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Commissioning and Change of Command for the 19th Surgeon General of the United States

Remarks by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy

“Build the Great American Community”

Conmy Hall • Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall • Fort Myer, Virginia
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 1:00-2:30 p.m. EDT

Thank you, Admiral Lushniak, for that introduction and for your years of exemplary service to the U.S. Public Health Service and to our nation.

Mr. Vice President, Madam Secretary, Commissioned Corps Officers, distinguished guests, friends and family: thank you very much. I am overwhelmed and deeply humbled by your presence here today.

To have the opportunity to serve as Surgeon General is an extraordinary honor and a profound responsibility, and I want to thank President Obama for entrusting me with the stewardship of this office.

I am who I am because of my grandmother's faith, my father's strength, my mother's love, my sister's support and my fiancée’s unyielding belief in me. I am blessed to have all of them here with me today. I will always be grateful to them for the sacrifices they have made.

As I look around this arena, I am struck by a simple truth: by any reasonable measure, I shouldn’t be standing here.

My family was never supposed to have left our ancestral village. My father is the son of a farmer in rural India. He was supposed to have been a farmer, as was I. But for my grandfather’s insistence that his son get an education – even if that meant going into debt – we might have never left that village to go out in the world and – as my grandfather also insisted – start fixing what needed fixing.

We were not supposed to have become Americans. My parents stopped in three other countries – including a brutal dictatorship – on their journey to get here. They saved up money and scrounged for information about job opportunities, always knowing that America was the destination.

They knew that here – more than any other place in the world  – they would not be limited because of who they were or where they came from. And in Miami, they found a community of immigrants from all over the world who continue to hold on to that vision of America as an article of faith.

I was never supposed to be the guy giving speeches in rooms like this. I was a shy kid who had a tough time connecting with other children until I discovered a love for sports. Through sports, I came out of my shell, became part of a team and made friends. Throughout my life, I was fortunate to have had teachers and mentors who were able to see something in me before I was able to see it in myself. And that has made all the difference.

And even after being nominated for this job by a President I deeply admire, I almost didn’t get to be your Surgeon General. Had it not been for so many of you in this room – and thousands of dedicated individuals that I have never even met – I would not be standing here. We got here by standing on principle.

But here’s the thing about standing on principle. You have to remain standing.

After all, if my improbable journey to this podium demonstrates anything, it’s that it took family and friends, teachers and coaches, employers and advocates, community leaders and elected officials to get us to this place. And that is the sort of coalition we must activate and expand in order to fulfill our mission.

Everyone in this arena – and those listening at home – are a part of the story we write next. Each of us has a part to play in building a stronger and healthier America. 

Here’s the thing: even as millions of Americans get covered through the Affordable Care Act, we still have much more to do.

Today, we face a rising tide of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We will lose nearly half a million lives this year to tobacco-related disease.

Forty-two million people in our country struggle with mental illness.

Heroin and prescription drug abuse ravage towns across America, and vaccine-preventable diseases we thought we had contained have come back with a vengeance because of fear and misinformation.

Today in America, who you are, where you come from and whom you love plays too big a role in determining your health. Being poor – which affects one in five children – is too great a factor in determining who is healthy and who is not. In a nation as great as ours – a nation that my parents crossed oceans and borders to reach – that is unacceptable.

These realities hurt all of us. They threaten our economy, our educational system, the productivity of our workers and even our national security.

They bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice. To put it simply: health equity is a civil rights issue.

Over the past four months, I have been traveling across America – and even around the world – to listen to our people and our neighbors talk about extraordinary innovations that are improving health around the country.  But everywhere I go – from Alabama to Abu Dhabi, I’ve also heard about roadblocks that are keeping us from being the people we were meant to be, from achieving our best health.

And I want to lead us in overcoming those barriers.

First, we will combat misinformation with clear communication. Whether e-cigarettes or the latest diet fad, marijuana or the measles, we will give the American people the best information so they can make good decisions for their own health.

