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

Vietnam Veterans of America 20th Biennial National Convention
Greensboro, NC
November 5, 2021

Good afternoon.

Thank you, John—VVA Life Member #29, and National President, for your eighth consecutive term, and counting—thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you for your unwavering service to your fellow Vietnam Veterans, to all Veterans and, by extension, to America. And thank you for your courageous service in Vietnam.

Let me also recognize Tom Burke—a Minnesotan and, therefore, family—Bill Meeks, and Jack McManus. It’s an honor to be here with you.

Welcome home, everyone. Thank you for your courageous service and your devotion to Veterans in the years since. You’ve been “In Service to America” in so many ways for so many years. Literally decades of relentless legislative fights related to Agent Orange exposure, and decades advocating on The Hill and in your communities for all Veterans: from Veterans Treatment Courts to the 9/11 GI Bill to helping house homeless Veterans, the continuing fight for a full accounting of our POWs and MIAs—Vietnam Veterans of America have done so much for this nation, not just in the jungles, in the skies, or on the waters of Vietnam, but here at home.

I want to especially recognize one of the most invaluable services VA offers Veterans—our Vet Centers. Your Vet Centers. When the Veterans Administration back then was coming up short, you stepped in, establishing storefront counseling centers for Vets. It’s thanks to your initiative—and, then, your advocacy—that today there are hundreds of thousands of Vets, service members, and families benefiting from your 300 Vet Centers across the country. It’s thanks to you that Vet Centers never moved to VA campuses and instead expanded in communities where Vets live and work. And it’s thanks to you that Vet Centers are providing eligible Veterans, active-duty service members—including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and their families—such a broad range of services.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Navy Vietnam Veteran Harry Collins in Lexington, Kentucky, will tell you himself what the Vet Centers can do. “At the Vet Center,” Harry said, “you have people who have walked the same ground, they have been there and done it.” He will tell you that his Vet Center Counselor Carla Loveless-Tackett saved his life. “If it was not for her, I would not be here right now. I would have checked out.”

That’s one story. That’s your work. And that’s just one life saved because of VVA. There are thousands like them. That great work reminds me of what President Biden often calls our most sacred obligation: 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 we make to anyone signing up for military service. You take care of us, we will take care of you. You fight for us, we will fight for you. You have our backs, we’ll have yours when you transition out of the service. Our nation as a whole makes that promise. But we at VA and VVA are among those most responsible for keeping it. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do.

This year, it’s impossible not to notice the many who are no longer with us. In August, you lost one of your greatest voices, Veterans lost one of their greatest advocates, when the giant Joe Galloway passed. At his memorial service down in Concord, where he was laid to rest—not too far from here—his beloved wife Gracie remembered how Joe would “fight for Veterans ... with the strength of his pen and his amazing writing.” Joe Galloway’s voice will echo through the ages—keep serving Veterans, and this country.

And we remember those lost in this pandemic—more than 745,000. I know you’ve lost many. They are your people, our people. Veterans we served, and people who served them. And our hearts go out to all those they’ve left behind.

At the same time, we remember there are many Veterans, servicemembers, family members out there right now, enjoying the fall season because of you: because of people like members of the Greater Hartford VVA Chapter 120, who donated children’s winter coats to South Windsor’s Human Services Department; because of people like the VVA members of the Tucson Chapter 106, who raised money to help local Veterans in need because of the pandemic; or Clinton Township, Michigan, Chapter 154 members and partners, who showed great courage by keeping their food pantry open—supporting Vets and their families during the height of the pandemic; or your work bringing attention to State Veterans Homes’ COVID challenges.

And VA people have been responding non-stop to COVID requirements in a host of ways. 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 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 millions of people—nearly 3.9 million of them Veterans. More than half the nation’s Vets have been vaccinated.

That work—yours and ours—translates into the one statistic that matters most: lives saved, and improved, by the work we do. But we all know, our work on the pandemic is far from over. That’s why everyone needs to be vaccinated. I can’t repeat this enough. Nearly every person dying from COVID right now is unvaccinated, meaning that, right now, nearly every COVID death is preventable. So, I’m asking you now, please get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Thanks to the SAVE LIVES ACT, all of you, your spouses, and your caregivers can be vaccinated at VA safely, easily, free of charge.

And get your booster shot at your local VAMC. Get a booster if you’re over 65 and got your second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine more than six months ago, or if you have underlying medical conditions. Get a booster if you got the J&J vaccine more than 2 months ago. The booster can be any of the vaccines authorized in the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna, or J&J. Vaccination is the only way to end this pandemic and finally return to normal life.

