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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Day Celebration
Washington, DC
November 4, 2021

Thank you for that kind introduction. Thanks to Secretary Fudge and Deputy Secretary Todman for the invitation to join you today, and for their unwavering partnership and outstanding leadership.

Let me also acknowledge our hosts, the HUD Veterans Affinity Group, who worked hard and made it possible for us to celebrate safely today; Lloyd Calderón, the Chairman of the Interagency Veterans Advisory Council; and, most of all, all of the Veterans who are with us today—from HUD and across the federal government.

I wish I could recognize each of you individually, but believe me, nobody wants to hear me talk for that long—so instead, I’ll just say thank you.

Whether you’re speaking this morning or being honored for your service in Desert Storm, here in the room or watching along at home, this day is your day. And I’m honored to spend it with you.

Each year in November, America pauses to remember and recognize you—the brave men and women who fought our nation’s wars and defended us during periods of restless peace.

From the hills of Lexington and Concord to the sands of Desert Storm to the mountains of Afghanistan, millions of Veterans have risked their lives to preserve the democratic ideals of this great nation.

We live in peace and prosperity because of them.

This celebration, for Veterans Day, is a day to honor those Veterans. It’s a day to remember all they’ve done—and sacrificed—for our country. It’s a day to appreciate the gift of freedom that those Veterans have given us. 

But—critically—this day is also a call to action. A reminder that it is our responsibility as Americans to serve those who have served our country.

Because 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 serve us, we will serve you when you come home.

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

So today, as you remember and recognize Veterans’ service, please also recommit and renew your pledge to them. Because that is our most sacred responsibility as Americans, on this Veterans Day and every day.

When I think of that shared responsibility—about serving those who served us—particularly at VA and HUD—I think of a 25-year Army combat Veteran of the war in Iraq named Justin Fisher. 

Justin’s a real gentle giant—about 6 foot 3, big beard. The type of guy my Minnesota Vikings could sorely use right now. And I heard two stories about him recently that I wanted to quickly share this morning, because I think they’re particularly relevant today.

One’s from his time in the service, and one’s from his time back home.

For the story of Justin’s service, I could tell you about the time when he survived a deadly mortar attack on base in Basra—and then helped everyone around him recover. Or I could tell you any other harrowing story about what Justin’s life was like in Iraq in the late 2000s.

But instead, I’ll tell you the story that Justin would tell you—it’s among his favorite from his many years in the service.

The year was 2009, and Justin had come out of retirement to go on active duty in Iraq at the height of the war—serving as a part of the 34th Infantry Division’s Army National Band.

The band’s orders on this particular day were to play at the grand reopening of a school that had been bombed after allowing girls to learn science.

It might not sound like all that dangerous of a mission, but it was. There were intel reports of IEDs and other dangers on the way, but orders are orders, so Justin and the band drove into the city nonetheless.

Justin was glad they did, because the band had a special surprise up their sleeves for the students: they’d learned the local folk music, so they could play the kids’ favorite songs for their big day.

When they got there, Justin and the others removed their armor—exposing themselves right in the center of Basra—because it was a school, and they didn’t want to intimidate the kids.

Then they stepped inside, with instruments instead of guns, and started to play.

And they played. And they played. And they played.

Eventually, they had to move the concert into the courtyard, where they were even more exposed. Because, slowly but steadily, the audience had grown from just the local students, to some parents, to what Justin described as the whole community.

And all of them were dancing, and singing along, to the music—their own music, music they probably hadn’t heard live in quite some time.

Justin said that it’s one of the few memories of war that he’ll take with him forever.

Because, for at least a couple hours, those Iraqis were able to forget about the war. He was able to forget about the war. Even though they were right in the middle of it.

The second story is about what happened when Justin retired and came home.

He was once again helping out with students, this time working as a school bus driver for the local elementary school. But his post-traumatic stress was making that difficult.

When he was driving in regular traffic, things were fine. But when he was following other buses, it reminded him of following armored vehicles in Iraq—of the IEDs, of the danger, of all of it.

