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Statement from Ambassador Deborah Birx, M.D., U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, on Honoring Our Veterans

November 11, 2014

Veterans' Day is about honor and courage. Today, and every day, we honor the brave men and women who have served our great country.

I am proud to be the first veteran and the first woman to serve as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator of U.S. Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS, with the privilege of leading the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

I can recall, in 1985, when I began serving as the Assistant Chief of the Hospital Immunology Service at Walter Reed Medical Center. These were some of the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. At that time, we knew very little about the disease, how to stop it, how to treat it, or how to confront it within our families, communities, and institutions.

Stigma and discrimination made the work more challenging and more urgent. So we had to lead by example. At Walter Reed, my colleagues and I faced our own fears about HIV and embraced those living with and affected by the disease with the open arms of compassion, care, and creative research. Many other individuals far braver than any of us did the same in their own communities. Ending stigma and discrimination is something we all have a role in-here in the U.S. and abroad.

I thank President Obama for his commitment to veterans. In addition to appointing veterans like me to leadership positions within the U.S. government, the President has increased the discretionary budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs. This has allowed more veterans to access medical care, helped military families, assisted soldiers transitioning to civilian life, reduced veterans' homelessness, and improved the disability claims processing system. The Veterans Administration is the largest single provider of HIV health care in the U.S. Today, nearly 25,000 veterans living with HIV continue to brave the difficult challenge of living with HIV while often fighting the stigma and fear that remain in our communities.

As Dr. Martin Luther King once said: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." By seeking answers to what was unknown and welcoming in those who had been shunned, we worked for the day when light and love would ultimately prevail.

Last week, nearly 20 years later, I was honored to deliver the keynote address at the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS in Guadeloupe. I spoke of the "dark cloud of stigma and discrimination" that, despite our tremendous progress, still hangs over HIV/AIDS in too many communities-and that the indelible pen of history will once again record how we respond.

We have come a long way in the past 35 years in our response to HIV/AIDS. Together, we have saved millions of lives, prevented millions of new HIV infections, and brought an AIDS-free generation within sight. But the journey is far from over. We can-and we must-do even more and do it even better to finish the job.

As we honor our veterans, we must also follow their example. Just as millions of veterans have done on countless occasions, will we rise to the challenge with courage and honor? Will we seize the moment? Will we show compassion and care? If we do, our collective light will drive out the darkness and help bring an end to this devastating epidemic.



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