about has fielded more than 400,000 calls — right in the White House — successfully resolving 98 percent of veterans’ concerns. It’s a great thing. We have substantially cut the wait time for veteran appeals, ensuring all issues are resolved in a swift and timely fashion. It goes very quickly now — very, very quickly.
We’re modernizing medical records to begin a seamless transition from the Department of Defense to the VA, something others have tried and failed to do. They’ve tried it for decades. A long time they wanted to do it. It’s actually not as easy as it sounds, getting it done, but we got it done.
The VA has also cut opioid prescriptions by 35 percent since 2017, and we’re committed to defeating the opioid epidemic in America. We brought it down by as much as 17 percent in some areas; 19, 20 percent in other areas. But that still means you have a lot left and — but a lot of good things are happening.
I have to say, our border, where much of this comes in, drugs come in — we have a drug problem. We have an opioid problem. It’s all the same big problem. But our border is now as secure as it’s been in many, many years. It’s — the wall is now up to mile 212. And wherever we have the wall, that takes care of that area completely. But we’re now down to among the lowest numbers we’ve ever had on the border, and we have — I want to thank the President of Mexico, because we have 17,000 troops right now on the border — Mexican troops — and really helping us a lot.
The number of veterans who say they trust the VA services has increased 19 percent under this administration. That’s a tremendous increase. But I’m still more impressed — it’s an all-time high, by the way. But I’m still more impressed by the 90 to 91 percent. No, but that’s the number I’m going to use from now on, all right? Can I do that, Robert? (Laughter.) I like that — 91 percent. Can you imagine if you were a politician and you had a 91 percent approval rating? (Laughter.) That would be pretty good.
But there’s more work to do. Ending the tragedy of veteran suicide demands bold action at every level of society. Twenty veterans and service members take their own lives every single day. The loss of our heroes breaks our hearts and pains our souls.
One year ago, I signed an executive order establishing PREVENTS Task Force to develop a nationwide strategy to support our veterans in distress and stop the grave tragedy of veteran suicide.
Today, thanks to the leadership of Secretary Wilkie — he’s been outstanding — I’m proud to announce that we are taking this critical initiative to the next level, following the ambitious roadmap the task force has developed over the last year. You’ll see things happening that nobody would have ever thought even possible.
To lead this effort, Mrs. Pence and a team of ambassadors that she was very much involved with in choosing, including the Surgeon General Jerome Adams — you’re only there, Jerome, because Mrs. Pence wanted you there, okay? This is a nice compliment. (Laughter.) She’s tough. That’s a nice compliment. (Laughter.) Will launch a national public awareness campaign in the coming months.
This historic campaign will mobilize every sector of American society to encourage heroes in need, empower them with the best prevention practices, and help every veteran thrive in their lives after service. They come home from these active battlefields and active places; and, all of a sudden, they’re left, sometimes, alone; and you have a hard time with it.
They fought our battles overseas, and now we must join them in winning this new battle at home. There is no single solution to this issue; every resource must be brought to bear. We’re expanding our partnerships with military and veteran organizations, universities, faith-based leaders, businesses, nonprofits at all levels of government to establish specialized support systems for our veterans.
The task force has already partnered with 30 large corporations to help them prioritize the mental health of their employees, and we will continue adding to that number. And the number is growing very rapidly. Very, very rapidly.
We’re also launching a national research strategy. The PREVENTS Office will work with the greatest scientific minds across our nation to evaluate research to better understand the trauma service members face — they face tremendous, tremendous trauma; identify effective treatments; and communicate their findings to the public.
The PREVENTS Office is currently reviewing the $1.5 billion of federal funding committed to suicide prevention to make sure research goes where it is most needed in order to save lives and to make lives better.
Here with us today is former Marine and Coast Guardsman Chad Hiser who can share with us his personal testimony about the importance of the steps we’re taking today.
And, Chad, if I could, please would you say a few words? Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. HISER: Mr. President, distinguished guests, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak on this vital mission that affects the veteran community so much.
The Bible says in Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'” God never wastes a hurt. These are the words I was told long ago by a mentor and friend, but never really understood their impact until I began the healing process from my trauma that I experienced in combat as the United States Marine.