In a world in which a lie can spread around the planet at the speed of a keystroke, we will harness the power of new technologies so that the truth has a fighting chance. And if that means I get to team up with a furry little Muppet to tell parents to vaccinate their kids, then all the better!

Second, we will work to move from a culture of treatment to one of prevention. We lead the world in breakthroughs that create life-saving treatments.

But while the mark of a great nation may be in how we care for our most vulnerable, the test of a strong nation is how good we are at keeping them from getting sick in the first place.

We will convene diverse partners to invest their energy and resources into building an America where every person gets the ounce of prevention... not just the pound of cure.

Third, we will work to change entrenched behaviors that are weighing us down. There was a time – not too long ago – when it was completely normal to smoke on a plane, in a restaurant or at the office.

But we are moving past those Mad Men days because we, as a people, confronted the harms caused by tobacco.

Fifty years ago, car seats and seatbelts were not a healthcare priority. Today, they are the norm.

Old habits die hard. I get that. But we are pretty good at course-correcting when confronted by the consequences of our actions. So, I am committed to putting out scientific reports that will help to answer the questions that matter most to the American people.

Combating misinformation, shifting to a culture of prevention and changing behaviors that are keeping us from our best health – these are the challenges that I want us to tackle.

It won’t be easy, and it will take a sustained commitment that will outlast my term as Surgeon General.

But one thing is certain: I cannot do it alone. If we are to truly be a stronger and healthier country, we must bring together all parts of our society to build the great American community.

I learned the greatness of our American community as a child in Miami. My father practiced medicine and my mother managed his clinic.

I remember a time when I was young, my parents woke my sister and me up in the middle of the night and drove us to a trailer park. A patient my father had been treating, who had struggled with cancer, had passed away, and my parents were worried about his widow grieving alone.

I will never forget seeing my mother in her traditional Indian sari holding Ruth as she cried on the front step of her home.

Their life paths were so different, and yet in that moment they were family – not the kind of family that is chosen for you, but the kind that you choose for yourself. In other words, a community.

That was the moment I decided to become a physician. But what I have learned over the past twenty years is that being a healer isn’t just about diagnoses and treatments. It’s also about building relationships. It’s about meeting people where they are and then empowering them to move to where they need to be.

Public health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s intrinsically linked to education, employment, the environment and our economy. There is a whole world beyond hospital corridors and clinic waiting rooms where people are struggling with issues of transportation, housing and development.

The point is, we cannot effectively address the challenges before us until we treat health as a shared responsibility. That is why we have to build the great American community.

It's a place where each and every one of us asks, “What can I do to improve the health and well-being of our country?” The answer can come from anywhere but the actions must come from everywhere.

The great American community is a place where a new generation of leaders in healthcare is taught to address the underlying factors that are driving disease. And that is why I will bring together students, educators and professional associations from across the health sector to make community-based prevention a cornerstone of our training programs.

In the great American community, every man, woman and child can go for a walk, ride a bike, play sports and move in spaces that are safe. Later this year, I will issue a Surgeon General’s Call to Action laying out how city planners, employers and community leaders can ensure that the places where we live and work promote walking and physical activity while also leveling the playing field so that no one is left behind.

The great American community is one in which our institutions of higher education are models for healthy living. I will join with students and college administrators to make sure that our campuses support healthy food options and physical activity.

I want 100% tobacco-free campuses at every college and university in America. We’re already one-quarter of the way there. We in the federal government should lead by example, making our federal campuses – and over one million units of public housing – tobacco-free, too.

Speaking of tobacco, we need our leaders in the fields of sports and entertainment to invest in making sure their audiences live long and prosper, too. In the great American community, more companies will follow the example of Disney, which has committed to eliminating smoking from all its movies watched by children. We could save over a million children from premature death if every film studio followed suit.

In the great American community, we treat mental health as part and parcel of overall health. We must cast aside the unacceptable stigma and barriers to access that keep too many people from getting the help they need. That is why I will call upon faith and civic leaders to use the power of their pulpits to save lives while saving souls, by igniting a conversation around mental health – just as President Obama and Vice President Biden have done. Together we will bring mental illness out of the shadows.

