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 Association of County Veterans Service Officers Virtual Training Conference 2021
Washington, DC
July 19, 2021

It’s great to be here and thank you so much.

Good afternoon to everybody, and good afternoon or morning wherever it is that so many of our participants from the virtual connection are. I’m particularly psyched that I came in next to the Minnesotans. I liked the shout out, and they pronounced it right, too, so that was good.

It’s great to have you here in the nation’s capital.

Herm, thanks for that kind introduction—you know, Herm Breuer sounds like a Minnesotan name, by the way—thanks for the kind introduction and thanks for inviting me to join you.

Your story is an inspirational example of service to country and love of Veterans—from student, to student-soldier, to combat soldier, to wounded Vet, to County Veterans Service Officer and, now President of the National Association. So, thanks for your courageous service to the nation, your devotion to Veterans in these years after that service. And thanks for your leadership of this great organization.

For over three decades now, you all have been doing a lot of heavy lifting to get services and benefits to Veterans who have earned them and deserve them. By the way, when COVID hit, County Veterans Service Officers continued to do that critical work, continued to be that critical connection.

When I think about the more than 608,000 people this country has lost to COVID, I remember that many of them are your people, many of them are my people. They are the Veterans we serve. They are families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, members of this Association, members of VA staff. We remember all of those we lost, and our hearts go out to those they’ve left behind.

And it is a stark recognition that the pandemic challenged all of us. Our VA employees are showing unwavering strength and determination during these historic demands, caring for both Veterans and their own families. And the same is true for each of you. You rose to the occasion. You didn’t get a chance to take a break because of COVID. You’ve innovated and adapted to ensure your County Veterans Service Officers stayed trained and current on VA benefits and services. In fact, I understand that in 2020, you trained more service officers than in any other year.

That kind of determination—no matter the challenge—is essential to helping this country fulfill what President Biden calls our most sacred obligation. That is, preparing and equipping troops we send into harm’s way, and, when they return, caring for them and their families.

When I got to VA, President Biden charged me to be a fierce advocate for Veterans in fulfilling that obligation. To that end, at VA we’re focused on four fundamental principles as a vision for the future: Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

First, on advocacy. We’re working to make sure VA is the nation’s premier advocate for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. Veterans have made their down payment, sometimes in blood and invisible wounds that may affect them the rest of their lives. Their sacrifices have earned them the care and services we all provide, together. And we exist to best serve them, not to do what’s easy for VA.

And when it comes to advocacy, you all are on the very front lines. For many Vets, you’re the face of VA that they know best. In many cases, you’re Veterans’ first impression of their VA. The front door to the benefits they’ve earned is manned by you. You’re the ones sitting across the table from them, or their surviving spouse, or their dependents, every day.

You’re there in the communities where Veterans and their families live and lead—like Jessica Aguilar out in San Joaquin County, California. When Jessica left the US Air Force in 2003, her grandfather, an 82d Airborne All American paratrooper and combat Vet of the Korean War, took her right away to their Ventura County Veterans Service Officer to file for her benefits and health care.

That County VSO took care of her. Later on, so did another County VSO in Calaveras County. Later on, so did another in San Joaquin County. And after years of your help, she was so moved by your expert work and compassion that she wanted to join the team.

She said, “Once the service officers get us the help we need, most of us want to come back and be service officers ourselves. We want to be a part of that circle. It creates a sense of brotherhood like we had in the military.”

So, they made her part of the San Joaquin team, a team comprised entirely of Veterans or Veterans’ spouses. Today, Jessica is a Veterans Rehab and Employment counselor there, helping Veterans like herself get the services and benefits they’ve earned. She’s helping Veterans succeed in treatment court. She’s helping them get jobs that are the right fit, jobs where they can thrive and find fulfillment.

“I’m making a difference in Veterans’ lives,” she said. “And when you help other Veterans, it strengthens your own recovery.” And she’ll tell you, their work doesn’t just stop with Veterans. It helps their kids, their families, their entire communities. She knows because she’s living it herself, just like her grandfather did before her.

All of which is to say, this organization, the reason I’m here, is that you are one of VA’s and Veterans’ most important partners across the country and across generations.