Then one day, in the middle of October, someone left exploded fireworks in the middle of the road that reminded Justin of a partially buried IED. It sent him into a panic, and he had to pull off at the next stop.

All the peace he’d felt in the middle of war at that school in Basra was replaced with terror on a school bus in the middle of Minnesota. And that was his last day on the job—he quit for the good of the students.

From there, Justin struggled to find work. And before long, he and his wife and their children were homeless.

After 25 years of service, Justin and his family didn’t have a home in the country that he’d fought for so long to defend.

I wanted to tell Justin’s story this morning because I think it’s a perfect example of the importance of our shared work at VA and HUD.

Because the fact is that no Veteran—not Justin nor anyone else—should ever be homeless in this country they fought to defend.

In fact, Veterans like Justin didn’t fight for our peace and prosperity overseas so that anybody could be homeless in the greatest, richest country in the world.

That’s what I mean when I say that today is a call to action.

Veterans like Justin have given so much for our country.

They’ve fought for us, and bled for us, and—because of that—they carry the visible and invisible scars of war to this day. All for us. Now it’s our turn to fight for them.

There are many ways to do that, from reaching out to the Veterans in your life, to lending Veterans a hand when they need it, to doing your small part to uphold the principles of democracy that they fought to defend.

But at VA and HUD, fighting for Veterans means one thing above all else: getting Veterans and the Americans for whom they fought into homes—and keeping them there. Or preventing them from falling into homelessness in the first place.

It’s a hard job, but over the years, it’s one you’ve done so well.

Our HUD-VASH program has helped more than 150,000 homeless Veterans move into permanent supportive housing, including 15,000 in the past year—and we’re now accelerating the HUD-VASH process by hiring more staff.

Since 2009, HUD’s Veterans Affinity Group has collected and distributed more than 8,900 pairs of new boots to underserved, homeless, low income, and minority Vets.

In the past couple weeks alone, we set an aggressive goal to get every homeless Veteran living on Veterans row—a homeless encampment out in LA—into housing by November 1st. And that’s exactly what we did.  

In the coming months, we’re going to get 500 more Veterans in LA into housing. Because there are more homeless Vets in LA than anywhere else in America—so as we solve the problem there, we give momentum to our efforts across the country.

And—between the Joint Federal Housing Task Force and the US Interagency Council on Homelessness—collaboration between our two agencies has never been stronger.

But we can’t stop there.

There are still 40,000 homeless Veterans, and 580,000 homeless Americans in this country today. It’s our job to learn their stories and get them the help they need—just like we’ve done for so many others over the years.

I’ll close with one more note on Justin, whose story—fortunately—has a happy ending.

He’s got a great farm now—5 acres. He and his family are doing great. He recently became a grandpa. And I’m proud to say that he’s been working at VA for 7 years.

It’s everything he so rightly deserves.

But the thing is, I didn’t tell Justin’s story today because it was unique. I told it because it’s not unique.

There are so many more Justins out there—incredible public servants, Veterans, who are homeless or teetering on the edge—and whose stories are still being written.

…the endings of which are still very much hanging in the balance.

It’s our responsibility, all of us, to do everything in our power to make those Veterans’ stories end happily.

In our positions at HUD, VA, and across the federal government, we have a unique opportunity to serve those Veterans—to keep our nation’s promise to them; to fight for them, just like they fought for us.

And this Veterans Day celebration is the ultimate reminder of that responsibility—that privilege—that we all share. So today and every day, let’s serve Veterans, their families, survivors, and caregivers—and serve them well.

Let’s build the peaceful and prosperous country that they fought overseas to defend. And let’s help them write the happy endings to their stories that they have earned, and so rightly deserve.

Thank you so much for having me, and for your partnership. And thanks again to all the Veterans watching today for your service.

Whether you served 30 years ago in Desert Storm, in any of our country’s other conflicts, or in those periods of restless peace, our nation is forever in your debt.

May God bless you, your families, caregivers, and survivors—and may we always give you our very best.