The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 20, 2007

President Bush Attends Swearing In of Secretary of Veterans Affairs
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, D.C.

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  Presidential Remarks

      Fact Sheet: Lt. Gen. James B. Peake (Ret.), M.D.: "A Worthy and Strong Leader" for Our Nation's Veterans
      In Focus: Veterans

11:24 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Thanks for the warm welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs. I am proud to introduce your new Secretary: Lieutenant General James Peake. (Applause.) And I am pleased to be joined by his wife, Janice, and daughter Kimberly, and her husband, Mack. I know they're proud of what Jim has accomplished during his career, and I thank them for supporting him in his work ahead.

I thank the Vice President for joining me today. We had a long ride over here, Jim. (Laughter.) Plenty of time to visit. (Laughter.) I want to thank the Secretary for joining us -- Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates; honored you're here, sir. Appreciate Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labor; Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield -- I'm going to say something about you here in a minute. I appreciate Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, for joining us. Thanks for coming, Admiral. General Dick Cody, Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army. I appreciate all those who wear the uniform who have joined us today, as well.

I want to thank Arlen Specter, United States Senator, for joining us. Senator, thanks for coming. And my Congressman, the Congressman from central Texas, Congressman Chet Edwards, Chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee; proud you're here.

I want to thank the members of Veterans Service Organizations who are with us today.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hoo-rah. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Looking forward to working with you. (Laughter.) And behave yourself. (Laughter.)

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has one of the most important jobs in our government. The Secretary leads a department of more than 240,000 employees -- and I want to thank every one of them for serving our country; appreciate your hard work. (Applause.) The Secretary is charged with a solemn responsibility: to ensure our nation's veterans receive the care and the benefits they deserve.

Dr. Jim Peake has the skills and experience to carry out this mission. He is both the first physician and the first general to lead this department. His 36-year medical career has taken him to military bases across the world. And during the opening years of the war on terror, he directed the Army Medical Department as Army Surgeon General. In that position, he led more than 55,000 medical personnel, and managed an operating budget of nearly $5 billion. Throughout his long career, Dr. Peake has worked to improve the way we deliver medical care to our troops. And thanks to his efforts, many who once might have died on the battlefield have returned home to live lives of hope and promise.

We see this hope and promise in the story of Dr. Peake's own life. Dr. Peake's first stay at a military hospital came years before he entered his -- earned his medical degree at Cornell. It came as a wounded patient during the Vietnam War. This West Point graduate received several medals for his valor, including the Silver Star; he earned a reputation for honor and selflessness.

Dr. Peake learned those values from his loving parents who taught him the meaning of service. His mother was an Army nurse. And his father was an Army officer, who spent most of his 30-year career in the Medical Service Corps. And I know they both would be proud to see their oldest son, Jim, become the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Dr. Peake follows in the footsteps of another fine public servant and Vietnam combat veteran: Secretary Jim Nicholson. Throughout his career, Jim Nicholson has served our nation with honor and integrity -- as an Army Ranger, and ambassador, and as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Secretary Nicholson built on the fine record of his predecessor, Tony Principi -- Mr. Secretary, glad you're here today -- and he leaves an impressive legacy of his own. Under his leadership, this department has worked to meet the needs of new veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Secretary Nicholson also launched an effort to modernize the department's information technology systems -- so we can better protect patients' personal information. I want to thank Jim for his work on behalf of our nation's veterans -- and I wish him and his wife, Suzanne, all the very best.

I also want to thank Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield. He served as the Acting Secretary for Veterans Affairs since October. Gordon is a retired Army officer who has dedicated much of his career to serving his fellow veterans. I've benefited from Gordon's wisdom and counsel -- and he did a terrific job as Acting Secretary during this time of transition. (Applause.)

