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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

99th Disabled American Veterans Annual Convention Speech
Tampa, FL
July 31, 2021

Good morning, it’s an honor to be here with you. Thank you, Butch [Whitehead], for that kind introduction and for your steadfast leadership of DAV.

When I look around this room, I see so many people deserving of our gratitude: Diane Franz, your Auxiliary National Commander; Marc Burgess, your National Adjutant; Pat Kemper, your Auxiliary National Adjutant; Barry Jesinoski, Executive Director of DAV’s National Headquarters in Kentucky; Randy Reese, Executive Director of DAV’s Washington DC Headquarters; and, of course, all of you who have joined us today—in person and online—for the 99th annual convention of Disabled American Veterans.

99 years is an incredible accomplishment, and after this past year, there’s so much for us to discuss.

But I want to begin by saying thank you, to all of you—for your service to the nation, and for your devotion to Veterans throughout the years. For executing on your mission of “empowering Veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity.”

Now, you know, I’m not a Veteran, but I’ve had the unique privilege of spending much of my life surrounded by and working with Veterans, giving me a longstanding appreciation of the life-and-death importance of your work.

Growing up, I learned about the honor that comes with military service from my Grandpa McDonough, a proud Marine. On my frequent trips to Afghanistan and Iraq while in the White House, I saw the excellence of our Armed Forces and the grueling nature of long deployments. On my many visits to Walter Reed, I admired the strength and resilience of our wounded warriors. At Dover, where our fallen heroes come home one final time, I’ve borne witness to the unimaginable grief of military families as they say their final goodbyes. And in my first several months at VA, it’s been the honor of my life to try to serve all of you as well as you have served our country.

You know, President Biden often says that our most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home.

That’s the promise that we, as a nation, make to anyone who signs up for military service.

If you take care of us, we will take care of you.

If you fight for us, we will fight for you.

If you have our backs, we will have your backs when you transition out of the service.

The thing is, our nation as a whole makes that promise. But we, at VA and DAV, all of us, are among those most responsible for keeping that promise.

It’s a difficult job, but it's one that you do so well.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all that you do—there is no more noble mission than partnering with you in serving Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

But when I look around the room, even on this day of celebration, there’s also that gnawing feeling of grief.

Because this year, perhaps more than any other, it’s impossible not to notice the absence of those who are no longer with us.

We remember people like Jim Sursely and Chad Colley, both former National Commanders of DAV who were wounded in Vietnam and dedicated the rest of their lives to helping other disabled Veterans like themselves.

And, of course, we remember the DAV members, VA employees, and Veterans we’ve lost throughout the course of this devastating pandemic.

When I think about the more than 610,000 people this country has lost to COVID, I remember that they are your people. Our people. The Veterans we serve. The friends we want to call. The family members missing from our dinner tables.

We remember all those we lost, and our hearts go out to all those they left behind.

But it’s also important to remember that there are so many Veterans out there right now, enjoying their summers with their families or perhaps even sitting here in this room, whose lives have been saved or bettered because of the work we’ve done together.

William Eserkaln is just one example.

William is a DAV member and Army Vet in Milwaukee who has a condition that prevents blood from pumping properly to his brain, meaning that he gets dizzy and cannot drive—but often needs to get to the VA.

He had safe transportation to VA for a while, but then the service had been using ended, meaning that he had no way to get to his appointments during the pandemic.

That’s when he found out about DAV—and began getting rides from your volunteer drivers.

“Without [DAV],” he said, “I would have been left out in the cold.”

The drivers are “good people who are doing it because they want to help—not because it’s a job.”

“The VA,” he said, “is like my second home.” And DAV helped him get there.

That’s the power of our partnership, which has been on display throughout the pandemic.

Our VA employees have shown unwavering strength and determination. When PPE was running low, they invented reusable, 3D-printed PPE and got it straight to the front lines. When it wasn’t safe for Vets to come to the hospital, they cared for our Vets online—ramping up telehealth appointments from 2,500 per day last March to 45,000 per day a year later. And when the vaccine became available, they sprang into action and vaccinated more than 3.6 million people. 

