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Remarks by President George W. Bush at the Bush Institute’s Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors Summit

Article by George W. Bush February 19, 2014 //   22 minute read

George W. Bush Presidential Center

Dallas, Texas

February 19, 2014

"Justin, thank you for those kind remarks.  You’re a better speaker than you are a golfer.  (Laughter.)  Laura and I are thrilled you’re here.  We’re particularly thankful that Dr. Jill Biden came.  Thanks so much for being here.  It means a lot that you’ve come.  And I want to thank you for what you and the First Lady do to help our vets.  (Applause.)

I’ll give Margaret a shout-out, our President of the Bush Center.  She was a fabulous Secretary of Education. She’s doing a great job here at the Bush Center.  We thank you very much.  I too want to say hello to Pete Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when I was President.  The first Marine ever to do so – looks like the last Marine to do so. (Laughter.)  And Miguel Howe, an awesome guy who’s running our Military Service Initiative.  You’ve got a fabulous team, and I want to thank you, Miguel, for your work. 

I too want to thank our sponsors and supporters.  It requires money to run these deals; we thank you very much for your generosity.  If you’ve got a little more capacity to give, we’ve got the capacity to receive.  I’m proud to be here with military service organizations and our panelists.  I particularly want to thank Martha Raddatz for leading the discussions.

A lot of people ask me, you know, do I miss much about being President. And the answer is really no. (Laughter.)  I mean, I miss people I served with. I miss Air Force One.  (Laughter.)  I mean, in eight years, they never lost my baggage.  (Laughter.)  I do miss saluting men and women who volunteered to defend our Nation during war. Many are coming home and are preparing for new missions as civilians.  And I intend to salute these men and women for the rest of my life.  (Applause.)  And through the Military Service Initiative, the Bush Institute is going to help.  We’re focused, and we’ll be relentless in serving our vets.         

Since 9/11, more than 2.5 million Americans have worn the uniform.  They have faced down our enemies, they’ve liberated millions, and in so doing showed the true compassion of a great Nation.  They are the 1 percent of America who kept the 99 percent safe.  And we owe them, and their families, a deep debt of gratitude.         

Our country can never really fully repay our vets.  But we ought to try.  From our earliest days, Americans have resolved – as Abraham Lincoln put it – “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan.”  When the Continental Congress met in 1776, one of its first pieces of legislation created pensions for the veterans of the Revolutionary War.  And since then, our government has rightly made supporting our veterans a high priority.      

Private citizens have also played an important role in supporting our vets – from service organizations, to college presidents who redesigned their curriculum for returning warriors, to employers who have taken a chance on a vet looking to learn a new trade. 

As the World War Two generation demonstrates, veterans tend to take the skills and values they learn in the military and use them in new and constructive ways when they come home.  Veterans have been some of the country’s most successful leaders.  Many in public service, some in the Oval Office – including a kid who joined the military when he was eighteen:  “41.”  (Applause.)

Unfortunately, not every generation of veterans has enjoyed a warm welcome home.  Baby boomers remember what I’m about to say.  When Americans in uniform returned from Vietnam, many were shouted at and spit upon, and they were called names and they were shunned.  No matter what you think about that war, the treatment of our veterans then was shameful and wrong – and it should never be repeated.         

Over the next five years, more than a million Americans will complete their military service.  And like those before them, they will face challenges as they readjust to civilian life.  At the Bush Center we believe that after everything they have done for us, we have a duty to help make their transition as successful as possible.  We recognize that in helping our veterans, we can unleash the potential of a generation of resourceful, determined, and experienced leaders.  And in so doing, we will show the next generation of Americans that military service is noble and worthwhile – and that when you sacrifice for your fellow citizens, you will find strong support when you come home. 

Many organizations have taken up the cause.  The Bush Center has partnered with military service organizations to honor and encourage veterans through sporting events. Margaret talked about the W100 mountain bike ride.  Some of the riders are with us.

We talked about the golf tournament.  You just met the Arnold Palmer of the Warrior Open.  (Laughter.)  And those efforts are important, but they’re really not enough. They’re not transformative enough.

And so a goal of the Military Service Initiative is to help Americans understand how they can support our veterans and empower them to succeed.     

Support for our troops since 9/11 has been overwhelming, but until now, we haven’t really asked important questions like who are these vets, and what do they need?  And so together with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University – a fine University and a vital program – the Bush Institute has completed one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted of post-9/11 veterans.  This spring, we’re going to publish the complete results so others can use this information to inform and to enhance their work on behalf of veterans. 

But here’s a sneak preview.  Of the 2.5 million post-9/11 veterans, more than 2 million served in Afghanistan or Iraq. The average veteran spent one out of every three years overseas. 17 percent of the vets are women.  82 percent of post-9/11 veterans said that they would recommend military service to someone considering signing up.  And when asked if they were proud of their service, 94 percent said yes. 

Here is one of the more troubling statistics:  84 percent of the veterans say that the American public has “little awareness” of the challenges facing them and their families.  It turns out most Americans agree:  71 percent of Americans said they do not understand the problems facing our veterans.  You might call this a “civilian-military divide.”      

