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

Legal Services Corporation Veterans Task Force Report Release (Virtual, As Delivered)
Washington, DC
May 25, 2021

Good afternoon, everybody. It’s just a privilege to be with you. And there’s lots of gratitude to go around today for a lot of hard work. Let me start with Will after that nice, kind introduction, for your service to the nation, as you pointed out, a Veteran yourself, and your service to our Vets.

On Memorial Day in 1884, Associate Supreme Court Justice and Civil War Vet Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said that “to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.” Enthusiasm, faith, acting greatly—that’s Will Gunn. As VA General Counsel, Will was instrumental in VA’s implementation of important benefits associated with the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, associated with Agent Orange, associated with Gulf War Illness, and associated with service-connected PTS for combat Veterans.

And he was one of the first to argue that VA should advocate with legal clinics, welcome them into our facilities to get Veterans better access to pro bono legal services. So it’s thanks in large part to his leadership that, today, VA has an Office of General Counsel that works closely with Veterans Justice Outreach program supporting our 170 free legal clinics for Veterans, including 30 Medical Legal Partnerships or MLPs, as we call them, at VA facilities, including at our Vet Centers. About one third of those clinics, I should add, are staffed by legal partners with LSC-grants, and half of our VA MLPs are possible thanks to LSC-grantee legal partners. So, Will, thanks for your vision and devotion to legal access for Veterans, and for all Americans. And congratulations on your next assignment.

Ron and John Levi—longtime friend John—members of the Board, I’m grateful for your invitation today to join you. I will say that I’ve run into John in a lot of difference places, including the West Wing lobby where he was constantly advocating on behalf of LSC. So, it’s really good to see your face, John. For over 45 years, now, LSC has advocated equal justice for Veterans. I’m thankful for your work and for LSC’s enduring partnership with us.

Let me just acknowledge, quickly, Task Force Co-Chairs David Halverson, Abigail Kuzma, John Malcolm, and the rest of the powerhouse Veterans Task Force. Your report is yet another example of critical work that LSC does for our Vets. The release couldn’t be more welcome, or timely. It’s almost like it was choreographed. First, early this month we welcomed our new General Counsel Dick Sauber to Veterans Affairs, and I’m looking forward to working with him on your report.

Last Tuesday, President Biden restored DoJ’s “access-to-justice” function and the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. “Everyone in this country,” the President wrote, “should be able to . . . avail themselves of the protections that our laws afford on equal footing. . . . Legal services are crucial,” he continued, “to the fair and effective administration of our laws and public programs, and the stability of our society.” It’s about increasing “meaningful access to our legal system.”

That just so happens to be your purpose, LSC’s purpose. And that’s what the Veterans Task Force work is about: helping advance protection of the law for those who have selflessly served this country, many such Vets—Vets of color, we’re reminded, maybe on this day in particular—having served to protect rights that they themselves had not fully benefited from in this country.

Next Monday is Memorial Day, our nation’s opportunity to honor the men and women who gave their lives serving the Nation, and those who brought the wars home with them. The Task Force’s work—and, more broadly, LSC’s work expanding Veterans’ access to legal services—honors those Veterans who gave their lives to defend our Constitution and keep us free.  

So, to the Task Force and everyone at LSC, thank you. Thank you very much. Your work is about helping fulfill what President Biden calls our most sacred obligation: preparing and equipping troops we send into harm’s way, and, when they return home, caring for them and their families.

Inextricably linked to caring for and supporting Veterans and their families is legal access. Here’s why. Last Tuesday, the Department of Defense and VA held our biennial conference coordinating suicide prevention efforts for servicemembers and Veterans. We all know, Veteran suicide is a national crisis—a persistent epidemic in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But for Veteran suicide, there’s no vaccination, no single solution. But we know it’s preventable.

Veteran suicide is often the outcome of interconnected, complex struggles that gather strength—often not in any clear or linear way—and produce a powerful, destructive force, an intense crisis leading to despair and utter hopelessness. Perhaps it’s incidents of post-traumatic stress, or TBI, or chronic pain from injuries of war. Perhaps it’s legal problems, justice involvement, incarceration. Perhaps it’s financial challenges—unemployment, debt, or both. Perhaps it’s a broken home or loss of a loved one. Adding to that may be substance abuse of alcohol or opioids, or other drugs. Or maybe it’s a toxic combination of those factors—a subtle, incremental accumulation of challenges.

