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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the Veterans Treatment Court Conference

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey
Washington —

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you. Please. (Applause.) Thanks very much. It’s I that should be giving you a standing ovation, but it wouldn’t make much impact, one guy up here, one old Irishman up here clapping his hands. You can see that any place you go around Washington, D.C., actually. (Laughter.) But I really am honored to be here today to – first of all, to thank all of you. I was told on the way in – as I always do, I asked, what should I expect? And they said, it’s a very law-abiding crowd – (laughter) – so not to be too worried about it.

Two hundred and thirty years ago today, George Washington bid farewell to his beloved Continental Army at Fraunces Tavern in Newburgh, New York. And if you remember your history, the Army at the time was a pretty dispirited group. They had begun to disband. The – not only they, but the nation actually faced a great deal of uncertainty. But Washington himself expressed a great deal of faith both in them and as well in his country. And this is what he said to them as he bid them farewell. He said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

So I think it’s worth remembering that the integration of veterans back into society and the care of veterans is really as timeless as our country itself. And I think that’s especially true to remember today as we begin to deploy fewer and fewer men and women into harm’s way, after 12 years of repeated deployments and very intense combat. And so I’ve made it one of my four focus areas as chairman to continue to find ways to improve the way that we integrate our great young men and women who serve back into their communities. (Applause.)

And that’s one of the reasons I’m so – I really was so excited, genuinely excited to come over here today to thank you for what you do with the – with the Veterans Treatment Courts to help those who’ve – are most vulnerable at the time of their greatest vulnerability, as they reintegrate. So as I said at the very beginning, thank you for that.

I also have taken on board the – part of the responsibility – we’ve all got a responsibility, but my part of it is, I think, to make sure that we continue to remind America what these young men and women bring back into their communities, because you know, there are stereotypes that somehow always emerge after conflict, and it does denigrate the service if we brand them with stereotypes.

What they are, by the way, is they’re adaptable. I tell people that the military – well, first of all, the military I joined back in the early 1970s is nothing like it is today. But it’s not even anything like it was in 2003. These young men and women who serve today have actually changed the way that we conduct military operations. They had to because the enemies we confronted didn’t comport themselves necessarily to our particular organizational designs and our particular way of waging war. But they did. Over the course of time, they became extraordinarily adaptable to the environment in which we placed them.

They also demonstrated uncommon courage. If you had told me back in the late ’90s that the all-volunteer force, which, by the way, was never actually designed for protracted conflict – if you had told me that the all-volunteer force could sustain itself and the families of the young men and women and serve for this long with repeated deployments, I frankly believe I would have disagreed with you. And yet even today, with 54,000 or so serving in Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands deployed elsewhere around the world protecting our interest, they and their families continue to bear under that strain of sacrifice and family separation. (Applause.)

And third, and importantly, this group, this generation is resilient. And if Nick’s (sp) story didn’t paint that picture, I don’t know what could. Resilient – take a – you know, get knocked down – not to sound like Chumbawamba, the famous singing group, I get knocked down, and I get up again. Some of you are too old to know that song. (Laughter.) But they do. They are an extraordinarily resilient group. And so when I talk to veteran support organizations and I talk to employers, I make sure they know that it’s – that it’s not that they should reach out to veterans as an act of charity; they should reach out to veterans because what they get is an incredible – someone who will contribute in an incredible way to their organizations. (Applause.)

So we’re going to do a little question-and-answer here, but I do want to end by thanking you yet again for – where you sit in the kind of universe of challenges that veterans face, you’re – you fulfill a very important role in helping make sure that these young men and women can become once again productive members of society, because at the end of the day – and this is also a matter of history – we, the people of the United States, citizen Dempsey and his citizen peers across the country, we will actually define and shape the image of the veterans of this 10-year period of conflict. And I think it’s an image that should be shaped and should be celebrated because I think that this group will have demonstrated, not only in what they’ve done in uniform but what they can do in society, that they have been an extraordinary group of citizens as well as soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine and Coast Guardsmen.

Thank you very much for what you do. We’ll keep at it at our end. Thanks to all the veterans present here today. And now I’d be happy to take your questions. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: Thank you, General Dempsey.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’re welcome.

MODERATOR: Thank you for taking time out of your busy and commanding schedule to be with us here today. Your presence and commitment demonstrates that our veterans who so valiantly serve this great country are your priority, no matter the condition in which they return. And we all are grateful for that. Thank you.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’re welcome. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a rare opportunity to have – field a couple of questions. Our time is short, so please keep your questions brief and pertaining to the general’s remarks. And can we start with our first question? I know there’s a handheld mic out there somewhere.

GEN. DEMPSEY: By the way, if you follow that instruction, you’ll be the first audience I’ve ever appeared before that – (laughter) –

MODERATOR: OK, I know there’s a handheld mic out there somewhere. Rob, can you point it to me? Right over there. OK, great. Go ahead.

