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 Guard Association of the United States, 143rd National Conference
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 29, 2021

Thank you so much for that really generous introduction. It's great to be here this morning. The fact is that it is fundamentally an honor to be with America's National Guard—the oldest military organization in the country.

General McGuire, thanks for the kind introduction. More importantly, thanks for more than 30 years of service to the nation from the hot sands of Saudi Arabia and Iraq in Desert Storm to the Grand Canyon State leading the Arizona National Guard, and now, serving the Guard and Veterans with the National Guard Association.

General Robinson, likewise, thank you for your than three decades fighting our nation's wars and serving the Magnolia State and our country as a Citizen-Soldier. I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to join you at your 143rd General Conference. And I'm especially honored that VA's new Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs and Montana Guard's former TAG Matt Quinn traveled here to Vegas to be with you. I just heard that he's on the shuttle to the airport, but I want to here, in particular, thank Matt for his leadership and bringing that to VA and to Veterans.

And I want to thank all of you for your heroic, devoted service to the nation. I'm particularly mindful this morning that the Guard is fully mobilized in Louisiana and in Mississippi, as we watch and, now, have seen the arrival ashore of Hurricane Ida.

In just 13 days, our country will hold a solemn commemoration of Al-Qaeda's 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. When our country was attacked, the Guard ran to the fight, ran to the fight—not away from it—and many of you volunteered to serve to protect us and to defend our freedoms.

On that terrible morning, North Dakota's 119th Fighter Wing took to the skies to defend our Capital. Joining them and active duty fighters were the District of Columbia's 113th Wing and Maryland and Virginia's 192nd Fighter Wing. Within hours of the attacks in D.C. and New York, National Guardsmen and -women joined first responders in search, recovery, and security operations. Army Guard units established security cordons in lower Manhattan and around the Pentagon. Within 24 hours, Air Guard units were flying hundreds of sorties across the country—combat air patrols, presidential escorts, FEMA support, among others. Tens of thousands of men and women of the Guard reported to duty—many even before they were called. In the days, weeks, months, years, even decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of Guard members were called to active duty. They secured our military bases, civilian airports, bridges, power plants, ports here at home, and fought our battles around the world.

Everything changed, we said back then. And it did change—for the country and for the Guard. It transformed the Guard from a strategic reserve to operational force deployed to posts at home and around the globe, and to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Could I ask those who served in Afghanistan stand for a moment, if you're able, and be recognized?

Thank you.

I want to say a few words directly to the Veterans of the Afghan war. Two hundred and eighteen of your fellow Guard members made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Their homes, families, friends, and communities span our nation—from Maine on the Atlantic to American Samoa and Guam in the Pacific. So, I know that what's happening in Afghanistan the past weeks has been difficult to watch—the loss of Marines on Thursday, those wounded, all of it. It's painful for many of you, in particular, and for your families.

Now, you may not know, but I'm not a Veteran. But I have spent a good deal of my life surrounded by, working with and for Veterans and supporting Veterans. In combat zones, I've seen your excellence and the grueling demands of deployment after deployment after deployment. I've been moved by the strength and resilience of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I'm particularly reminded this morning that I've witnessed the unimaginable grief of military families saying final farewells at Dover.

But there is no way I can even imagine, even begin to imagine how you feel right now. In fact, I think there's no way that anyone who didn't serve in Afghanistan—who didn't fight in Afghanistan, who didn't bleed in Afghanistan—can fully understand how you feel right now. No one can, unless they've walked, as you have, among the Afghan people. But Veterans to your left and to your right and across this country do understand. Thousands of Veterans that I'm honored to work with at VA understand, and they're ready and want to help. And millions of people across this country and around the world are deeply, deeply grateful.

With courage and unwavering commitment, you did your duty—again, and again, and again.

As General Hokanson observed, “For nearly 20 years . . . . [you] never lost sight of [your] duty as Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen.” So know that your service—your choice—matters. We're all safer for it. We're forever in your debt. And we at VA are deeply grateful for it. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

This difficult moment reminds us of the sacred duty and mission that we at VA and the National Guard Association share. It reminds us of the fundamental promise our nation makes to those with guts enough to volunteer to serve. If you take care of us, we'll take care of you. If you fight for us, we'll fight for you. If you have our backs, we'll have your backs when you leave service. Our nation as a whole makes that promise. But we at VA and the Guard Association are among those most responsible for keeping that promise. There's no more sacred obligation, no more noble mission.

