The ICAS Lectures


Remarks at the
2011 Annual Liberty Award Dinner

Eric A. McVadon.

ICAS 2011 Annual Liberty Award Dinner

December 2, 2011
Cannon Caucus Room United States House Cannon Office Building
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Eric A. McVadon

Remarks on the Occasion of the Liberty Award Dinner

Rear Admiral Eric A. McVadon, U.S. Navy (Retired)

General John H. Tilelli, U.S. Army (Retired) and Captain Peter M. Rhee, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Cannon Caucus Room, U.S. House of Representatives
2 December 2011

Some Americans express pessimism about our country and its citizens and display more cynicism than anything else about American society. But it is difficult to be pessimistic about America or to be cynical about where mankind is going when in the company of people like General John Tilelli and Captain and Dr. Peter Rhee. Both General Tilelli and Captain Rhee must be commended for their indefatigable dedication to and inexorable passion for their respective life callings. They relished the challenges they faced in their careers as adventures and opportunities - mountains to be conquered and flagstaffs to be planted. And in the process they contributed to their individual fields and services - and to American society and, dare I say, to all of humankind. When the path ahead forks uphill and down, the Tilellis and Rhees make the uphill fork the one most often taken. When others find daunting the complexity and intractability of problems, there is likely to be a Tilelli or Rhee with both a finger in the dyke and a mind at work on a grander, long-term solution. Do not tell a Tilelli that nothing can be done to improve the training of American soldiers unless you are ready for a revolution in Army training. When Captain Rhee was confronted with a significant impasse between the armed services about how best to stop profuse bleeding from wounds, he, based on carefully collected information, decisively resolved the issue-and responsibly followed up on the matter to ensure the solution was properly implemented.

General John Tilelli has, as all know, had a remarkable career. His rise to four-star rank in the U.S. Army has a special quality to it-a quality I especially take note of because I, like he, did not attend my service academy. He did not go to West Point. His assignments and promotions surely reflect the fairness of the U.S. Army's personnel practices-regardless of the source of the commission, but they also reflect the capabilities and accomplishments of young John Tilelli from Holmdel Township, New Jersey, who graduated from Pennsylvania Military College and got his master's degree from a prestigious civilian university while on active duty-something else I especially appreciate because a few years before I had followed a similar path.

The skids were not greased for General-to-be Tilelli. He, looking at the outset for challenge and ways to contribute more to his Army and the defense of his country, completed Airborne School. He had an impressive career. He had two tours in Vietnam, four in Germany, and, by my unofficial count, four in the Pentagon. Between those tours he incidentally undertook some minor chores as Commander of United States Army Forces Command, improving the readiness of all United States Army Forces (active and reserve) and directing the Army's homeland security function. His career may have seemed to have reached a pinnacle when he trained and commanded the First Cavalry Division in combat in Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. But it was not. General Tilelli ended his Army career with a final colossal challenge as Commander in Chief, United Nations Command/Commander in Chief, ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command/Commander, U.S. Forces Korea from 1996 to 1999. In Korea, he excelled in that ultimate mix of politico-military challenges demanding military readiness against a dangerous and proximate potential adversary, maintenance of a major alliance, conduct of diplomatic affairs, and looking to the welfare of tens of thousands of American service men and women abroad. He retired from the Army on January 31, 2000. It shall not surprise you that after retirement from the Army General Tilelli accepted an appointment as President and Chief Executive Officer of the USO Worldwide Operations, encompassing responsibility for more than ten dozen USO facilities around the world that support our servicemen and women and their families. He has done much more in leading positions in the civilian sector and has also participated in and led many senior panels related to defense issues since his retirement.

