Welcomes the Inaugural Class of Veterans Innovation Partnership Fellows

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
February 13, 2015

Thank you.  Good morning, everybody, all of you taking refuge from the cold.  (Laughter.)  Try Boston today.  (Laughter.)  We got another slog of snow coming. 

It’s really very, very special for me to be here today.  I am very excited about this program, this initiative.  Ben, thank you so much for taking part in it, and thank you for your introduction.  And Drew O’Brien, I can’t thank you much – enough for your leadership and implementation of my vision with respect to veterans through all the Senate years that you mentioned, and now here at the State Department, and I’m very, very grateful to you.

Also, a special thank you to Dog Tag Bakery not just for donating the baked goods for this event, but more importantly, they provide regular outreach and support to our veterans on a day-in, day-out basis, and I’m very grateful to them for that, and I love the name Dog Tag Bakery. 

I’m also mindful that I’m the only person standing between you and some very fresh brownies, so – (laughter) – I’ll keep my remarks brief – by Senate standards.

All those of you – how many vets are here?  I want all the vets here to raise your hands.  That’s a great statement.  Thank you all very, very much.  (Applause.)  Thank you for being here, but more importantly, thank you for your service.  And Congressman Walz, thank you very much for being here and for your tremendous support on an ongoing basis.

More than anything, if I turn to any of you here and asked you sort of what has made this inaugural partnership come together so effectively, you’d probably point to Drew O’Brien.  And that is because Drew does understand what this is all about in a very personal way.  I was privileged to know Drew’s father, Ed O’Brien, who served proudly in the Navy during World War II, including the invasion of Okinawa.  And I had the privilege, actually, of giving him a medal that he had never received in the course of all of that time – shortly before he passed away, as a matter of fact. 

And he embodied what all of us have come to understand is the Greatest Generation – we’ve called it that, and appropriately.  And before Tom Brokaw coined that phrase, we knew what it referred to, particularly those of us who served in the Senate and worked alongside people like Bob Dole, Dan Inouye, John Glenn, Fritz Hollings, and a lot – Frank Lautenberg and others.  It referred to the generation that I revered, and I think many of you probably did too, growing up in the shadows of World War II – my parents’ generation, our parents’ generation, the generation that defended America and saved democracy for the world, stood up against the scourge of tyranny and fascism.  And then they returned to these shores – citizen soldiers, men and women – in order to build communities.  And they did so, brilliantly.

So I welcome all of you, all of our veterans today who in the same way answered that call to service, the example of which was set for us – first on the battlefield and now as civilians.  You are joining more than 7,000 veterans that we are proud to say are part of the State Department family, men and women who have served in all branches of the military and in every major conflict since Vietnam.  We all know what service means.  It means measuring commitment in actions, not just words.  It means working together as a team.  It means having the courage of your convictions and standing up for them even when it’s difficult.  It means never leaving a friend behind.

So we thank you, all of you, for what you did for your country when you were in uniform, and I thank you for what you are doing for us now.  We particularly thank the families that also serve – and everybody here knows what I mean – even though they may not be deployed. 

This partnership is very important to me.  Literally since the day I returned from Vietnam, I have been deeply involved in veterans’ affairs.  In the late 1960s, early ‘70s, the vets who came home didn’t have the same benefits that they did from Korea or World War II.  They didn’t have allowances for books and education to the degree that they had had previously.  Hospitals were challenged in their budgets.

So we worked at that.  Literally every gain and advancement that was made for veterans during that period of time came through the effort of veterans themselves fighting for it.  And that means the increase in the GI Bill.  It means Agent Orange being recognized as a presumption with respect to cancer.  It means even creating the charter for the Vietnam Veterans of America, which I was proud to be one of the four co-founders of, as well as the monument to those who died – the wall came about through the great efforts of veterans of that war who helped fight for it.  The increase in the disability benefits and so forth; the increase in the insurance – it was $12,000 to a family if a veteran was killed in the war all the way up until a few years ago, when I brought an amendment in the United States Senate to raise it to 250 and then to 500,000.  So these are the gains that we have made.  (Applause.)

