Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

National Action Network (NAN) National Convention (Virtual, As Prepared)
Washington, DC
April 14, 2021

Reverend Sharpton, thank you for that generous introduction. More importantly, thanks for decades of courageous service as a champion of civil rights and for 30 years of leadership for the National Action Network. You are an inspiration to us all.  

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we honor America’s Veterans. So, let me acknowledge the nearly 40 percent of National Action Network members who are Veterans. Thanks for your selfless service to our country.

We are fortunate to have a strong ally and leader in the White House. President Biden gave me a clear mission—to be a fierce, staunch advocate for Veterans and their families, to fight like hell for all Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

To that end, we are focused on four fundamental principles as a vision for the future—Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

VA is going to be the nation’s premier advocate for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. Their sacrifices have earned them the care and services we provide. We exist to best serve them.

We will provide timely access to VA resources: world-class health care, earned benefits, and a final resting place as a lasting tribute to their service.

Veterans deserve access to educational opportunities, training, and jobs worthy of their skills and service so that they can strengthen our communities and country with their leadership.

We’ll seek new ways to ensure our most vulnerable Veterans, especially those who need our outreach, have easier access to care and services that reduce Veterans’ homelessness and suicide.

And when our most vulnerable Veterans want to receive care in their homes, we’ll help provide access to that care, as well as opportunities for the training, support, and resources our caregivers need.

And Veterans outcomes will drive everything we do. VA has a proud history of leadership with data and health informatics; we have some of the Nation’s top data science talent.

Good data, science, and evidence-based policymaking are fundamental to effective and efficient expansion of our COVID vaccination campaign, providing quality health care, tracking and managing benefits, and measuring Veterans’ experiences and satisfaction. We’ll rely more heavily on data in the future than we ever have before.

We are going to seek excellence in all we do for Veterans by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines our Veteran population, our VA workforce, and our country. We will work to ensure every Veteran is afforded access to VA’s capacity and resources.

Diversity, equity, and inclusiveness are fundamental to everything we do. We’ll welcome all Veterans, including women, Veterans of color, and LGBTQ Veterans. Every person entering a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination.

The story of diversity and inclusion in our military formations is both troubled and inspirational. Heroic Veterans overcame prejudice, racism, and injustice and served honorably under the most difficult conditions—fighting for their rights even as they fought for this country.

Black Americans have served the causes of peace and freedom since the earliest days of our Nation. During the Revolution, some colonies employed Black Americans in the militia and the Continental Army. Promised freedom for their service, many served valiantly in interracial regiments.

During the Civil War, the segregated 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, featured in the movie Glory, fought valiantly to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. The price of their glory was fearsome. By war’s end, the 54th lost half of its troops.

During our country’s expansion west, Black Soldiers fought as the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” serving isolated duty in the southwest, mapping vast areas, safeguarding settlers, building roads, and protecting rail workers, many of them Asians.

The battlefields of World War II saw more than a million Black Americans in uniform. The Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines, members of the Triple Nickel—the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment—the Soldiers of the Red Ball Express, the 761st Tank Battalion, and three all-Black divisions—the 2nd Cavalry, and the 92nd and 93rd Infantry—fought courageously to turn the tide of tyranny.

World War II also witnessed the heroism of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit composed of Americans of Japanese Ancestry. Many of its members served while their families were locked in internment camps—even though most were American citizens. Yet, the 442nd became one of the most decorated units in American military history. The 18,000 men who served in the unit earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations.

Puerto Rican Soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment—the Borinqueneers—served during World War I, World War II, and in Korea, where they overcame racism and injustice while fighting valiantly. In 2014, the Borinqueneers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Over 200,000 women served in the military during World War II. Women-only auxiliary branches included the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was the only black Women’s Army Corps unit deployed to Europe in World War II. The unit’s Soldiers worked tirelessly to ensure mail was delivered to millions of service members fighting across Europe.

Largely because of the service of the members of these units, their examples of duty and courage, President Harry S. Truman, in 1948, ordered that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Before the Voting Rights Act and before the Civil Rights Act, the Armed Forces became an example of progress in race relations. While the fight for equality would continue, the military became known as the “equalizing institution” in race relations.

These units taught America that honor, courage, and patriotism have nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or gender. Those virtues belong to Americans of every persuasion. The members of those units are exceptional because they fought for America, for our freedoms, when they did not fully enjoy those freedoms themselves. They blazed a trail of change, won their civil rights through their courage in battle, unwavering devotion to their fellow servicemembers, and hard work.

Most importantly, they proved that the blessings of liberty, justice and opportunity depend not on the color of the soldier’s skin, but on the passion in the patriot’s heart. They fueled the engines of change that brought about greater American equality to all our communities. 

But more hard work remains. Some of these same brave service members who integrated our Armed Forces were brutally attacked and lynched when they returned because they wore their uniforms with pride. And even today, even as we have our first ever Black Secretary of Defense, we know Servicemembers of color are far likelier to be prematurely discharged under unfavorable conditions from the service than their white counterparts. That’s wrong for many reasons, including that it means that they often cannot access VA support and health care.   

We must do better at recognizing the diversity that defines our Veteran population. We need to insist—and I will—on a VA leadership that looks like our Armed Forces and our Veterans. We need to ensure—and I will—that we are welcoming all our Veterans at VA facilities. And we need to address racial disparities in Veterans health. President Biden’s budget, released Friday, does just that. And we need Congress to enact it.  

During my first two months at VA, we celebrated African American Veterans during Black History Month in February, and then the enormous contributions of Women Veterans during Women’s History Month in March. Observing these important commemorations helps ensure that VA always remembers, recognizes, and reveres the great sacrifice and exceptional service of all our Veterans.  

The founding ideals of equality are fundamental to everything we do at VA. And the reason why is simple: Diversity is a strength, never a weakness among Veterans, VA employees, and all of America.

Thanks again for the invitation and best wishes for your 30th anniversary at NAN as you continue the good fight for justice and equality.  

May God bless our men and women in uniform of every color and creed, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And may God continue to bless our wonderful country. Thank you.