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

AMVETS 76th National Convention
Greensboro, NC
August 18, 2021

Good afternoon, it’s an honor to be here with you.

Thank you, Jan [Brown], for that kind introduction, for your 27 years of service in the Air Force, and for your steadfast leadership as the first woman National Commander of AMVETS.

This organization—and this country—are lucky to have you fighting for our nation’s Vets.

Now, when I look around this room, I see so many people deserving of our gratitude and recognition: Joe Chenelly, Dee Baggett, Richard Thibodeau, Abigail Lewis, Tom McNamara, Congressman Don Bacon, the legendary AMVETS riders; and, of course, all of you who have joined us today—in person and online—for the 76th annual convention of AMVETS.

Seventy-six years—that’s a helluva run.

I want to thank you, all of you—for your service to the nation, and for your devotion to Veterans throughout the years.

I want to begin by speaking directly to the Afghanistan Veterans here today and across the country. And to their families, their survivors, and their caregivers.

I know that what’s happened in Afghanistan over this past week has been incredibly painful for many of you.

As you know, I’m not a Veteran, but I’ve spent much of my life surrounded by and working with Veterans. In combat zones, I’ve seen the excellence of our Armed Forces and the grueling nature of long and repeated deployments. At Walter Reed, I’ve been moved by the strength and resilience of our wounded warriors. And at Dover, I’ve witnessed the unimaginable grief of military families as they say their final goodbyes.

But there is no way that I can come close to understanding how you feel right now.

There is no way that anyone who did not serve in Afghanistan, who did not fight in Afghanistan, who did not bleed in Afghanistan—who did not have family members serve and fight there—can fully understand how you feel right now.

Because no one can, unless they were there with you, unless they sacrificed with you, unless they walked among the Afghan people the way you did.

But there are Veterans to your left and right and across this country who do understand—who do get it. There are thousands and thousands of Veterans at VA who understand, too, and are ready to help. And there are millions and millions of people across the country who share a deep gratitude for your service, your sacrifice, and your profound honor ...

... millions of Americans who know what you did for them.

When our country was attacked on that fateful day in September 2001, you made a choice to run towards the fight—not away from it. You volunteered to serve our country. To protect and defend our freedoms. To fight for and alongside your fellow servicemembers. And you did your duty—again and again and again—with great courage and unwavering commitment.

That service—that choice—matters, no matter what happens this week or any other week. And we are all safer for it.

So, while I cannot imagine what you are going through today—or what you and your families have been going through over the last several days, and over the past 20 years ...

… I want you to know this: we at VA are here for you. Your AMVETS brothers and sisters are here for you. And the nation will always be grateful for what you did, and sacrificed, for us ... and for the burdens that you and your families continue to bear on our behalf.

We are forever in your debt.

You know, this difficult moment reminds us of why we are gathered here today—of the sacred duty and mission that we at VA and AMVETS share, together.

It all comes back to the fundamental promise our nation made to Veterans of the war in Afghanistan—the same promise we 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 leave the service.

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

Today, I’m here to give you an update on where we are in executing that mission—in keeping that promise.

But first, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for all you do—and all you have done in service of that mission for 76 years.

It’s a difficult job, but it's one that you do so well. There is no more noble mission, and no more sacred obligation. 

That shared mission has never been more critical than during this past year. Tragically, at this convention perhaps more than any other, it’s impossible not to notice the empty seats of those who are no longer with us.

We remember people like Air Force Veteran and past AMVETS National Commander Ed Kemp, and former Ladies Auxiliary National Scholarship Officer Peggy Liss, who passed away just last month. And, of course, we remember the AMVETS members, VA employees, and Veterans we’ve lost throughout the course of this devastating pandemic.

When I think about the more than 615,000 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 those we’ve lost, and our hearts go out to those they’ve 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.

Veterans like Frank.

Like so many other Vets and Americans, Frank was struggling early in the pandemic. And before long, he found himself just a month away from being homeless.

At the time, he should have been receiving disability payments that would’ve kept him afloat. But he wasn’t.

Not because of delays at VA or AMVETS—but because he hadn’t applied for them.

You see, he was not a combat Veteran, so he didn’t fully believe that he’d earned benefits for his service to our nation. Because of that, he never applied.

Then he came to AMVETS. He came to you. And after just a few meetings, he began to understand that every Veteran’s service matters.

... that his service matters. 

So, finally, with your help, he filed a claim—and he got disability, including a year of retroactive benefits. That claim kept him in his home. It saved him. You saved him. And you helped him see the value of his service along the way.