Over the course of the last 17 months, VA and the Guard have mobilized together to serve the nation here at home during this brutal pandemic—fulfilling that promise. Tragically, more than 628,000 people in our country have been lost to COVID. They were Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen. They were Veterans we served. They were VA employees who served with them. We remember them. And our hearts go out to those that they left behind. But it's also important to remember—because of the work of your Soldiers and Airmen, many, many lives have been saved and made better.

In the earliest COVID responses, the Guard was helping with logistics, packaging, and deploying protective gear like gloves, gowns, masks, and face shields. The Guard was helping with COVID testing, distributing food to hard-hit areas, transporting testing supplies, and collecting samples for testing. The Guard was in our rest homes, providing comfort and medical support to our elderly. Last June in the “Year of the Guard” as the first wave of COVID started sweeping the country, 118,000 of you and your Soldiers and Airmen were deployed across the globe supporting our nation and our fellow citizens. And since the vaccines arrived, the Guard has been getting shots into arms.

VA employees have shown their own unwavering strength and determination in this period. When PPE was running low, VA employees developed reusable, 3D-printed PPE and got it straight to the front lines. 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 while never denying a bed to a Veteran. All of that work translates into the one statistic that matters most: lives saved and made better by the work that we do, together.

Now, the work on the pandemic is far from over. The Delta variant is causing exponential increase in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. That's why everyone needs to be vaccinated. I can't say it enough—99 percent of those dying from COVID right now are unvaccinated. Right now, almost every COVID death is preventable. But don't take my word for it. Listen to the docs, many of them right here with you. Last month, a doctor in Alabama told a harrowing story about an unvaccinated COVID patient begging for the vaccine right up to before they're put on a ventilator. She has to tell them, “I'm so sorry, but it's too late.” All she can do is hold their hands. And when she calls the time of death for those patients, she tells their families that the best way to honor their lost loved ones is to get the vaccine. Without the vaccine, the tragic story repeats itself. I don't want that to be you, or your families, or the fellow Guard members and Vets you know and love.

That's why we mandated vaccines for all VA employees who work at or visit our VA facilities—so that when they are caring for Veterans, they are not putting Veterans at risk. But even if you're not required to be vaccinated, please, don't wait to get vaccinated. More than half of the nation's Vets already have. And thanks to the SAVE LIVES Act, all Veterans, their spouses, and their caregivers can be vaccinated safely, easily, and of course free of charge. That is the only way to end this pandemic. It's the only way to return to normal life, to get back to the way things were.

But some things shouldn't go back to the way they were. At VA, we're not going back to old ways of doing things. Our work responding to the pandemic has made us a stronger, better department for Veterans. Outpatient trust scores among Vets rose to 90 percent 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. When it wasn't safe for Vets to come to the hospital, we cared for Vets online, ramping up telehealth appointments from 2,500 per day last March to 45,000 per day a year later. Both tele-health and tele-appeals are allowing us to meet Vets where they want, when they want, in unprecedented ways—especially important for rural Vets. And our cemeteries not only stayed open during the pandemic, but expanded to six new locations.

So, the bottom line is this. We are now providing more care and more benefits to more Veterans than at any time in our history. So we're not trying to get back to the old normal. 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 our four fundamental principles shaping our vision for the future: Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

First, advocacy. Advocacy is the Guard Association's bread and butter. You worked hard with the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees to bring new benefits for members of the Guard and their families in the Isakson-Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020. Now, thanks to you, more Guard members and Veterans can access VA home loans and Fry Scholarships. Now, thanks to you, more Guard members and Veterans can access counseling for military sexual trauma (MST) and treatment of physical conditions in addition to mental conditions arising from MST. And we're working to make sure VA is right there with you as the nation's premier advocate for Veterans, their families, their caregivers, their survivors. Because Veterans have earned the care and services we provide. We exist to best serve them, not to do what's easy for us.

But advocacy doesn't mean much if Vets don't use the access that they have earned. And we will move heaven and earth to get Vets 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. And I know that under Matt's leadership, NCA's long tradition of world-class service is in the best hands. In fact, we're now asking for your input on states' ability to offer a final resting place in State Veterans Cemeteries for honorably discharged Guard members and Reservists who didn't meet federal requirements for Veteran status. The Request for Information has been published in the registry. We need to hear from you on this subject. Let your voices be heard. We want to make sure that Veterans have the best possible experience wherever they access VA benefits and services: at home, in the community, or at VA—meeting Vets where they are.

One powerful example is our Vet Centers. Vet Centers are an invaluable resource in communities that meet Veterans, service members, and their families where they are. Earlier this month, I visited a Vet Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. Let me tell you, when it comes to deployments and redeployments, the Raleigh Vet Center is tied tight with the Guard. And, when I was down there, they're singing the Guard's praises. Part of North Carolina Guard's Yellow Ribbon Program, the Raleigh Vet Center briefs deploying and redeploying Guard members and their families on Vet Center services and VA benefits. We want to continue building on that strong partnership.