Let me be clear. Working closely with you is important to me. It’s important to me because it’s invaluable to Veterans. And I’m committed to keeping our lines of communication open, active, and productive to improve Veterans’ access.

On access, we’ll move heaven and earth to get Veterans timely access to their VA resources. That’s world-class health care. That’s earned benefits. And it’s a dignified final resting place that’s a lasting tribute to their selfless service. I want to work hand-in-glove with you to deliver those benefits.

Thanks in large part to your work, through the second quarter we distributed $28 billion in benefits. June was our highest production month ever. We adjudicated more than 136,000 Veteran service disability claims. Thanks in part to Jessica and her team in California, Veteran Readiness and Employment—VR&E—paid nearly $387 million to 73,000 participants in the program. We paid $1 billion in pension to 348,000 Veterans. We guaranteed $128 billion in housing loans for nearly 419,000 Vets. We provided $1.2 trillion in insurance coverage to 5.6 million servicemembers, Veterans, and family members. And we’ve completed more than 394,275—but who’s counting—C&P exams.

These successes were made, in part, by the Board of Appeals’ Virtual Tele-Hearing option that many of you have used over the past year. Because of your success capitalizing on that technology, the Board is on pace to break hearing records this year, too, in spite of the pandemic. That technology’s not going away when COVID does. And we’re looking at e-notification for VA claims decisions, so you know when a decision is made for a Veteran that you’re serving.

In short, Fiscal Year 2020 was our best year ever in delivering benefits to Veterans faster than ever before—even, as I said, with the pandemic. And Fiscal Year 2021 is shaping up to continue that trend, despite the continued challenges presented by the pandemic.

To help Veterans who are unemployed because of COVID-19, we implemented the Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program—VRRAP—offering Veterans education and training for high-demand jobs. We launched VRRAP in May and started receiving VRRAP applications shortly thereafter. As of 10 days ago, nearly 500 Veterans are enrolled in and benefiting from the program with over 600 training providers participating in the program, notwithstanding the higher requirements of the training program providers.

And when I say, We, I mean you and we at VA, together. All of this is a credit to you, a powerful testament of your commitment to Veterans and your strong partnership with VSOs and VA and your deep connection to your communities, which is something we cannot offer from here in Washington. Veterans get the benefits they’ve earned because of you, because of your expert guidance and direction, because of the trust in you, and because of your connection to the community. These kinds of outcomes are something to really be proud of.

Outcomes. Veterans outcomes will drive and are driving 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. We’re launching a VA Data Strategy to manage and integrate our data holdings to empower Veterans in their journey from service to lifelong care and services at VA. Because good data, science, and evidence-based policymaking are fundamental to measuring Veterans’ experience and their satisfaction in their interactions with us, and to providing, tracking, and managing quality health care and benefits. Today, we’re relying more heavily on data than we ever have before. And that reliance will grow and help all of us serve Veterans with excellence.

So, lastly, on excellence. We’re seeking excellence in all we do for Vets by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines our Veteran population, our VA workforce, and, indeed, this country. Diversity, equity, and inclusiveness are fundamental in everything we do. Diversity is a strength—look at this room—never a weakness among Veterans, among VA employees, and, indeed, among all of us in America, the greatest country on the face of the earth. Every person entering a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination. We will never accept discrimination, harassment, or assault. And, we will be welcoming of all Veterans.

For too long, too many Veterans who fought around the world to protect our rights and freedoms have had to fight brutal battles here at home for their own rights and freedoms. Many of those fights continue today. But at VA, I promise that those folks are not going to have to fight to get the quality care, the benefits, and the services that they have earned—no matter who they are, who they love.

And because you’re on the front lines, I ask you do everything you can to help us eliminate any of those old barriers. Help ensure that all Veterans have equal access.

And we don’t only need your help there. We need your help connecting Veterans to VA who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, especially as we approach the end of the moratoria later this month. We need your help connecting Veterans at risk of mental health crisis to VA resources they need. And we need your help getting Veterans and their families COVID vaccinations.

We’ve vaccinated over 3.5 million people—Vets, employees, spouses, and caregivers, Veterans’ kids, among others. But every unvaccinated Veteran or family member is taking an unnecessary risk, a risk of serious illness or death that’s growing more pronounced as the Delta variant spreads. Please, help us reach them. Help us with all of that.

