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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Student Veterans of America National Conference Keynote
Orlando, FL
January 7, 2022

Hello everyone! Thank you, Johnny [Walker], for that kind introduction, for your work with SVA, and for your decorated service to this country. Frankly, hearing your story, I feel like I should be introducing you—but hey, I’ll take it.

My deepest thanks as well to Jared Lyon, for your steadfast leadership of Student Veterans of America; to all the SVA employees who have worked hard around the clock to make this great event happen; and, most of all, to all the student Veterans there in Florida and watching across the country. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you in person, but it’s an honor to speak with you virtually today—and to work with SVA every day to serve you, your families, caregivers, and survivors as well as you have served our Nation.

I’ve thought a lot about what to say this afternoon—both to the thirteen hundred or so student Vets at NAT-CON today, and to the 750,000 student Vets that SVA represents across America.

And I’m sure I could talk all day long about the coming digital GI bill, or our vocational education programs, or what we at VA have done—in partnership with SVA—to help student Vets through this pandemic.

But Meg Kabat—VA’s senior advisor for families and caregivers—covered a lot of that yesterday, and we at VA are always here to talk about those important services.

So instead of diving into all of that, I want to focus on one thing that I’ve been reminded of time and again throughout my first year at VA—that student Veterans are the bedrock of this country, and we need you to lead us into the future.

Especially now.

Because, to put it gently, it’s been a hard time... for all of us.

The pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, including so many of those we serve and those we love. Wildfires and tornadoes and hurricanes have ravaged the nation, with hundred-year storms happening seemingly every hundred days. The war in Afghanistan ended last year, and we marked the 20-year anniversary of 9/11/2001—two landmarks that led many Vets to question the nature of their service and sacrifice. And, exactly one year ago yesterday, domestic terrorists stormed the United States Capitol in an insurrection designed to overturn the presidential election.

In short, in recent years, we’ve seen the seams of this great nation start to show—and perhaps start to strain. And as students, and as Veterans, so much of America’s future is going to depend on you.

Because you’re the next generation of leaders. Of government officials. Of CEOs. Of caregivers and care workers. Of community leaders. Of parents. Of Americans.

And if we’re going to put the existential crises we face behind us, it will be with you leading the way.

Fortunately, throughout my short time at VA, I’ve seen student Vets across the country stepping up to do exactly that. Two stories, in particular, come to mind.

The first is that of Kat Dobbs, who’s actually in the audience today and now works for SVA.

Kat is a medic for the 180th Fighter Wing in the Ohio National Guard, and—until her graduation last year—she was a student at Bowling Green State University and president of her SVA chapter. Kat has deployed everywhere you can imagine during the pandemic, including vaccination sites and food banks, repeatedly risking her own life to save the lives of others.  But perhaps her most notable deployment was during the scariest part of the pandemic, the very beginning, when nobody knew what was going on and everyone needed help.

That’s when Kat was sent to a local nursing home, which was, in many ways, ground zero for early COVID-19.

When she got there, she realized that despite the fact that she was always there—working 12-hour shifts, every day, no days off—her patients didn’t recognize her, because she and the other staff were completely indistinguishable under HAZMAT-style protective gear.

So, Kat innovated... she brought in some sharpies.

She colored in her HAZMAT suit to make herself look like one of the Avengers, then she helped the other healthcare staff do the same. Before long, the patients could recognize the staff again. There was a relationship there again. And, in those scariest of times, those relationships made all the difference.

Some of Kat’s patients made it through, others didn’t—but just ask anyone at that nursing home: they all love Kat, their very own Avenger.

The second story that comes to mind is about Nick Mararac.  

Nick is a Navy Vet who felt called to join the military after the attacks on 9/11/2001—and he’s now president of SVA at Georgetown, where he’s getting his PhD in linguistics.

When the war in Afghanistan ended, Nick sprang into action—leading Georgetown SVA in more than 270 hours of volunteer work... organizing goods, donations, clothes, toys, shoes, and more for Afghan allies seeking refuge in the United States.

I actually got to meet Nick on the 20th anniversary of 9/11—the 20th anniversary of his decision to join the service. And, even on that day, he was right in the thick of it again—alongside a bunch of other Vets and servicemembers—donating his Saturday to serve Afghan allies in need.

Now, I tell those stories today not because Kat and Nick are unique—though they are incredible leaders.  Instead, I tell them because among student Vets, Kat and Nick aren’t unique—and they’d be the first ones to admit it.

Because student Vets like you never stop serving the country, even after you take off the uniform.

You run into the fight when the country needs you most—whether that’s during a war or a natural disaster or the deadliest pandemic in 100 years.

You do the big things for the country, like sending much-needed supplies to refugees in need—and the small things for a community, like using a sharpie to forge a connection with the patients across from you.

The bottom line is that all of you are the future of this country. And between the pandemic, the recent assaults on our democracy, and the divisions that threaten to tear us apart, we need you now more than ever.

You know, when I was a professor at Notre Dame before coming to VA, I used to ask my students to find some way to serve our country after they graduate.

But you’ve already served our country so well, so I won’t ask you that.

Instead, I’ll just ask you to keep serving it.

Because you know better than anyone that democracy isn’t destiny—it doesn’t just survive on its own. It’s on us to preserve and protect it.  

You know better than anyone that progress doesn’t just happen. It’s on us to make it happen.

And you know better than anyone that the fundamental promises of America aren’t just kept. It’s on us to keep them.

So, please, as you graduate from school and move on to new and exciting opportunities, continue to do what you’ve always done: serve this country, and serve it well. In return, I promise that VA—in partnership with SVA—will be by your side... supporting you, helping you, and being there for you every step of the way.  

Because you, your families, caregivers, and survivors deserve the very best. And we will fight like hell, every single day, to give you nothing less.

So thank you for putting up with me, and for all you have done—and will do—for our great country. We are, all of us, forever in your debt.

May God bless you, your families, caregivers, and survivors—and may God bless America. Thank you, and have a great rest of the convention.