Finally, in the great American community, we are all called upon to speak up and speak out against violence – especially the scourge of physical and sexual violence against women that plagues too many of our communities.

The Vice President has been a champion on this issue for more than 20 years. Now, it’s our turn.  Because, you see, in the great American community, we don’t hear a woman being beaten in the apartment down the hall and think, “that’s none of my business.”

We think, “That woman is my sister.” Together, you and I will make sure that confronting violence is on the public health agenda.

We must build this great community not just because we want America to succeed, but because we need the world to succeed.

For example, we have to fight back against climate change, which poses a global threat to public health.

We must not only lead but learn from the best efforts around the world at improving health outcomes – because the lives we save may just be our own.

Next week, I am going to Liberia. There I will have the honor of decommissioning the Monrovia Medical Unit, where healthcare workers infected by Ebola were cared for by the brave men and women of the Commissioned Corps.

And – just so you know – this is what our Commissioned Corps officers do every day, 6,700 men and women, in 800 locations around the world, for more than two centuries. Could all the Officers of the U.S. Public Health Service please rise so that we may thank you for your service?

You are a credit to our nation, and I am privileged to lead you.

Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve.” He was right.

On my listening tour, my first stop was in Birmingham, Alabama, and one of the first people I met was Ms. Amelia Boynton. She was the brains behind the 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.

She helped convince Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to make their stand in Selma. She was one person who had a great idea and figured out how to make that idea run – or, in her case, march.

I thanked Amelia Boynton for training a whole generation of organizers who fought to redeem the promise of America, and I thanked her for inspiring me to do this work that is grounded in fundamental issues of equality, freedom and justice. She looked at me and replied, “Honey, I’m not done, yet.”

She is 103 years old, and she’s not done, yet.  The truth is, we’re not done either.

To build the great American community, you don’t have to be a civil rights leader, a CEO or even the Surgeon General. Any person – regardless of age or experience – can be part of this movement. All you need is to start somewhere, anywhere, with an idea that will improve your personal health and the health of those around you.

I ask you to share your insights, your success stories and your challenges with me. Connect with me on social media and in person so we can begin a conversation. As your Surgeon General, I will highlight your creative efforts to improve health and work with you to overcome challenges. And I will share my ideas and experiences with you, too.

In the next four years, if we stay true to ourselves and our values, we will make great strides toward building the great American community together.

A few minutes ago, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. In the spirit of my upcoming wedding, I thought I would take a stab at writing my own vows for this ceremony:

  • I promise to always tell you the truth. I will tell you what I know, and I will be honest about what I don’t.
  • I will always present you with clear information grounded in evidence and sound medical science.
  • I will speak in facts and when I give an opinion, I will make it clear that it’s my opinion, and I will explain why I think it’s in the best interest of our public health.
  • I will never shy away from tough conversations or from subjects because they are too controversial.
  • I promise to respect this uniform and honor the legacy of the Public Health Service.
  • Most of all, I will commit every day of my tenure to looking out for you and your families.

This is my promise to you.

And so, today, we begin a new journey together – a journey that has the potential to lead us to a healthier and stronger nation.  The challenges we face are considerable, but our capacity to overcome these challenges is also greater than it has ever been.

If Alice and I are so lucky as to have children someday, what would we -- and what would all of us want to be able to tell our children and grandchildren about what we all did together at this extraordinary moment in history?

I want us to tell them that despite all the obstacles we faced, we never stopped believing that it was worth fighting for a nation in which every person has a fair shot at a healthy life.

I want us to tell them that at a time of uncertainty and great need, we joined with the people and institutions around us and restored faith in what we could do when we came together for a common cause.

And we want to tell them that ours was a generation of whom much was demanded but one that stepped up and delivered, building a foundation of health for our nation.

My fellow Americans, this is the future that we can create - together.  This is the community we can build - together.  As your Surgeon General, it will be my honor and privilege to walk hand-in-hand with you every step of the way.

Thank you.