Dr. Peake takes office at a critical moment in the history of this department. Our nation is at war -- and many new veterans are leaving the battlefield and entering the VA system. This system provides our veterans with the finest care -- but sometimes the bureaucracy can be difficult. To address these problems, our administration, along with the Secretary's leadership is implementing recommendations of the Dole-Shalala Commission on Wounded Warriors. In other words, we're not going to tolerate bureaucratic delays. We want the very best for our veterans. Some of the commission's recommendations require the approval of Congress -- and Congressman and Senator, we're looking forward to working with you on those. I've sent legislation to Congress to carry out these additional recommendations -- and Dr. Peake is going to work with members from both sides of the aisle to get me a good bill that I can sign into law.

Our nation has no higher calling than to provide for those who have borne the cost of battle -- and we will honor our responsibilities. (Applause.) I am confident in the future of this department because I have seen firsthand the dedication and character of the men and women who work here. And I am confident that you will have a worthy and strong leader in our new Secretary.

Congratulations, Jim. I appreciate your willingness to serve. And now I ask the Vice President to administer the oath.

(The oath is administered.) (Applause.)

SECRETARY PEAKE: Mr. President, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Mansfield, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen of the VA -- and of, really, the United States -- I cannot tell you just how proud I am to be back in service to this country and, most particularly, in this role serving those who have defended her.

Janice, thank you. We've been in lots of ceremonies over the 31 years, and none quite like this, I must admit. (Laughter.) But each time, I recognize just how lucky I am to have you.

Mr. President, I know how strongly you feel about doing right by our veterans. Your visit here at our headquarters today speaks volumes to that. I am deeply appreciative of your confidence and I pledge to you, sir, that I will do my very best to live up to that confidence.

As part of the process of confirmation, in addition to the hearing, there were a series of written questions from the Senate. One of them was: If given the chance, what would you say to all of the people of the VA? So they've sort of prepped me for today for you. What I told them then is what I tell you now: first, just how privileged I feel to be joining this team. I know of your commitment to veterans. I know that many of you have dedicated your lives to taking care of veterans, and that many of you are veterans yourselves.

I know many of the advances -- for example, leading in health care innovation -- that have been because of you. You touch lives all across this great nation, from enabling veterans to have a home, sometimes a special home; to getting an education; to having rehabilitation that enables a productive and proud citizen. Secretary Chao, I look forward to working with you, particularly in that regard. You need to know that I deeply believe in this mission, and that I believe in you.

I know quite a number of you already, and I have had emails from across the field of people that I have known over the many years. I've seen the ethic, I've seen the caring and the compassion and the technical skills, and I truly appreciate the quality of the leadership team, Gordon, that you've assembled.

I want you to get to know me. You've heard my background: 38 years in the military, with a chance to do lots of different things. But I also have had a rather long association with the VA: 10 years on the Special Medical Advisory Group for the VHA; this last year working with the VBA, and even experience with the VA cemetery when I was commanding general at Fort Sam Houston. I'm not a total newcomer.

With this great team in place, I aim to hit the ground running. And as I review the history, I cannot think of a recent time with more focus on our veterans or more in-depth looks coming together to allow us to chart a course forward, and the opportunity that provides to look to the future with this newest generation of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, simultaneously honoring our nation's commitment to that generation of World War II and Korean veterans, and addressing the needs of the men and women of the Vietnam era, my generation, who are now finding more and more needs of our services.

The Dole-Shalala report that the President commissioned has given us a powerful blueprint to move forward. Already in partnership with DOD, recommendations are being implemented to better serve our wounded warriors. I do look forward to working closely with Congress and with our veterans' service organizations and our military service organizations -- and many, I am delighted to see, are represented here today -- to make meaningful progress where legislation is needed.

Secretary Gates, General Cody, Dr. Casscells, thank you for coming today. Our partnership in this quest is really important to move forward. I don't want "seamlessness" to be a buzzword -- I want it to be our way of doing business. I know we can do that together.

Admiral Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard, is here today, and we not only take care of your veterans, but your presence highlights the VA's role in readiness and homeland security, and I appreciate you being here.

Finally, I told the Senate that I would commit to each of you in the VA my dedication to the mission, to you, and to creating the environment for your success as together, we serve the needs of veterans. Well, I do that now with all of my heart and all of my energy. We have a special mission, and I am delighted to be on this VA team. I'll see you on the high ground. (Applause.)

END 11:36 A.M. EST

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