Q: General Dempsey, thank you for your service. I enjoyed your comments today. My name is Charles Patton. I’m a judge in Cleveland, Ohio, and I run the veterans docket in Cleveland. Many occasions, I’ve had veterans come to court and found out that they’ve served 10 or more years in service and got a discharge other than honorable, which didn’t allow them to receive full benefits from the VA hospital, for example. Their mothers have called me and talked to me about this problem, and I just thought it might be (tonight ?) a good time to ask you: What can we do to kind of help these guys who didn’t get that honorable discharge, went into the service at 18 without an addiction problem, came out 10 years later with an addiction or substance abuse problem? Who can we talk to? How can we make that happen? And I’d like to hear your comments. Thanks.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I think there’s probably two ways to look at that, the – whether we should in some way adjust the way we characterize service, when – as it occurs. And I wouldn’t suggest that we should do that. I mean, I think that the system that assigns discharges is one that allows us to discriminate, is probably the right word, among those who have served and lived up to our values and upheld the law and those who did not. And I – so I wouldn’t suggest that we should in any way reconsider the way we characterize discharges at the time of occurrence.

I – where I might find some sense of sympathy for those who then overcome that obstacle and later recognize that they have in some way limited their potential by the discharge they received, there – by the way, there are already existing ways you can go back and ask for reconsideration of your discharge. But generally it’s not based on your future behavior; it’s more or less a matter of trying to correct an inaccuracy in the report.

It’s a fascinating question, and I’ll give you – and one that I’m not at all adverse (sic) to examining. But I’ll tell you, there’s something else that I worry a bit about with this – the next generation, the young men and women who are now in their teens, early teens, and who probably underestimate the impact of their persona in social media and what impact that could have later in life on things like security clearances and promotions and selections.

And one of the things that we actually have been considering is whether we would – we would build the future all-volunteer force on the basis of kind of getting a second start. In other words, we’d say to young men and women, you know what, you probably exposed some things in your social media persona, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or whatever it happens to be, that would disqualify you, actually from service, but we’re going to give you a shot at starting over in this thing we call the United States military if you agree from this point forward to live to the set of values that we describe.

So I think there’s something there that could be of assistance in addressing your question, but it is a complex issue. And we all make choices in life that then we live with for the rest of our lives, and I think we have to understand that as well.

MODERATOR: Second question.

Q: Good morning, General Dempsey. My name is Elizabeth Burek. I’m from the Veterans Treatment Court in Rochester, New York. And my question to you is I don’t think it’s any secret that we know that there are men and women who are in active duty who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues, so I’d just like to know if – are there any mechanisms in place to deal with those issues prior to discharge back into the community?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, and I would encourage – now, you might say – the answer, short answer, is yes, of course there are. You know, I came into the military in – I entered West Point in 1970; I – commissioned in ’74 and joined a military that was still largely conscripts. We were in transition from draftees to volunteers. And we had – we had – some of you served in that military and you know we had some real challenges. We had race issues, we had significant literacy issues that we glossed over, and we had issues then on drug and alcohol abuse that would make those that we see today pale by comparison.

So we did, over the course of time, put programs in place that – into which you could either be placed, you know, not necessarily at your will, or you could enter at your will. And over the course of time we’ve tried to adapt and adjust those. Those programs still exist, but, you know, to Nick’s (sp) point, you know, no program is going to be able to entirely overcome the pressure that a young man or young woman might experience in repeated deployments into a very intense environment called combat.

So to supplement those specific programs for drug and alcohol abuse, we’ve also – each service – has added what we’re calling total fitness. And it really does try to build resilience from the very moment you enter the military. Tries to give you life-coping skills, so that whether you face a financial challenge or the loss of a loved one or, you know, some other stress in your life – because you know, we all know we can’t eliminate the stresses in our lives – but we can make someone more hardened to them. And those resilience programs are really just nascent, maybe two or three years old. But I think they have some potential, in combination with the other programs we have specifically aimed at drug and alcohol abuse to make a difference long term. But it’s 10 years. You know, we all knew, we all asked ourselves – lest you think we’ve been asleep at the switch – we all asked ourselves about three or four years ago, what has this repeated – this 10-year period of repeated multiple prolonged deployments done to the force? And I think we continue to learn. But our commitment is to continue to learn.

MODERATOR: We have time for another question. Who has the other microphone – is where?

Q: I do. Good morning, sir. Over here.

My name is Mark Carter. I’m a judge of a veteran treatment court and I’m also a former U.S. Army captain, so I think I speak for everybody here when I tell you, thank you for your service; thank you for your leadership; and most importantly, thank you for recognizing the importance and value of these veteran treatment court programs and their – how important they are in the reintegration process. Thank you, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’re welcome. (Applause.)

You know – first of all, I appreciate the kind words. But I always tell folks when they thank me for serving, I’m at the point now where I know that I’m – that every day I wake up and put this uniform on, a uniform I’ve worn now for – I’ve worn a uniform for 44 years. And if you count Catholic school, we can go back even a little further. (Laughter.)