Many of these challenges are directly related to or a by-product of legal problems. And we know that Veterans facing legal challenges are 86 percent more likely to have suicidal ideation. They’re 56 percent more likely to attempt suicide. And social determinants like these are as relevant as other medical factors like depression. So, a common denominator underlining the challenges of Veteran suicide are legal issues, especially for Veterans struggling at or near the poverty line. Talk about sentences you never thought you would utter: “Veterans struggling at or near the poverty line.” Men and women who signed up, swore an oath, pledged their life in defense of this country, at or near the poverty line.

In fact, one of the top unmet needs for homeless Veterans—another phrase you never think you’d utter, “homeless Veterans”—men and women alike, is legal assistance, legal assistance in six areas: family law, court fees and court fines, credit issues and debt collection, expungement of a criminal record, child support issues, and tax issues. All these are complicators that can lead to mental health challenges, homelessness, and suicide.

In short, if we’re talking about Veterans’ legal challenges, by definition we’re talking about their health care, about their well-being. Because Veteran well-being is about more than health care. It’s about more than benefits. And as good as VA clinicians are—in fact, they are the best in the world, we’re seeing that every day—they can’t fix Veterans’ legal challenges. Only access to good legal assistance can do that.

And that’s why affordable or free legal services that LSC supports are so critical to Veterans, to their well-being, to their whole health. That’s why VA’s legal clinics and Medical Legal Partnerships are fundamental to caring for Veterans and their families. 

We have 30 MLPs. Thirty. But we need more. Congress’s support with legal support grants is going to be a big help. The legislation passed earlier in the year authorizes VA to fund legal services grants to organizations that can provide legal services to Veterans.

OGC, which Will used to run, is working hand-in-glove with VHA and our Homeless Program Office—that office includes Veterans Justice Outreach—to implement two separate grant programs. One set of legal services grants will support Veterans with accessing VA benefits, discharge upgrades, or other legal services—regardless of their type of discharge. We’ll ensure at least one of this set of grants is awarded to at least one eligible entity in each state to establish or enhance pro bono legal assistance clinics.

A second set of legal services grants will provide Veterans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, with legal support related to housing, family law, income support, criminal defense, and discharge upgrades. We’re going to distribute these grants where they’re needed most, including, by the way, rural communities, trust lands, places where there are large populations of Native Americans. Ten percent will be directly focused on supporting women Veterans. So, our thanks to Congress for all that. Because when it comes to serving Veterans, to caring for them and their families, it is a national responsibility.

None of us will solve Veterans homelessness alone. None of us will solve Veterans suicide alone. None of us alone are going to meet all Veterans’ legal needs. And those three are inextricably linked. To get to where we need to be for Veterans, it’s going to take a unified, inter-agency effort, from the federal level down to state, city, and community level—grass roots where Veterans work and live. I’m super proud VA is a part of that. I look forward to working with you and with Dick Sauber on it. My commitment to Veterans is unwavering. I’m going to fight like hell every day to ensure we serve Veterans as well as they have served this country.

So, I thank you now for your excellent work, already done. But I thank you now for the excellent work you will do. I thank you for your dedication. And, again, thanks for letting me join you today.

And, now, let me continue part of my privilege to introduce retired General Charlie Hooper. Before joining the Cohen Group as a Senior Counselor, he served the nation around the world for over four decades. A true “Soldier Statesmen” raised in the Army’s Foreign Area Officer program, he brings an invaluable breadth of strategic policy and leadership experience to any discussion.

But he’s most proud, I’m told, of his title “American Veteran.” At a Ft. Belvoir Veterans Day Ceremony in November 2019, not long before retiring from military service, General Hooper said, "I've had a lot of titles in my life—leader, paratrooper, commander, director, and even the one I have now, general officer.” He went on, “But, the only one I get to keep when I take this uniform off,” he said, “is Veteran, and that's the one I'll cherish the most."

Please, join me in welcoming Veteran Charlie Hooper.