I have known General Tilelli for some years, but I have met fellow naval officer Captain Rhee in person just tonight. My wife and I, having been retired from the U.S. Navy for almost 20 years, often say that nowadays, just like it was for our 35 years of active duty, we are continuing to make new Navy friends. The difference is that most of them today are Navy doctors, nurses, and hospital corpsmen. I and the rest of the Navy appreciate fully these Navy doctors for our very lives-especially for those thousands wounded seriously in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years. A 24-year veteran of the Navy, Captain Rhee provided casualty care in high-risk areas in those two theaters. In 2001, he became one of the first American military surgeons to be deployed in Afghanistan at Camp Rhino, the first forward operating base to be established during Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2005, Rhee was deployed to Iraq, where he established the first surgical unit in Ramadi. Captain Peter Rhee deserves our deepest gratitude and loudest acclaims for his service as a battlefield casualty physician in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. I should add that ICAS is far from alone in noticing this extraordinary individual. He traveled with President Clinton to China in 1998 as the president's personal surgeon. He was honored by President Obama during this year's State of the Union address and was invited with his wife Emily to the State Dinner honoring the South Korean president. One of his Navy colleagues added a sidelight. He remembers Dr. Rhee as always very pro-Navy and very squared away with his crew cut and uniform. "He could also never stop calling me 'sir' even after he made Captain. It was probably just an age thing." I suggest that this was a bit of that wonderful Korean-American heritage seeping through, respect for elders and courtesy to all, something I don't have to elaborate on with this audience.

Since his retirement from naval service, Dr. Rhee has continued his remarkable work as the Director of Trauma Treatment at the University Medical Center (UMC) in Tucson, Arizona and Professor of Surgery at the University of Arizona. I asked a friend in Tucson, a former Navy nurse and retired PHS captain herself, about Dr. Rhee's center there. Her reply, unsurprisingly, brimmed with superlatives. She wrote [and I quote]: "UMC is the only Level One (top level) trauma center in Tucson, and it has an excellent reputation. It serves a huge area that extends into Southern NM and west maybe almost to Yuma." This friend described Dr. Rhee's role in January 2011 as the attending physician to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona as well as other victims of the 2011 Tucson shooting. In an interview with The Associated Press, Rhee revealed that he had to run three miles back to his car when he received word about the shootings. That, in itself, is something not every retired Navy captain could pull off on his way to save lives. Past and present colonels and navy captains in this room can agree with me on the enormity of THAT fine accomplishment.

As the Chief of Trauma at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Dr. Rhee confronts daily the devastating effects of gun violence on individuals and their families. Understanding the impact of stronger gun laws, Dr. Rhee spoke out after the shootings in Tucson, asking for others to join him in the effort to fix background checks. I must add a brief story of the future of this particular challenge that Dr. Peter Rhee has most recently taken upon himself. I came across an Arizona news report that said [and I quote]:

It sounds like pure science fiction - medically inducing a state called "suspended animation" in which a person is in between life and death. But the chief of Tucson's top- level trauma center wants to test it on humans as soon as next year.

The last-ditch lifesaving method of the future involves bringing patients' bodies down to hypothermic temperatures by infusing a refrigerator-cold solution into their veins.

If you come to us alive, the chances are extremely high that we will keep you alive. But we have advanced in medicine so far that if we're going to make an improvement, we have to look at the people who die,' said local trauma surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee, who has been researching suspended animation for 15 years and is a leading innovator in the field.

But, as I suggested with respect to General Tilelli's recent undertakings, I suspect you are not surprised to learn that Dr. Rhee is also doing something challenging in his calling that will contribute to a better world.

Two nights ago, the Stimson Center, a premier think-tank, held a Tribute to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In response to the many who paid tribute to this remarkable son of immigrant parents, Leon Panetta spoke of American service men and women and selfless public servants. He said that the pay can never be enough. The reward comes as satisfaction in having made the world a better place for our children. He said the United States is not in decline. I add that the citizenry of this great nation is not in decline. Secretary Panetta appropriately referred to the words of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson [and I quote]: "The only deadly sin I know is cynicism." Panetta, Tilelli, and Rhee have served for years as harbingers of optimism for our great country, if not our entire humanity. Pessimism and cynicism have repeatedly fallen before the sword of John Tilelli and the scalpel of Peter Rhee. To these two men we owe much, and in honor of these two men we must take up their models and, like them, wield our own tools to strike down cynicism and pessimism and raise up optimism.

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