But I often remind myself that I will take it off at some point. I mean, there’s no place else left for me to go now. And so I will take the uniform off. And every morning, I remember what a privilege it is to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And so you honestly don’t have to thank me. I am deeply honored to do the job, and especially deeply honored when I get a chance to see folks who are putting their shoulder, their effort, their energy, their enthusiasm, in many cases their financial well-being behind this great group of men and women who are volunteering to serve their country. So you really don’t have to thank me. I appreciate it, but it is a deep honor for me to wear the uniform. Thanks. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: We have time for one last question. The final microphone? Go ahead.

Q: General, good morning. My name is Judy Costerman (sp), Dr. Judy Costerman (sp) with WestCare Foundation. I really appreciated your statements about your commitment to the transition of our men and women back into the community. I just wanted to ask you what you think might be the possibilities or how soon the possibility might be for medical records between DOD and the VA to also be integrated and help to make that a seamless transition.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, that’s – that integrated electronic health record initiative is clearly moving slower than any of us would like it to move, as we try to take two significant bureaucracies – and by the way, I don’t use the word bureaucracy pejoratively, you know. You know how bureaucracy grows; it grows to ensure – I think the best definition I’ve ever heard of bureaucracy, actually, is it makes sure that you don’t get something entirely wrong, but in the process it also ensures you’re never going to get it entirely right. You know what I mean?

And actually, you know, that’s – that is what it is. That’s one of those things that I think is just one of the facts on the ground that you deal with in trying to manage change in the face of it, of, especially now, budgetary challenges. So I can tell you that the two – that the two Cabinet members, the two secretaries – you had Secretary Shinseki, I think, speak to you, one of my personal heroes. He is the one who made me a one-star general, which was a necessary precondition to eventually become a four-star general. (Laughter.) And honestly just a terrific human being who – I mean, you know. Whether we ever get it exactly where we want it on his watch, if we don’t, it won’t be because of any lack of interest, enthusiasm, intellect or energy from him and his heart.

And then on the secretary of defense side, you know, a former sergeant who really gets it when it comes to especially service in a conflict. As you know, he – they were both in Vietnam. So we’ve got the right people in place and I think we’ve got the right support in place. But it’s just taking longer than it should, frankly. But we’re – the secretaries meet quarterly and then in between those meetings, there are multiple engagements between the two departments. But it’s not the only issue, by the way. We actually can help on the Department of Defense side by – we actually – you know, up until just really recently, maybe two or three years, the model we used for transitioning young men and women from military service into the life of a veteran back in society was about six weeks before you left, if – you know, there was this – there was a – you had to go to a course. And the course was a week or two in length and it taught you how to write a resume and it taught you all the benefits that you should be seeking because of your service. But we didn’t start that process until really – I said six weeks. You know, to be generous, maybe the last six months of your service, you would be told, go to this course. And I think what we’ve realized now is, we really ought to start preparing a young man or woman for transition the day they come in to the military. I mean literally, the day they come in, we should start educating them about education. You know, how will you on your tour of duty add to your resume credentials that will eventually be portable into society and recognizable?

We’re also working to credential. So if you’re a welder in the military, you know, should you have to, when you exit service and go to live in Utah, should you have to, you know, stand a test, pay a fee in order to demonstrate your bona fides as a welder or couldn’t Utah just accept the fact that if you were welding in the military, you probably can weld in Provo or wherever you happen to be?

So – and we’re making some progress on all of those things. But we’re also open-minded for other things where we should put our emphasis. I mean, I’ll be honest. Until I prepared for this event, I didn’t know you existed. I didn’t know of anything about veteran treatment courts. Now I’m wildly enthusiastic about it. But it just shows you – (applause) – it just reminds me, one of the things we have a little challenge with is there’s so many citizens’ groups, businesses – in your case, professionals – out there trying to do it, and it’s hard to actually knit it all together, frankly. There’s no – even though this is the 21st century, and if you – you know, you’d think if you Googled “veterans support” you’d get this exquisitely manicured menu of things that you could go to. But it’s not – that’s just not the way it is.

So one of the things we’ve got to keep doing is try to knit things together that are greater – as you know – that – so that the individual parts are knit together so that their sum is greater. And so our commitment is to keep doing that, but you’ve – I like to think I learn something new every day. Well, today, you’re the new something. (Applause.)

So thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you, General Dempsey. As the new senior director of Justice for Vets, I would like to thank you for your presence here today and for your continued leadership. And I have just one final question.

When is the soonest possible date and time that we can get you to come and visit a veterans’ treatment court so you can see the great work that all these people are doing? (Applause.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I’m headed over to – actually, to Afghanistan this weekend, but – unless you have one there, I mean. (Laughter.) But I promise you that on my next trip somewhere in the continental United States, my crack staff, which is around here someplace, has taken a note that we’re going to find time to visit a veterans treatment court. (Cheers, applause.)

MODERATOR: Thank you, General.