While we want our lives to return to normal, it’s also important to recognize that somethings aren’t going back to the way they were—and perhaps shouldn’t. Jack hit the nail on the head in his Treasurer’s report back in January. Jack wrote, “It’s become apparent that we and future generations are changed forever.” That’s right. We are changed, Jack.

VA is changed, too. And the work we’ve done responding to the pandemic has forged us into a stronger, better department for all our nation’s Vets. We won’t go back to old way of doing things. 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 percent this year—which in my mind, should be the floor, not the ceiling. And it’s Vets of your era reporting the highest trust scores for out-patient treatment.

We’ve seen more patients and held more benefits hearings than in any previous year in VA’s history—a result of our goal to make sure Vets get their care and benefits on time, every time. And our cemeteries not only stayed open during the pandemic, but expanded to six new locations. All in all? We’re providing more care and more benefits to more Veterans than ever before.

So, we’re not trying to build a VA that goes 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 doing that by driving toward the four fundamental principles that shape our vision for the future: Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

You know, I can’t very well talk about advocacy without talking about VVA. As I said a moment ago, VVA advocacy is behind so much so good for Veterans. When it comes to advocacy, we’re following your lead to make sure VA is the nation’s premier advocate for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And advocacy starts at the top. Our shared mission couldn’t 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 $5 billion to help Vets thrive in the future.

But advocacy doesn’t mean much if Vets don’t use the benefits they’ve earned, which is where you come in. For many Veterans and servicemembers, your network of Veterans Service Officers across the country are their introduction to benefits they’ve earned.
You’re the ones sitting across the table from them, their surviving spouses, or their dependents. So, I’m committed to working with you to improve access for those we serve.

Second, access. We’ll move heaven and earth to get Veterans timely access to their VA resources. 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. So, we’re meeting Vets where they are by expanding tele-health and tele-appeals, and by supporting our caregivers.

Caregivers are not an afterthought for VA. They’re a top priority. That’s why I appointed Meg Kabat to be VA’s first ever senior advisor for caregivers. And it’s why we look forward to expanding the program of comprehensive assistance to cover all caregivers as soon as possible. Now, I know there’s concern about re-evaluation requirements associated with the MISSION Act’s expansion of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers—PCAFC.

So, I want to be clear on this as we look forward to the final expansion stage next October [2022]. Some Veterans and Family Caregivers will need to be reevaluated on an annual basis for continued participation in the expanded program. Many Legacy participants—that is, Vets who entered the program before last October—haven’t been re-evaluated in several years. Now, if the evaluation determines ineligibility—that is, they do not meet the requirements for continued participation—then, those Veterans and Caregivers will still receive those benefits for the next 15 months. That’s 15 months longer, incidentally, than originally planned. And as we meet the legal obligations of MISSION Act expansion, we’re going to make sure eligibility decisions are fair, equitable, consistent—no matter where the Vets get care, no matter when they served.

Next, I want to talk about Veterans’ outcomes. Outcomes drive everything we do because you, Vets—not us at VA—are the ultimate judges of our success. And there’s 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 services going during the pandemic has been one of our primary focuses. And, Vets have adapted seamlessly to tele-mental health sessions—attending millions of sessions already this year, more than doubling their total from all of 2020. And in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, we’ve reached out to every Veteran in our network to remind them that their service matters, and that we are here for them.

You know, there’s perhaps no more important outreach than what you Vietnam Vets can do for Afghanistan Vets. I know many Vietnam Vets are already doing this. Tony Roman, a Purple Heart Vietnam Veteran who lives in San Antonio said, “I don’t want them to feel guilty. It was not their fault. They did their job.” That’s exactly right.
Tony remembers that you “fought two wars ... one over there, one over here.” But, thanks to Veterans like Tony and all of you, Vets of today’s wars don’t fight two wars.

That message was echoed by another Vietnam Vet, Jim Jones, who addressed Afghanistan Veterans in the Idaho Statesmen. He wrote to Afghanistan Vets, “Your country appreciates the unflinching service you provided in an effort to protect the American people and to make a better life possible for the Afghan people.” So, please, John, everyone, marshal your forces and really reach out to Afghan Vets. Put your arms around them. Point them to Vet Centers where you know they’ll be well cared for.