Now the same is true for all of you here at DAV.

You quickly stood up a national phone system when the pandemic hit, helping Vets and their families file nearly 140,000 benefits claims in the last year. Even as your own families struggled with the economic hardship of the pandemic, you invested your hard-earned dollars in an unemployment relief fund that helped Veterans feed their families, pay their bills, and stay above water when they feared they might be drowning. And your team of volunteer drivers logged almost 10 million hours, providing 243,000 rides to VA healthcare facilities at a time when that access could easily have spelled the difference between life and death.

All of that work translates into the one statistic that matters most: lives saved, and improved, by the work we do. 

In the time when disabled Veterans like William needed us most, DAV and VA rose to the occasion—and we did it together.

Now, as we all know, our work on the pandemic is far from over.

We’ve already lost thousands of Veterans to this deadly disease, and now, the Delta variant is causing an exponential increase in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths once again.

That’s why everyone needs to be vaccinated.

I can’t say it enough: 99% of those dying from COVID right now are unvaccinated. So let me put it a different way: almost every COVID death from this day forward is preventable.

But don’t take my word for it—listen to the Doctors.

A Doctor in Alabama told a harrowing story the other day, saying that unvaccinated COVID patients are begging her, right before they are put on a ventilator, for the vaccine. But at that point, all she can do is hold their hands and tell them, “I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.” And hours later, when she calls time of death for those patients, she has to tell their families that the best way to honor their deceased loved ones is to get the vaccine. Because if they don’t, that tragic story will repeat itself.

I don’t want that to be you. Or your families. Or the Vets you know and love.

That’s why we took the extraordinary step this week of mandating vaccines for VA employees who directly care for you—for our Vets. And that’s why I’m asking you now to please get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

More than half the Nation’s Vets have already done so—and thanks to the SAVE LIVES ACT, all Veterans, their spouses, and their caregivers can be vaccinated safely, easily, and free of charge.

The vaccine will save your life, protect your families, and keep your fellow Veterans safe. And fortunately, you can get vaccinated right now on the fourth floor of the Marriott Hotel across the street—which is connected to this hotel via the walking bridge on the third floor.

When you have a few minutes today, please head over there and get the shot. That’s the only way we can end this pandemic and finally return to normal life.

But, while we want our lives to return to normal, we must also recognize that some things shouldn’t go back to the way they were.

At VA, for example, we shouldn’t go back to the old way of doing things—because the work we’ve done to respond to the pandemic has forged us into a stronger, better department for our Nation’s Veterans.

Tele-health and tele-appeals are allowing us to meet Vets where they want, when they want, in unprecedented ways.

Outpatient trust scores among Vets rose to 90% this year—which in my mind, should be the floor, not the ceiling.

Our team rated its one millionth disability claim faster this year than almost ever before—faster than any year in the history of the VA, but one—a result of our goal to make sure Vets get their benefits on time, every time.

And our cemeteries not only stayed open during the pandemic, but expanded to six new locations.

Bottom line? We are now providing more care and more benefits to more Veterans than ever before.

So, as we look to the future, we’re not trying to build a VA that goes back to the old normal.

With your help, we’re going to continue to do better for Vets. We’re going to continue to be better for Vets.

And we’re going to do that by driving toward the four fundamental principles of our vision for the future: Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

Advocacy

First, advocacy. We’re working to make sure VA is the nation’s premier advocate for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

Veterans have earned the care and services we provide. We exist to best serve them—not to do what is easy for VA.

And when it comes to advocacy, it starts at the top. Our shared mission could not be a higher priority for this administration, nor—as you saw minutes ago—could it be closer to President Biden’s heart.

When he nominated me to lead VA, President Biden told me to “fight like hell” for our Vets. That’s exactly what we’re doing—and this administration is doing the same, delivering for our Vets with the SAVE LIVES ACT I mentioned earlier; with the American Rescue Plan, which allocated 17 billion dollars to help us care for Vets during the pandemic; and with the proposed American Jobs Plan, which will provide 18 billion dollars to modernize VA facilities, create jobs for Vets, and expand opportunities for small Veteran-owned businesses.