Continue to help with all of that. I need you all to continue fighting like hell with me to ensure we’re serving Veterans as well as they served us, and to deliver on the Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence. That’s what I’m asking of you.

So now let me make some commitments to you.

Looking ahead, you should know that VBA will be reinstituting their quarterly Veterans Service Organization meetings, and National Association of County Veterans Service Officers will be at the table. You’ll be invited to some upcoming VBA symposiums that begin in August on some of our most urgent and pressing topics like Suicide Prevention, Homelessness, Military Sexual Trauma, and our fastest [growing] cohort of Veterans, Women Veterans. And in January, VBA’s Outreach, Transition, and Economic Development team will begin hosting a series of National Association of County Veteran Service Officers Partnership meetings.

These are important opportunities to get the latest on VBA benefits and strengthen our partnership and communication—including on something we just discussed in the Green Room, Toxic Exposure. I’m committed to shoring-up our communication with you—from the service officers in counties to our regional offices to right here at VA headquarters. We owe that to you. If your National Service Director Mike Roof needs assistance, call Bill Meadows. If any County Veteran Service Officer needs help, call Detra Giles.

And, Herm, I know you and your team are interested in revisiting service officers’ access. I’m going to ask for your leadership to continue to work with us to explore the possibilities. Listen, when it comes to making VA more responsive to Veterans’ needs, this Association is critical. The experience and perspective of over 1,800 public servants—municipal, county, state, and tribal Veterans’ advocates from nearly 800 counties across the country—is a massively powerful force, and a critically important resource.

When I think of just how powerful, two stories come to mind. The first is from 2015, when VA asked for your support modernizing our antiquated, nearly century-old appeals system. Many of you remember that. All of you are trying to forget it. Some of you were among the stakeholders at the table when the average processing time for appeals was three years. The average processing time for appeals before the Board was up to seven years. And the Board was still adjudicating an appeal that had originated 25 years before, that had been decided 27 times.

Your team made clear to us at VA that to fix all that we had to re-imagine the entire claims and appeals process. Well, that collaboration gave Veterans the Appeals Modernization Act, the largest reform of the appeals process since its inception. As a result of that legislation, VBA has reduced the legacy inventory by 88 percent—from 268,000 claims now down to 31,000—in spite of having received 270,000 additional appeals in the meantime since implementation. And today, they’re moving higher-level reviews through the process in 105 days, and supplemental claims in 90 days, way ahead of goals. Largely because of your work, and your advocacy, and your experience, and your unwillingness to hear “No.”

The second story about this organization’s impact is the story of a woman named Annamarie—happens to be my little sister’s name. In 1978, Airman First Class Annamarie was brutally raped and wrongfully discharged from the Air Force. But when she filed for benefits, she was denied and encouraged to just let it go. No benefits. No compensation. No VA health care or mental health care.

Then in 2012, at a community outreach program designed to give Veterans discount cards to local merchants, Annamarie met Solano County Veterans Service Officer Ted Puntillo. After nearly three-and-a-half decades, it was Ted Puntillo who put his arms around Annamarie. After nearly three-and-a-half decades, it was Ted who saw through the invisible scars of Military Sexual Trauma and PTSD. After nearly three-and-a-half decades, it was Ted who investigated the details of her discharge. And after nearly three-and-a-half decades, it was Ted who was her, quote, “lifeline to . . . VA” and who finally succeeded in helping her “get the psychiatric and medical care” that she needed, that she earned, that she deserved. And it is County Veteran Service Officer Ted Puntillo and his team working with Annamarie, who is still doing all that today.

You all have your own stories—of Annamarie, of Ted, of the appeals modernization, of your dogged unwillingness to hear “No.” At the national level, at the individual level. For all Veterans, for one Veteran. That’s why I’m here today. Because we do not have a more effective partner.

So, thank you for that magnificent work—for Veterans like Jessica and Annamarie and the millions they represent who need your help and who helped us when we needed theirs.

And thank you for your partnership.

God bless all of you, our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And may we always give them, as you do, our very best.