One lesson of our research is that the divide is exacerbated by public perceptions that the veteran is either a hero, or to be pitied.  Most veterans don’t consider themselves heroes or victims.  They see themselves as Americans who took on a tough job and did it well.  They don’t want lavish celebrations or expressions of condolences.  And while it never hurts to say thank you, that’s not really the point.  What most veterans want is to have their service understood and appreciated for what it is:  a formative experience in their lives and a source of skills and values that prepare them to succeed in civilian life.  In short, our veterans have defended the American people.  And now they want to experience the American Dream.

Our study also shows that post-9/11 veterans face even higher rates of unemployment than their civilian counterparts, and that this is their top concern.  The problem is especially intense for younger veterans, veterans with combat experience, veterans with disabilities, minorities, and women.  Sadly, the costs of unemployment are not only financial.  Studies show that veterans without a steady job are more susceptible to other problems, like depression and addiction and homelessness and suicide.

So another goal of the Military Service Initiative it so help more veterans put their skills to work in rewarding civilian jobs.  From our research, we know one problem is that veterans and employers both have a hard time translating military experience. That’s not surprising.  I mean, you don’t see many job postings that say, “Wanted: Experience hunting insurgents and terrorists.  Willing to risk life for co-workers.”  (Laughter.)  Or what’s a veteran supposed to put down: “My last office was a Humvee?”  (Laughter.)

Our study will help employers understand what veterans have to offer and enable them to tailor their recruitment and hiring efforts.  And we’re going to send a broader message:  Hiring veterans is not only the right thing to do, it is a smart thing to do. I’ve employed a lot of people during my career, and I’ve learned that you can always teach skills.  What matters most in an employee are qualities like character and values, work ethic and responsibility.  And that’s what our veterans bring.  When a resume says “United States military,” that means you can count on the applicant to be loyal, have good leadership, teamwork skills, and discipline. And to an employer, that should mean a lot.    

Across our country, businesses are making wise choices to hire veterans.  Many companies have started programs to seek out and hire veterans and military spouses. And we’re proud here at the Bush Center to welcome some of the most innovative companies:   7-Eleven, Bank of America, Disney, GE, JC Penney, JP Morgan Chase, Prudential, USAA, Walmart, Blackstone, and LaQuinta.

These employers are leading the way, but there's a long way to go before the employment gap is closed.  As part of our initiative, we are going to learn from these companies’ efforts, we will share best practices, and use our platform to spotlight programs that work.  We will help more employers understand how they can improve their businesses by placing veterans and military spouses in meaningful careers.

And now I’m going to point a spotlight.  In our audience today is Ginger Collins.  Here’s the thing about Ginger.  She started work at La Quinta Inns and Suites as a manager of the front desk in Savannah, Georgia.  She’s married to a guy named Curtis. He received orders for his third deployment.  He leaves, she moves to Irving, Texas – good choice.  (Laughter.)  La Quinta helped her. When they couldn’t find her a management job, they put her on the front desk near her home, but what was important was they paid her as if she was a manager.  She worked hard; she earned promotions.  Then, the Army moved Curtis again, this time to San Antonio.  She is now General Manager at La Quinta Inn and Suites in San Antonio, Texas.  In short, by showing flexibility and care for our military vets and their spouses, La Quinta has retained a loyal and experienced manager – and showed great patriotism for America.  We thank La Quinta, and we’re glad you’re here, Ginger.  (Applause.)

While some veterans are ready to enter the workforce immediately, others need to update their skills.  That’s especially true for younger veterans who entered the military right after high school or a short stint in college.  At the Bush Center, we believe it’s never too late to learn a new skill.  Just ask Laura.  Problem is, years ago she didn’t think she was marrying an oil painter.  (Laughter.)  Our country has a proud tradition of welcoming veterans back to school, beginning with the GI Bill of 1944.  As President, I was pleased to sign into law the post-9/11 GI Bill.

Our research shows that while many veterans are using their GI bill benefits to advance their education, too many are having a tough time making it to graduation.  At some schools, the dropout rate for veterans exceeds 50 percent.  Unlike many Americans struggling to make it through college, the problem here is not money.  The problem is fitting in. 

Veterans account for about 3 percent of the higher education population, and many report feeling isolated from their classmates and or professors. There are some great institutions that are doing good work in attracting veterans and making them feel at home.  SMU is one.  Syracuse is doing great work.  And of course there’s Texas Tech.  But most schools have really not done enough to make their campuses welcoming and accommodating. 

Major universities love to tout a diverse student body, and that’s important.  But it’s hard to imagine a more valuable contribution to campus diversity than a group of people who chose to spend their early careers risking their lives for their country.  So the Military Service Initiative will work with leaders in higher education to promote innovative programs that recruit, retain, and graduate veterans. 

I’m pleased to introduce you to one veteran who went back to school, John Raftery.  As a Marine, he helped lead the charge to liberate Baghdad in 2003.  When he came home, he used his GI bill benefits to get a degree in accounting.  He took a job that didn’t work.  That’s got to be hard to go from liberating Baghdad to being an accountant.  (Laughter.)  So he went to Syracuse University’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities.  It’s a program that helped the Colonel and helped a lot of others. Using the skills he learned there, along with his accounting degree, John founded Patriot Contractors in Waxahachie, Texas.  Inc. Magazine recently ranked John’s business as one of the fastest growing private companies in America.  John is not only providing for his own family, but some of his employees are fellow vets.  Where are you John, are you here?  John, thank you, welcome.  I’m glad you’re here.  (Applause.)        

