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

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
Arlington, Virginia
May 27, 2022

Thank you all for such a warm welcome.

General Milley, it is a privilege to join you as we honor the survivors of our fallen military families.

Bonnie Carroll, thank you for that kind introduction, and for your outstanding leadership of this remarkable organization. For nearly three decades, you’ve done this work with unerring focus and skill, and you have been a steady champion for survivors—helping them sustain connections to VA, to the military, and to each other. I am honored to stand here this morning and thank you for a job well done.

Let me also welcome to Washington the TAPS family—the survivors who inspire me and the citizens of this great nation.

Everyone who’s here today is here because you loved someone who served this country—someone who gave everything for this country—and whose sacrifice is your sacrifice.

As I walked in this morning, I couldn’t help but notice that so many of you are wearing a photo button that contains a picture of those loved ones. It’s a beautiful tribute. Each one of them has a story worth honoring … worth remembering.

And those pictures—like the wall that features pictures of your loved ones—really bring to life the slogan on your t-shirts: “They lived; they died; and their stories do not end. We are their living legacies.”

That, right there, says it all.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet one of the first “living legacies” of TAPS—Garrett Schmidt—and his story has stuck with me ever since.

I remember Garrett because we had several things in common: We’re both from the greatest state in the Union—Minnesota; we’re both graduates of St. John; and we both work for VA because we love serving Veterans.

Now, those commonalties were enough to ensure that I would never forget Garrett, but his story is cemented in my mind.

Garrett’s father, Sergeant Michael J. Schmidt, died in a plane crash, along with Bonnie Carroll’s husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, and six other soldiers in 1992.

Sergeant Schmidt, I’m told, was a young, principled  leader with unlimited promise. But he wasn’t just a soldier.

He was a devoted husband to Deanna and loving father to young sons—Garrett and Preston—who were just toddlers when they lost their father.

At seven years old, Garrett asked for a program that could help grieving kids like him—because even then, he knew that losing a loved one in the military was a unique and traumatic experience, and he felt deep in his heart that there had to be other kids out there like him who were suffering … kids who were transitioning from "military dependents" to grieving kids ... kids who had lost a parent and needed help.

Garret wanted to connect with someone just like him. He wanted a friend just like him. And he wanted to help kids who were growing up as the "living legacy" of their father's service—just like him.

So, Garrett became the very first “TAPS Good Grief Camper” so that he could help other kids like him.

And he wanted to help himself.

And he did, and he has.

Today, Garrett is all grown up with a wife and two children of his own.

Garrett still lives in the greatest state in the union—Minnesota—and he works each and every day to make a difference in the lives of Veterans and survivors.

People like you.

And this Memorial Day weekend, 28 years after he became the first “Good Grief Camper,” Garrett is here attending the TAPS Good Grief Camp as a “Legacy Mentor”—an adult who gives back by being there for newly bereaved young children coming into TAPS.

He’ll teach them coping strategies, and he’ll give them tips on how to make good friends.

And he’ll listen carefully as they share their grief so that they, too, will find hope and healing—the same hope and healing he found 28 years ago through TAPS.

Garrett, it’s deeply humbling to share this space with you, and to serve Veterans alongside you.

And to all of you: that’s the type of incredible work I know you do each and every day.

So thank you, for everything. We are, all of us, forever in your debt.

At VA, our mission, like yours, is to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.

President Biden—a survivor himself—has said that our country’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and then to care for them and their families when they return home.

That’s the promise that our country makes to anyone who signs up to serve in the military, and it’s as simple as it is fundamental.

If you fight for us, we’ll fight for you.

If you serve us, we’ll serve you.

If you care for us, then we’ll care for you.

The thing is, our country as a whole makes that promise. But it’s our job—at VA, with the help of partners like you—to keep that promise.

And we’re fighting like hell to keep that promise in so many ways.

That promise requires delivering timely access to the benefits that Veterans—and families like you—have earned, including environmental exposure benefits, educational benefits, survivor benefits, home loans, lasting resting places that honor your loved ones’ service, and so much more. So let me update you on some of those promises, and our progress.

First, family members like you have earned educational benefits and financial support through your loved ones’ honorable service. These are benefits like Dependents Education Assistance, the GI-Bill, and Fry Scholarships which help family members like you by providing the tuition and housing support you need—and which we are proud to provide at VA.

And for our young survivors or for spouses who need to start a new career, President Biden recently signed into law a new bill that will allow beneficiaries enrolled in the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance program to be charged in-state tuition rates. This is a huge step forward, making sure that survivors will have access to affordable education at the college of their choosing.

Second, through the Office of Survivors Assistance, TAPS is in daily contact with Ann Duff—who is a true advocate for each and every one of you—for access to survivor benefits, life insurance, and health care services through VA’s Civilian Health and Medical Program, or CHAMP-VA.

Since the beginning of FY22 to date, Ann’s Office has answered over three thousand emails and phone calls assisting survivors with questions and challenges relating to their benefits—because that’s what we’re here for.

So please, email Ann and her team at: office of survivors@ va.gov. Again, email  officeofsurvivors@va.gov if you have any questions or concerns.

Third, caring for grieving survivors—including those who have lost a loved one by suicide—is also about prevention, intervention, and important postvention support that is too often overlooked. So, VA has drawn on the immense expertise and lived experiences of TAPS members to design our Postvention Toolkit for survivors.

Our Veterans Crisis Line responders have also partnered with TAPS’ National Military Survivor Helpline for crisis care, and with other internal and external call Centers—including the White House, Vet Center, and Vets4Warriors—to offer the best resolution possible for callers’ concerns.

And this shared work is beginning to pay off in lives saved from suicide.

And last but in no way least, we are proud to help you honor your loved ones—many of whom rest in one of our beautiful national cemeteries—with lasting tributes to their service. That’s a dignified memorial service, headstone, marker or medallion, burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate.

Because they served us, and in so many cases, gave their lives for us. Now it’s our job to serve and to honor them.

...

And look, those are just a few of the initiatives we’re working on together—we’d be here all day if I ran through everything.

But I promise you this: We will move heaven and earth to ensure that you and your families have seamless access to the wide range of services and benefits your loved ones earned, and you deserve.

And just know that we can’t do any of that great work without your help, and without TAPS leading the way.

So, on this Memorial Day and every day, we at VA solemnly remember that our mission is for you, for your loved ones, for the loved ones who are still missing in action, and for those brave men and women who gave everything, for us.

Words cannot dull the ache of missing a loved one or remove the burden or the weight of their absence. But what this weekend will do … what Memorial Day will do … is remind all of Americans that we are forever in your debt.

And that it’s our job, always, to serve you as well as you and your loved ones have served us.

Thank you for allowing me to share in this moment of remembrance with you.

May God bless the memories of the fallen and bless their loved ones—like you—who carry on their legacies. And may we always, always, give you the very best.