Our 300 Vet Centers provide Veterans, active-duty service members—including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and their families, your families—a broad range of services. And your Guard members are eligible if they served active duty in any combat theater of hostilities, experienced Military Sexual Trauma—M-S-T as we call it—while on active duty or inactive duty training status, provided direct emergent medical care or mortuary services to casualties while on active duty, served as a member of a UAV crew providing direct operational support in a combat zone or area of hostility. And, as of last year, Guard members are eligible who served on active duty in response to a declared national emergency or major disaster declared by the President or under your governor's orders.

Last year, over 223,000 received Vet Center services like individual, group, couples, and family counseling; counseling for Military Sexual Trauma; and medical, benefit, employment, and other VA and community referral services. I saw that up close and personal at home in Minnesota where we had a Guard unit training accident. That unit gets critical, timely care from the St. Paul Vet Center. Our Vet Centers' primary mission is connecting you and your members with VA and community services that can support you. If your Guard unit isn't well-connected with their Vet Center, let's get that happening, let's get them working together.

Now let me talk about outcomes. They will drive everything we do because Vets, not VA, 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 a principle focus. Fortunately, Vets have adapted seamlessly to tele-mental health sessions—attending 4.4 million sessions already this year, more than doubling the total from all of 2020. We're also going all-in on helping rural Vets who need mental health services. We're building three new programs in rural locations to help severely mentally ill Vets. We're creating a new training program designed to attract top-level clinicians to rural areas, to keep them in rural areas, and to care for Vets who live in rural areas.

And for Veterans of the war in Afghanistan, their families, survivors, and caregivers who may be struggling right now, we're here for you. We're standing by and ready to help, whether you want to speak to another Veteran, talk to a therapist, visit a Vet Center, call our crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, text the crisis line at 838-255, or access any of VA's mental health services online at www.MentalHealth.va.gov. Because mental health care is health care. Secretary Austin said it so well last month. He said, “Your mental health is your health.”

Another major focus for Vets' outcomes is toxic exposure. I just talked to the President about it yesterday afternoon. We didn't wait for Congress to act on this. We're going ahead and acting ourselves. And we've already made three major updates. One, we're creating a new, comprehensive decision-making model for determining presumptive conditions. This model leverages all available science, better uses claims data, and is guided by one core principle—getting Vets the benefits they have earned and, therefore, they deserve. Two, 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 last 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 long enough for these benefits, in fact far too long. We're doing everything in our power to make sure they don't wait a minute longer. This is just the beginning, not the end, of our work on toxic exposure. And we'll continue to move ahead with urgency.

Finally, excellence, something you embody every day. We're seeking to emulate you in demonstrating excellence in all we do for Vets by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines the Veteran population, our workforce, and this amazing country. Our diversity is always 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 to determine how we can make VA a more welcoming place for women, LGBTQ+ Veterans, MST survivors, all Veterans. Now, there's a lot I could say here, but it all boils down to this. For too long, too many Veterans who fought to protect our rights, our freedoms, had to fight brutal battles back here at home for their own rights and freedoms. Tragically, some of those fights continue to this day. But at VA, those fights are over. Let me just repeat that. At VA those fights are over. No Veteran 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's 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 driving principles. And make no mistake. We're doing that for you, for the Soldiers and Airmen you lead, for our Veterans. It's about the nation keeping that promise I mentioned earlier, just like you Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen keep your promise to this country every day, notwithstanding all the responsibilities you have.

And when we needed you to protect our country after 11 September, you answered that call. When the pandemic struck, you answered that call. When thousands of people needed help last year due to hurricanes and forest fires, you answered that call. When the Capitol was under attack on January 6th, you answered that call. As Hurricane Ida bears down on the Gulf Coast, you're answering that call. And right this second, you're answering the call in Operation Allies Refuge—helping evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan allies and their families to safety. You're moving people, providing aerial refuel, and aeromedical evacuation. You're securing Karzai International Airport, providing humanitarian aid, helping process those with Special Immigrant Visas, risking everything, everything to help your fellow Americans and our Afghan allies live in freedom.

In short, you're serving with great honor and courage globally and locally. That's what you do. Whenever and wherever there's trouble and someone needs a hand, you are there. That's what the Guard does. That's what you've been doing for 385 years.

So, General McGuire, General Robinson, and everyone with the National Guard Association of America—thank you for your magnificent work. Thank you for what you're doing for the Guard, Veterans, indeed, for the country.

God bless you. God bless our nation's Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give you our very best.