I have met with recovering veterans at Walter Reed, Bethesda, and let me tell you – also in Massachusetts many, many times – I’ve never met a single veteran who wants pity.  But everybody wants support and wants the opportunity to be able to take their service and turn it into something.  And everybody who is a veteran deserves to know that the country that stood with them when they wore the uniform will stand by them when they leave the battlefield and return home; stand by them when they need medical treatment, and supplies, and medicine, and counseling; stand by them by helping to retrofit a home, if that’s what it takes to ensure wheelchair access; and stand by them by giving veterans job opportunities and employers the opportunity to be able to hire somebody who comes with this particular skillset and experience.

That’s what the Veterans Innovation Partnership is all about.  Through VIP, we bring together U.S. agency and private sector leaders to seek out those who have served America and provide these folks with fellowship opportunities at State, USAID, OPIC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  And I particularly want to thank Steven Taylor, our Chief Information Officer; Linda Taglialatela, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Resources; Joyce Barr, our Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Administration; and Arnold Chacon, our new Director General, for their combined leadership in this effort.  I’m very grateful to USAID, OPIC, and MCC for their continued support and to our outstanding partners who have signed up in order to work with VIP, including The Mission Continues, General Motors that’s represented here today, iRobot, MasterCard, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and the University of Kansas.  And we welcome others from the private sector, foundations, and civil society who want to contribute.

Now, I have always believed that being a veteran does not automatically mean you’re on the right side of every foreign policy issue.  Far from it.  I understand that challenge.  No one is.  But it’s a different perspective always, and a vital one.  And I’ll never forget when I returned home from Vietnam and landed at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, feeling a little bit older than the 26 years that I was then.  The Navy taught me the skills of management, of leadership, organization, strategy, planning, implementation – and those lessons, believe me, have served me well throughout my life.  We all know how crucial our military is to our national defense, and I believe we should never hesitate to use force when necessary, and sometimes it is, even as an instrument of diplomacy.  But my time in war is what has made me such a big believer in the need to exhaust every option to resolve differences peacefully before you make the decision to ask young men and women to go into harm’s way. 

The fact is that the experience of being a veteran – I’m sure all of you share this – brings with it a voice that needs to be heard, whatever side you’re on, in order to defend America’s interests and promote our values across the globe.  When we wrestle with the challenge of building peace in Afghanistan, we benefit from the voice of a veteran who knows the cost of war.  When disaster strikes, whether by the hand of nature or by the hand of man, we benefit from the voice of a veteran who has delivered life-saving aid in real time somewhere in the world.  When we advocate for international disability rights, we benefit from the voice of a veteran who has given a limb of his or – for his or her country, and who understands how seemingly small obstacles can sometimes become huge and unfair barriers to daily life.

So I want to emphasize:  This partnership, to paraphrase a son of Massachusetts, isn’t just about what the State Department can do for veterans, it’s about what veterans can do for the State Department and for America’s foreign policy.  We welcome those of you from this first class and we look forward to the second class and the third and the fourth.  And I’m very pleased to announce today – to re-announce, because Ben already announced it – that the next round of applications will open in March.  We’re in this for the long haul, folks, because it’s a great opportunity for those who take part and a great, great set of benefits for everybody who touches this program.

That’s why I’ve asked Drew to build this partnership:  To bring the unique skills that veterans have acquired and put them to work on the front line of diplomacy and development.  We need more people like Albert Espinoza, who served in the Air Force as an enlisted airman, a junior military officer, and he’s the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.  (Applause.)  We need more people like Ben Shoaf, who served in the Gulf and speaks Farsi.  We need more people like Janet Boehnlein, a VIP 2014 fellow, who is a veteran of the United States Navy, completed two deployments aboard the USS Eisenhower and USS George Washington

The bottom line is pretty simple:  All of us who have put on a uniform and left our families to serve this great country share a unique and a lifelong bond.  We never forget the reason we do what we do.  And we also cannot forget the families and the loved ones of those who serve and sacrifice today in faraway places.

Friends of mine who lost friends in a different context a long time ago came back from there – we all came back with a different saying:  “Every day is extra.”  You learn that when you lose friends.  I’ve always thought that that is a beautiful expression; a way of saying that we honor those that we’ve lost by continuing to grab every day and make the most of it, and particularly by continuing to serve our country and help other people.  That’s what this partnership is all about.  And we will remember that with each extra day, we have the chance to give a little bit extra from ourselves.

So thank you all very, very much for being part of this effort.  God bless you.  Look forward to working with you in the days ahead.  Thank you.  (Applause.)