Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Student Veterans of America National Convention 2021 (Virtual)
February 20, 2021
Good evening, everyone, I’m really happy to join you. SVA is one of our country’s most important Veterans service organizations, and one of VA’s best partners. And I look forward to strengthening that partnership.
Jared [Lyon], Pam [Erickson], the rest of your leadership team—thanks for inviting me. More important, thanks for your devotion to America’s Veterans, devotion that’s paying dividends in the leadership that SVA alums bring to communities and the nation.
I’m thinking of SVA alums like Air Force Veteran Alexandria Sawin, Student Veteran of the Year in 2019 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Alexandria’s worked with The Mission Continues, helping children and families experiencing homelessness in Boston and Cambridge.
I’m thinking of alums like Coast Guard Veteran Tammy Barlet, Temple University’s SVA Chapter Vice President. Today, Tammy’s serving VFW as an Associate Director of National Legislative Services.
Or Army Veteran Patrick Carney, who was an SVA Chapter President at Stockton University and is now serving his fellow Veterans as an Outreach Specialist at VA in Wilmington, Delaware.
And I’m especially proud to serve alongside Navy Veteran, Drexel University graduate, and SVA alum Chris Diaz—my liaison to the White House who stepped up to the challenge of serving as our Acting Chief of Staff.
We live in peace and security today because of their sacrifices, because of your sacrifices, and because of the sacrifices of generations of Veterans before you. And I’ve had the privilege few Americans have had to witness up close the excellence you represent.
I’ve seen your great leadership and deep courage in visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve seen your strength and resilience among wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And I’ve experienced the unimaginable grief of military families at Dover, when our fallen heroes come home one final time. So it is my honor, the honor of my lifetime, to lead VA, and I’m going to fight like hell every day to ensure we serve you as well as you’ve served this country.
President Biden said our country’s most sacred obligations are preparing and equipping the troops we send into harm’s way, and then caring for you and your families after you’ve come home. And here’s how VA will answer that sacred obligation.
Our highest priorities will remain our three core responsibilities: providing timely, world-class healthcare; ensuring you and your families have access to the benefits you’ve earned; and honoring you with a final resting place that’s a lasting tribute to your service.
Beyond those three core responsibilities, we’ll do everything in our power to help you get through this pandemic. We’ll make sure VA welcomes all of you, equally—men, women, Veterans of color, and LGBTQ Veterans. We’ll work to eliminate Veterans’ homelessness and reduce suicide and keep faith with your caregivers and families. And especially important to SVA members, and especially important to me, we’ll move heaven and earth to help you build fulfilling civilian lives with education and jobs worthy of your skills and service after you leave the ranks.
When I think about the student Veterans this organization represents—more than three quarters of a million strong—I’m so inspired. More than any other single group, you have both the potential and the great responsibility to continue to shape our country’s future and to keep the United States a world leader.
You can help answer immense challenges we face today, and that we’ll face in the years to come and the decades to come, from responding to COVID-19 to preparing for and working to prevent future pandemics, from averting global warming to shoring up our cybersecurity, from exploring the reaches of space to meeting the challenges of our local communities—questions of social inequality and poverty, unemployment and job production, educating future generations, internet and healthcare access for every American, among many, many other challenges.
In these and other challenges your experiences, leadership, ingenuity and spirit of innovation—your wildest dreams and your greatest hopes—can profoundly and positively impact this country and the world.
So I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that VA help you seamlessly transition from military service to leading back home—nationally, and internationally. My vision for student Veterans is about you designing and living the fulfilling, productive lives you want to live. So that means VA providing world-class education benefits and opportunities.
Let me tell you this, I’m proud of VA’s investments in you and your families. Since August 2009, we’ve provided Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits of nearly $115 billion dollars to more than 2.3 million of you and your beneficiaries; in Fiscal Year 2020 alone, $12 billion dollars to almost one million Veterans and family members across all five GI Bill programs. These educational benefits are a vote of confidence in you, proven leaders whose skills protecting the nation can now help grow a vibrant, resilient, and equitable economy.
So, for you it’s about the resources and tools to achieve your goals, whether that’s a degree or advanced occupational training in high demand fields like software programming, data sciences, or engineering. It’s increasing automation of education claims processing for on-time delivery of your benefits, and it’s real-time eligibility decisions. It’s more timely customer service, solving problems on first-contact, and electronic outreach and communications. And we’re expanding our transition, education, and employment programs with an array of economic development initiatives like personalized career planning, technology education opportunities, and STEM scholarships, among others.
Now, for VA it’s about stronger compliance and oversight of education programs to provide quality education, business intelligence tools monitoring and assessing education outcomes and trends for the future, faster implementation of legislative and program changes and, when necessary, course corrections to better serve you and provide better outcomes.
And we understand how important the GI Bill and its financial support is especially during the pandemic. So we’ll continue working closely with SVA leaders and congressional stakeholders to protect student Veterans from COVID-related impacts of transition to online learning or school closures.
All of that, and more, it’s what you’ve earned. It’s what you deserve. And we’re counting on you. Veterans of generations past put their mark on this country. Now, the future is in your hands. And in your hands, it’s well-placed.
Let me conclude with this commitment. Every decision I make will rest on a simple principle—whether the decision increases your access to care and benefits and improves outcomes for you. And we’ll measure our success by your outcomes, and by listening to what you say about your experiences.
I fully embrace this mission, and I know the VA workforce does, too.
May God bless our troops and all of you. And, as a nation, may we always give our Veterans our very best.