But as we all know, advocacy at the White House level doesn’t mean anything if Vets don’t utilize the benefits they’ve earned—which is where you come in.  

For many Veterans, and certainly for some of our most deserving Veterans, you are their first impression of VA—the front door to the benefits they’ve earned.

You’re sitting across the table from them, or their surviving spouses, or their dependents, every day.

All of which is to say: DAV is one of VA’s most important partners. And I’m committed to working with you every day to improve access for Veterans.

Access

Second, 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 service.

A major part of that equation is making sure that Veterans have the best possible experience wherever they access VA benefits and services—at home, in the community, or at VA.

That’s why we’re meeting Vets where they are—by expanding telehealth and tele-appeals, and by supporting our caregivers.  

Let me say this clearly: Caregivers are not an afterthought for us—they’re a top priority. That’s why I’ve appointed Meg Kabat to be the first ever senior advisor for caregivers. And we look forward to expanding the program of comprehensive assistance to cover all caregivers as soon as possible.

For Vets who are getting care in the community, we are building a network that has the right providers, in the right locations, to meet their needs—no matter where they live.

And of course, we are dedicated to improving the experience for Vets who get direct care from VA.

That means finding the right balance between community care and direct care—putting the direct care system on a sustainable path to ensure that future generations of Veterans enjoy the same, great VA healthcare that past generations did. 

And it means rebuilding, repairing, realigning, and modernizing VA’s healthcare infrastructure to meet your needs. Because that infrastructure is critical for the health of our Nation’s Vets and the health of our nation.

VA is the backstop and innovator at the heart of the entire US healthcare system—training America’s physicians, researching tomorrow’s challenges, and innovating today to overcome them.

That is never going to change—and it sure won’t on my watch. 

Outcomes

Next, I want to talk about Veterans’ outcomes. Outcomes drive everything we do—because Vets, not us, are the ultimate judges of our success.

One major focus here is toxic exposures.

We are not waiting for Congress to act on this—we are going ahead and acting ourselves, and we’ve already announced three major updates:

First, we are creating a new, comprehensive decision-making model for determining presumptive conditions—a model that will leverage all available science, better utilize claims data, and be guided by one core principle: getting Vets the benefits they deserve.

Second, Veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism due to Agent Orange can now be paid the benefits they’re owed.

And third, we are very close to being able to pay disability benefits to Veterans who suffer from respiratory conditions—which may include asthma, sinusitis, and rhinitis—as a result of their service in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

We are moving on this with the utmost urgency, and we expect to have news on this any day. Veterans have waited for these benefits for far too long—they shouldn’t have to wait any longer. 

Another fundamental priority is preventing Veteran suicide.

Mental health services are critical for suicide prevention, so keeping them going during the pandemic has been one of our primary focuses. Fortunately, Vets have adapted seamlessly to tele-mental health sessions—attending 4.4 million sessions already this year, more than doubling their total from all of 2020.

Next year’s budget will also focus on suicide prevention, investing more than half a billion dollars in outreach programs that address the risks of suicide.

And we’re going all-in on helping rural Vets in need of mental health services. That means building three new programs in rural locations to help severely mentally ill Vets, and creating a new training program designed to attract top-shelf clinicians to rural areas, keep them in rural areas, and care for the Vets who live in rural areas.  

This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. One Veteran who commits suicide is one too many, so we will be partnering with you, DoD, public health experts, and others to get Vets the help they need before their warning signs turn into tragedies.

Lastly on outcomes, we are laser-focused on ending Veteran homelessness.

You know, a few weeks ago, at a homeless Vets vaccination event outside VA headquarters, a Veteran came to get his shot. And he wasn’t wearing shoes.

So, we got him vaccinated, and our canteen staff got him a new pair of shoes.

On the one hand, that story is heartwarming—a job well done. On the other, it’s heartbreaking.

Because that man served our country.

He should have shoes on his feet. He should have a roof over his head.

In fact, there should be no such thing as a homeless Veteran. Not here. Not in the greatest, richest country in the world.