His is an important story of how a university committed to our veterans can facilitate a meaningful and productive transition into civilian life.  But the story also highlights another challenge facing veterans today.  When he returned from Iraq, John was diagnosed with a condition known as PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder.

A problem with post-traumatic stress is not the condition itself; the problem is the stigma surrounding the condition.  Partly because it is mislabeled as a “disorder,” and partly because many people aren’t aware of treatment options, some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress are reluctant to seek help.  As a result of public misunderstanding, employers sometimes cite it as a reason for not hiring veterans.  So one of the missions of the Military Service Initiative is to help end the false stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress and help veterans get the treatment they need.

As most doctors will tell you, post-traumatic stress is not a disorder.  Post-traumatic stress, or PTS, is an injury that can result from the experience of war.  And like other injuries, PTS is treatable. The military and medical communities have made great strides in developing effective ways to reduce and overcome PTS.  Like depression, PTS can be controlled through medication, therapy, and other treatment.  But like most serious injuries, it rarely goes away on its own.  Those affected must get help.

We are going to use our platform to make clear that veterans receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress are not damaged goods.  They are not mentally shattered.  They are people who got hurt defending our country and are now overcoming wounds.  Employers would not hesitate to hire an employee getting treated for a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.  And they should not hesitate to hire veterans getting treated for post-traumatic stress.  (Applause.)

One of the leaders in this area is retired General Pete Chiarelli, who is on our Advisory Council and is with us today.  Pete has made it his mission to spread the word about the science behind PTS and the medical treatment that veterans can receive.  We will work with pioneering programs like Pete’s One Mind and Dallas’ own Center for BrainHealth to address challenges caused by traumatic brain injury and other wounds of war.  By helping connect wounded veterans with the care they need, we aim to eliminate PTS as a barrier to employment and empower our veterans to reach their full potential.           

One veteran doing this is a guy named Dave Smith.  I got to know Dave up near Amarillo when we rode the W100 mountain bike ride in the Palo Duro Canyon.  He’s originally from Akron, he served in the Marine Corps, and was a team leader during two deployments to Iraq.  He took part in heavy fighting, and then he saw his friends suffering wounds and death.  When he came home, he experienced severe post-traumatic stress.  He had nightmares and trouble maintaining relations.  So this is a guy who stands up in front of a bunch of Amarillo cowboys telling his story.  He said one night he came home drunk and he pulled out a shotgun and stared right down the barrel.  Fortunately he put the gun into another room, locked the closet, and went and got therapy.  Last year, he graduated from UCal-Berkeley with honors.  He interned at the New York Stock Exchange – I don’t know why he did that (laughter); he volunteered with Team Rubicon to deliver disaster relief.

We invited him to join us today, but he’s in Swaziland.  This is a guy [who goes] from looking down a shotgun to traveling around 11 countries in 11 months to build Bible Schools…he’s teaching English, math, and science; working in the fields; and digging water wells.  He’s an inspiration to our veterans, and he should be to our fellow Americans.  He’s living proof that PTS does not have to be an obstacle to a successful life.

Dave’s story also highlights one of the most uplifting aspects of veterans returning home:  many of those who have served in uniform have devoted themselves to helping other vets.  And many who have not worn the uniform are equally as passionate.  According to our initial research, more than 46,000 organizations have a mission at least partly related to serving veterans.  That’s a huge number, and it’s a great testament to our country’s strong support for veterans – but it can be overwhelming for newly returned veterans looking for help.  And while these organizations have good intentions, I suspect some deliver better results than others.

So the Bush Institute is undertaking a project to help measure their effectiveness.  We’re going to look at data like number of veterans served and the quality and consistency of outcomes produced.  To help refine our analysis, we will conduct case studies on some of the leading, most effective organizations.  Our goal really isn’t to pit one group of NGO’s against another.  Our goal is to prove effectiveness.  Our goal is to help our vets.  So we’re going to share measures of effectiveness, and create a roadmap and an assessment tool that all organizations can use to hold themselves to higher standards – and be able to match good intentions with good results.  We’re going to lay out this tool [this] fall at our next Military Service Initiative summit.

In sum, the goal of the Military Service Initiative is to empower veterans to make a smooth and successful transition to successful life.  We will do that by spreading information to reduce the civilian-military divide, by breaking down barriers and opening new opportunities for employment, and by helping service organizations deliver better results for our vets.  

There is no doubt in my mind this generation of veterans is just as great as any group of veterans before.  There’s no doubt in my mind they will be the leaders in the years to come for our Nation.  And there’s no doubt in my mind that as a result of their leadership, America will continue to be the greatest country on the face of the Earth.  Thank you for coming."  (Applause.)


Learn more about the "Empowering Our Nation's Warriors" and join the conversation on social media using #KnowOurVets.