Point them to VA, because we’re standing by whether they 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 a Vet Center, or access any of VA’s mental health services online at www.MentalHealth.va.gov. Their mental health care—your mental health care—is health care. And it’s one of our top priorities.

Another major focus here is Toxic Exposures. And I know this is important to you and your families. We aren’t waiting for Congress to act on this. We’re acting ourselves and announced three major updates.

First, we’re creating a new, comprehensive decision-making model for determining presumptive conditions—a model guided by one core principle: getting Vets the benefits they have earned and, therefore, deserve. Second, we’re proactively implementing provisions of the William M. Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. So, Vietnam-era Veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism due to Agent Orange can now be paid the benefits they’re owed. And third, we’re presumptively paying disability benefits to Veterans who suffer from asthma, sinusitis, and rhinitis as a result of their service in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

Vet have waited for these benefits for far too long. We’re doing everything in our power to make sure they won’t have to wait any longer. And this is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts on toxic exposure. We’re moving ahead with urgency.

Lastly, on outcomes, we’re laser-focused on ending Veterans homelessness. Early last month, I visited the encampment for homeless Veterans that, strikingly, is just outside of our West Los Angeles VAMC. Many of you know about it. They call it “Veterans Row.” I was deeply moved by what I saw. About 40 homeless Vets were living there when I visited.

While I was walking through the camp that afternoon, I met a Vet who needed housing, and needed help. That was on a Wednesday. That night, our partners got him a hotel. By 10 a.m. Thursday, the next morning, he was in housing at the West LA VA complex—the same complex I was visiting—receiving what every homeless Vet in our care receives. That’s help for the issues that led them to be homeless in the first instance.

In LA, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 more homeless Vets just like him, across the country, about 40,000 more. It’s our job to identify all of them, to learn their stories, to get them the help they need. After I got back from LA, we announced two concrete steps that we’re taking to address Veterans’ homelessness in Los Angeles.

First, we said we’d get all the Vets living on Veterans Row housed by the end of October. By 1 Nov, last Monday, we’d accomplished that thanks to some incredible efforts of VA people at the medical center and community partners working to make life better for Veterans. This is a major step forward. It’s an example for the rest of the country of what we can and must do for homeless Veterans. It’s an example of what we will do for them.

Second—and a much larger challenge—we’re going to get an additional 500 homeless Vets in Los Angeles housed by the end of this year, making sure they’re “Home For the Holidays.” That’s 57 days from today. And we’re going to make it.

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 more—we are going to do whatever it takes to get Veterans into homes and keep them there.

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 to determine how we can make VA a more welcoming place for LGBTQ plus Veterans, Women Veterans, Minority Veterans, MST survivors, and more.

Now, there’s a lot to say here, but it 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. Let me repeat that. At VA, those fights are over.

VVA’s been engaged in this fight for a while, now. Your advocacy helped institute VA’s Center for Minority Veterans. Earlier this week, I spoke to our first Other Than Honorable Discharge Summit. Here’s a little of what I shared, two quick points. Black Airmen are 71 percent more likely to face a court martial than their White counterparts, and numbers are equally shocking for Black Soldiers, Marines, and Sailors. More than 100,000 servicemembers were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for who they are rather than the character of their service.

When we talk about excellence, about diversity, that’s the legacy that we need to confront. When we talk about fighting like hell for Vets, that’s the fight. And we don’t mean just some Vets. We mean all Vets. Vets of color. Women Vets. LGBTQ+ Vets. Vets with other than honorable discharges.

Reforming how we care for Veterans with other than honorable discharges is long overdue. And this is just Summit 1.0. We’ll going to take what we learn from this first summit and expand the discussion to external stakeholders. With your help, we’ll design an equitable process to ensure every Veteran—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation—has access to benefits and services that they’ve earned.

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 we can’t do it without you. Since Vietnam Veterans of America was founded, you’ve given us your leadership to help us serve Vets. We need it. We’re grateful for it. And that’s truer now than ever before.

This year on Veterans Day at VA, we’re remembering and recognizing you and all the men and women who fought our nation’s wars and defended us during periods of restless peace. And we’re recommitting ourselves to honoring you, to renewing our obligation to fulfill President Lincoln’s charge to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” their families, caregivers, and survivors.

Because Veterans Day is a day to honor Veterans, it’s a day to remember what they did for us. But it’s also a call to action to serve them as well as you’ve served us—not just on Veterans day, but every day. And, with your partnership, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Thank you for welcoming me. God bless you. God bless our Nation’s troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them what you have given this country—the very best.

Thank you.