That’s the type of work we can do together. That’s power of our partnership, and it’s been on display throughout the pandemic.

VA employees have shown unwavering strength and determination. 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. When the claims backlog started to grow, VBA conducted virtual exams and worked to prevent future backlogs by proactively digitizing Veterans’ records. And when non-Vets needed our help, VA employees stepped up as a part of our 4th mission—providing beds for hundreds of COVID patients in need, all while never once denying a bed to a Veteran.

The same is true for all of you here at AMVETS. Even as your own families struggled with the economic hardship of the pandemic, you invested your hard-earned dollars and bought more than 50 tons of food to prevent Vets and their families from going hungry. You hosted life-saving vaccination events at posts nationwide and at Rolling to Remember. And your team helped more than 5,000 Vets like Frank navigate the disability claims process, helping them obtain 2 billion dollars in benefits they’ve earned—a record for AMVETS.

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 Frank needed us most, AMVETS 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 last month, 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.” Days 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’ve taken the extraordinary step of mandating vaccines for all VHA personnel who work at or visit our facilities. 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, until 1600, right outside this room.

When you have a few minutes, please head out there and get the shot. That’s the only way to 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 in any year but one in the history of VA—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 could it be closer to President Biden’s heart.

When President Biden nominated me to lead VA, he 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 reconciliation package that will provide 18 billion dollars to help Vets thrive in the future.

But as we all know, advocacy at the White House level doesn’t mean anything if Vets don’t use 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, AMVETS 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 health care that past generations did.  And it means rebuilding, repairing, realigning, and modernizing VA’s health care 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 health care 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 change 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. And there is no more important outcome than preventing Veteran suicide—because one Veteran who dies by suicide is one too many.

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.

We’re also going all-in on helping rural Vets who need mental health services. That means building three new programs in rural locations to help severely mentally ill Vets, and it means 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. 

And for the Veterans of the war in Afghanistan, their families, survivors, and caregivers who may be struggling with the news of this past week, we are here for you. Whether you want to speak to another Veteran, talk to a therapist, call our crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, text us at 838-255, visit one of our Vet centers, or access any of VA’s mental health services online at www.MentalHealth.va.gov, we are standing by and ready to help.

Because mental health care is health care. As the Secretary of Defense said so well last month, your mental health is your health. And your health is our top priority.  

Another 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 announced this month that we will presumptively pay disability benefits to Veterans who suffer from asthma, sinusitis, and rhinitis as a result of their service in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

Veterans have waited for these benefits for far too long—and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure they won’t have to wait any longer. 

This is just the beginning, not the end, of our efforts on toxic exposure—and we’re moving ahead with the utmost urgency.

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 extension of the eviction moratorium—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 AMVETS and other organizations—to determine how we can make VA a more welcoming place for women, LGBTQ plus Veterans, MST survivors, and all Veterans.

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

For too long, too many Veterans who fought 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 AMVETS’ 250,000 members 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 just a few years ago.

There was a proposal floating around Washington to cut Individual Unemployability benefits for senior citizen Veterans—meaning that some of our most disabled Vets would lose the money that they relied on to get by.

Well, you were having none of that.  

You went to the Senate, you met with 65 Senators in one day—and by the end of that day, the proposal was dropped. The benefits were saved. Because of you.

The second story is that of Michael and Stacie Robertson.

Michael and Stacie are both Army Veterans, and they have five children—ranging from three months to 12 years old. And at the beginning of the pandemic, Michael was furloughed from his job.

Both Michael and Stacey looked and looked for work, but they couldn’t find any. And when Thanksgiving came around, they weren’t sure how they were going to afford a nice dinner for their family. So AMVETS stepped up and covered it.

According to Stacie, “AMVETS was the difference between our children eating hotdogs and macaroni for Thanksgiving dinner, and having a turkey dinner with potatoes, corn, rolls, cranberry, and even pie.”

“It meant the world to us,” she said. “It was just the boost our little family needed during a very rough time that was supposed to be a special time.”

Thankfully, the Robertsons are doing much better now. But in the time when they were struggling, and needed a hand, you were there to lift them up.

Those two stories capture the incredible impact and breadth of your work. At the national level, and the individual level. In Congress, and in communities. For all Veterans, and for one Veteran family.

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.

Because when Vets need help for wounds, visible or invisible; when MIA servicemembers and POWs need an advocate; when a Vet needs a meal on Thanksgiving or a vaccine at Rolling to Remember ...

... you’re there, just like you have been since 1944, answering the call to serve. 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.