On March 23, 2003, in one horrific day, 18 Marines were killed that were part of Task Force Tarawa during the invasion of Iraq, at the Battle of an-Nasiriyah. Three days later, there was a friendly fire incident, which rounds were mistakenly fired, resulting in the injury of Marines.
After being honorably discharged at the end of my enlistment, I returned home feeling guilty for surviving, shame for feeling like I hadn’t done enough. The war was still in my mind. I was detached physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I was angry and isolated from the world, including my family.
Just one year after leaving the Marines, I decided to return to military service, this time with the United States Coast Guard, seeking a last-ditch effort to cope with the pain and regain my purpose in life. Unfortunately, my condition only worsened.
In 2005, I attempted suicide. I was transported to a medical hospital, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and shortly after, I was medically retired.
During this time, my wife was praying. She was asking God to help heal me from this combat trauma. I felt there was no one I could turn to, that my life just wasn’t worth living. As a tough Marine, I was hesitant to seek the help I truly needed to recover.
In 2009, by God’s grace and mercy, I was saved by Jesus Christ after carrying these burdens that I had carried for so long. The newfound hope I had was my foundation now.
In 2011, I participated in Wounded Warrior Project’s Project Odyssey, a combat recovery retreat. For the first time since returning from combat, I was able to open up about my own personal experiences and help further my own recovery process. This was truly a turning point in my life that gave me a sense of new direction.
As a Wounded Warrior Project peer mentor, warrior leader, and national campaign team member, I am fully committed to serving the veteran community by giving my time and attention to listen, empathize, and encourage, and help carry the burden shared by countless veterans facing similar struggles after war.
I’ve realized, through my own experience, how vital it is for veterans to have a positive support system not only within our families and communities, but also within our government, showing support and caring for those who are hurting. It’s also important to let everyone know, let the country know, that they can be strong and ask for help if you are struggling.
Mr. President, I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for your decision to implement this important initiative combating mental health and suicide crisis within the veteran community. I am so grateful for your actions in assisting veterans to get the help they need at such a critical time. Your leadership in this matter truly shows your care for our nation’s warriors.
Thank you. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: That’s fantastic, Chad. Thank you very much. I thought, because she’s so important to what we’re doing, I could just, prior to Secretary Wilkie, ask Karen Pence to say a few words. And she’s going to be leading us into the Promised Land on this very tough subject. Do you mind? Please, either one, Karen.
SECOND LADY PENCE: Thank you, Mr. President. I just want to say thank you for this administration realizing that this is an issue that we need to face head on. You are changing the culture. It’s — it’s the leadership at the top. It’s people like Chad being willing to be vulnerable. It’s people like Dr. Van Dahlen leading the whole task force of real experts who have been dealing with the suicide issue for many decades.
And now all of us are coming together. We came together a few months ago at the Vice President’s Residence. We talked about how we wanted to go forward with this initiative. And I feel like right now is such an opportune time because we’re all dealing with anxiety. We’re all dealing with stress right now.
So if I can do anything as lead ambassador, it’s my goal to help take away the stigma of mental health, take away the stigma for people to be able to come forward, like Chad, to say, “There was a time in my life where I wanted to end everything.” And our veterans — I’ve met with so many of them who say to me, “I don’t go to that dark place anymore.”
And so we are giving them hope. We want them to know — and anyone who’s considering suicide — that there are people out there who want to help. There is a way forward. And I just am so grateful and honored to be lead ambassador for PREVENTS.
So, thank you, Mr. President. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. So she had no idea I was going to do that. But I have to say that I did it about two months ago — I said, “Eh, maybe Karen wants to say a few words.” And she got up and she spoke for five minutes. She blew everybody away. (Laughter.) She was the star. Right, Mike? And I said, “Come on, Karen. You got to get up.” Great. Great. Really appreciate it. You’re going to do a fantastic job. Thank you very much.
Mr. Secretary, let’s go. (Applause.)
SECRETARY WILKIE: Thank you very much, Mr. President. I have been accused by some in this room of living in the 19th century and looking back on American history before I make any decisions. And I’m going to plead guilty to that for a second here and say that, in the history of presidential campaigns and then later the administrations of a victorious candidate, there has never been a candidate or a President who put veterans front and center — first of the campaign, and then of the administration — until you did. (Applause.)