So, I assure you—through HUD-VASH, SSVF, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and the additional programs we launched this week to help Vets through the end of the eviction and foreclosure moratoria—we are going to do whatever it takes to get Vets into homes and keep them there.  

Excellence

Finally, excellence. We’re seeking excellence in all we do for Veterans by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines the Veteran population, our VA workforce, and this amazing country.

Our diversity is a strength, never a weakness. Every person entering a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination. And we will welcome all Veterans.

One of my first actions as VA Secretary was ordering a top-down review of all of our policies—with the help of DAV and other organizations—to determine how we can make VA a more welcoming place.

That work has already made an impact:

For LBGTQ+ vets, we are taking the initial steps toward expanding VA’s care to include gender confirmation surgery.

For women Vets, we are acting to ensure that all of our facilities are safe, respectful, and welcoming. And we are caring for more Women Vets than ever before, offering primary care, gynecological care, fertility care, mental health care, and more.

And for survivors of Military Sexual Trauma, we are working tirelessly to provide the services they need—taking steps like centralizing MST-related claims in offices where employees are especially well-trained to help survivors.

Now, there’s so much more I could say here, but it all boils down to this:

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.

Tragically, many of those fights continue to this day.

But at VA, those fights are over.

In this administration, nobody is going to have to fight to get the quality care, benefits, and services they earned—no matter who they are or who they love.

So that’s where VA is headed—continuing to deliver more care, more benefits, and more services to more Veterans than ever before, with Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence as our guiding principles.

But make no mistake: we can’t do it without you.

Since VA began, we have needed your help and your leadership to serve our Vets—and that’s more true now as ever before.

The experiences and perspectives of DAV’s 4,000 service officers, 26,000 volunteers, and 1.1 million Veterans and survivors are a powerful resource. When I think of just how powerful, a couple of stories come to mind.

The first is something I remember from my time in the White House, and it’s about one of my least favorite things in the world: budget fights.

For years, the benefits and healthcare that Vets earned through their service were tied to annual government appropriations—and therefore contingent on the annual budget fights and government shutdowns that often hold the country hostage.

Well, you made clear to Congress what was plain to everyone else: that arrangement was unacceptable.

In 2009, you developed the proposal and you won the fight to provide VA healthcare with advance appropriations—thus making sure that our nation’s Vets get what they deserve, every year, no matter what’s happening in Washington.

The second story is that of Jason Barbiere.

Both of Jason’s grandparents were World War II combat Veterans, and his father was an Air Force Reservist, so when Jason turned 19 in 1994, he jumped at the opportunity to enlist in the Marines.

But while he was deployed, he suffered back injuries and developed Post Traumatic Stress. And when he transitioned out of the service, he struggled mightily with things like hypervigilance, homelessness, and food insecurity.  

In his own words, he was “lost.”  

Then the great people at DAV helped him with his claims process.

Helped him get counseling.

Helped him get a job.

Helped him find a home.

With your help, Jason rebuilt his life.

“They were the ones on the other side of the phone when I didn’t think I could make it,” he says.

“They answered the phone, and they helped me find myself. They never gave up on me. When I gave up on myself, they never gave up on me.”

That’s who you want to be. That’s who I want to be. I want to be the guy on the other side of the phone when Jason says, “you never gave up on me.”

Those two stories capture the incredible impact of your work—the incredible ethos of who you are... at the national level, and the individual level; in Congress, and in communities; for all Veterans, and for one Veteran.

When I said earlier that our nation makes a promise to those who sign up to serve our country, and you are the ones who help keep that promise, that’s what I mean.

Whether Vets need help for wounds visible or invisible; for benefits or healthcare or services; for rides to the hospital or rides down the mountain at Snowmass—you’ve been there, since 1920, answering the call to serve...

... answering the phone, and being the person who the Vet says, “you never gave up on me.”

And I know you’ll be right there again whenever the call comes next.

Thank you for your magnificent work, for your partnership, for putting up with me, and for all the work we will do together.

God bless you, God bless our Nation’s troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And may we always give you our very best.

Thank you.