I am going to speak for Mrs. Pence and I’m going to speak for myself as the son of a grievously wounded combat soldier from Vietnam — and, in Mrs. Pence’s case, the mother of a Marine warrior: These are issues that we live with every day. And for the President of the United States to say it is about time that those who have carried the burden of freedom on their shoulders are put front and center the national conscience, that is an enormous first step for this nation and long overdue. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Robert.
SECRETARY WILKIE: I’ve thanked Mrs. Pence. I want to thank two other people. First, is our executive director, Barbara Van Dahlen, who took this burden on herself, but took it joyfully, and is not only opening the aperture when it comes to a discussion of this last tragic act in a veteran’s life, but also opening the aperture on a discussion and finally having a discussion on mental health and addiction. So, Barbara, I thank you very much for what you do.
And last but not least, I want to thank our Deputy Secretary, Colonel Pamela Powers, who took this on when she was chief of staff and has carried it across the finish line. I thank you very much, ma’am. (Applause.)
Mr. President, I’ll go back to that history: In the 1890s, one of your predecessors, whose portrait hangs in the Green Room, was alarmed at the reports he was receiving from the frontier army of countless deaths amongst officers and men on the far outposts of the American West.
He was the first President to begin taking a look at those sad numbers. And it has taken these 130-plus years for another President to finally say enough is enough.
On any given day, 20 American warriors take their own lives. Those are active duty Guardsmen, reservists. The largest part of that number is from my father’s generation in Vietnam. But another reason why this task force is so important is that it will point the way for the rest of the country.
Growing up as a youngster at Fort Bragg, the leading cause of death amongst my classmates in junior high and high school was automobile accidents. Today, it is suicide. It is a scourge that is impacting every, every segment of this country.
So I want to thank the President for having the vision to identify the real solution to this national problem. And that is us. Each one of us. Each one of us can help end the stigma that has prevented America from taking on the important issue of mental health. Each one of us can work to change the culture that made it acceptable to ignore the signs of mental health and distress. Each one of us can learn to identify the signs amongst our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers.
So this — this day is the beginning of one of the most important national discussions America has seen. It is an effort to find a solution to a problem that does not discriminate amongst its victims: the poor, the rich, people of all races and creeds.
So I’m going to end with a story that I’ve told before, and it was one that I was very familiar with growing up at Fort Bragg.
The looming presence in the Home of the Airborne was Matthew Ridgway. In fact, he was so powerful that even the minor league baseball team’s mascot is named after him in Fayetteville.
General Ridgway commanded the All-American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily, and then General Eisenhower tasked him with leading the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe on the night of D-Day.
General Ridgeway planned the operations for the All-Americans, the Screaming Eagles, and the Red Devils of the British First Airborne. But on the night of the invasion, he couldn’t sleep. He fell out of his cot, and he reached for sustenance in the Old Testament, and he looked to the Book of Joshua and God’s promise to Joshua on the eve of the great Battle of Jericho, and the Lord promised the general, “I will not fail nor forsake thee.”
Mr. President, that is what you have said to the American people today and to the 20 million Americans who are in uniform and who have left uniform: that we will not fail nor forsake the people of the United States who have always carried, without question, our freedom on their shoulders.
So, Mr. President, I thank you very, very much. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Great job you’re doing. So Karen Pence has stated beautifully just a little while ago that — the two words, “anxiety” and “stress.” And all I can say, Mike, is thank goodness we don’t have any anxiety or stress in this job with these people back there. (Laughter.)
But I will tell you, we’re working very hard on this problem, and I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. I even noticed your number: 20. Twenty is different than twenty-four. You know what that means: each day. Hard to believe. Each day. But 20 is a big difference, and we’re getting it way down. And with some of the treatments that we’re talking about, I think it’ll go a lot lower than that.
And, Barbara, I want to thank you very much. I want to thank Chad. I want to thank you very much. It was a beautiful, beautiful statement. You’ve done such a fantastic job.
I see General Kellogg; he’s one of our great generals. He’s done a fantastic job for me, and he’s doing some very important things for me right now. So, General, thank you very much. Really fantastic job.
And we will have another meeting soon. And that meeting will be a meeting of progress, because I know with Karen in charge and with the Surgeon General working along with Karen and the group that you have — I know every one of them — you’re going to make big, big progress very, very fast.
So thank you very much. Thank you. Karen, thank you very much. Mike, thank you. (Applause.)