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

National Association of County Veteran Service Officers (NACVSO) Annual Training Conference
Washington, DC
June 7, 2022

Nichole [Coleman, Pres. NACVSO Ex. Board], thanks for that kind introduction, and thanks for inviting me to join you. More importantly, Nichole, thanks for your courageous service to the nation with the US Air Force and your continued service to your fellow Veterans and your community back home in Findlay, Ohio.

Let me begin by offering my condolences to all the folks in Texas, and my heart breaks for everyone impacted by the horrific tragedy in Uvalde. I know that many of you have been involved in the response to this tragedy, so I just want to say, Thank you. Thank you for being there for Veterans, and your communities, when they need it most. I know it means the world to so many people.

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Now, I’ll be brief in my remarks here, because really, I don’t want this to be about me talking to you. Instead, I want to hear from you, and learn from you, about how VA can improve, how we can continue to strengthen our partnership, how we can keep working together to serve Vets as well as they—and many of you—have served this country.

And it is a perfect time of year to be with you and have this talk. The spirit of Memorial Day is still fresh in our memories, inspiring us—those  powerful reflections on the enormous sacrifices so many Veterans have made for all of us since before this country was founded. Yesterday was the 78th anniversary of D-Day—another incredible reminder of the sacrifice and courage of those we serve.

And on top of that, it was about this time of year just over three decades ago that some visionary County Veteran Service Officers got together at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis to begin the hard work of establishing your Association. So much goodness comes from Minnesota. That beginning, that coming together at a VA hospital, is so important, and so emblematic of our partnership today. Here’s why.

President Biden often says, our nation’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. Because when someone signs up to serve our country in the military, like so many of you did, this nation makes a simple promise. If you take care of us, we’ll take care of you. If you fight for us, we’ll fight for you. If you serve us, we’ll serve you when you come home. And the thing is, our whole country makes that promise—but it’s on us, at VA and NACVSO, to keep that promise.

Because when it comes to delivering timely access to the world-class health care and benefits that our Vets have earned, you all aren’t just an extension of VA’s mission in that fight. You’re the very embodiment of it. And I heard a story the other day of a Veteran named Bob Vasko that reminded me of that fact.

Back in 1971, Bob was drafted into the Army for the Vietnam War. He did his basic and combat training at Fort Polk, and headed to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for MP and Dog Handler training. Then, the Army sent him to Camp Page, South Korea, just six miles south of the DMZ, where he worked with the ROK Army.

Well, Bob completed his tour of duty in Korea, came home, and was honorably discharged. Twenty-seven years later, he started developing multiple cancers. Now, like I said, Bob didn’t go to Vietnam—but, critically, his doctor did, and that got him wondering if Bob’s cancer could possibly be service related. So, Bob filed a claim—a claim that was initially denied. He was disappointed, but he was ready to leave it at that. Fortunately, one of Bob’s fellow Vets told him about a persistent, dogged, excellent CVSO in Fulton County, Ohio, named Crystal Bennet.

And Crystal got after it—latched onto it like a snapping turtle, which is to say, didn’t let go, even when it was hard. Still, time after time over the course of more than a decade, Bob’s claim was denied—a long timeline, in part, because it was filed under the old legacy system that you later helped us fix. Yet every step of the way, Crystal kept fighting for Bob—fighting, and fighting, and fighting.

Well, in February 2020, Bob’s appeal made it to the Board’s docket, and with Crystal by his side, Bob had his day with the Board judge. The Board poured over the abundance of research and documentation Crystal had painstakingly gathered over the years and remanded the claim back to the RO for examination. Just a few months ago, Bob’s claim was granted. He got the benefits he so rightly deserved.

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Now, there’s so much good in that story. It’s great that Bob’s doing well, and that his cancer’s been in remission, for a long while now. It’s great that Bob’s claim was granted. It’s great that Bob heard about Crystal from one of his customers and that, now, Bob encourages other Vets he meets to seek out Crystal for help. And it’s really great there are so many county Veteran Service Officers out there, like Crystal, who will fight tooth and nail to represent and advocate for Veterans so they get the benefits and services they’ve earned.

At the end of the day, that’s what keeping the promise I mentioned earlier is about. That’s what fighting like hell looks like. It looks like Crystal. It looks like all of you. Because Vets do the fighting for us overseas. They shouldn’t have to come back home and be burdened in another fight for the benefits and services this country has promised them, that they deserve. You fight those fights for them. You fight like hell for them, right alongside them. And for that, and your partnership, I am so grateful.

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Now, that brings me to what I want to focus on in my remarks today—the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022—which looks like it’s going to pass into law in the next few weeks. I want to focus on this bill today because its passage—and implementation—will be a monumental moment for Veterans, and a monumental moment for our partnership, too.

I know you’ve put everything you have behind supporting it, and on behalf of the Vets we serve, I’m grateful for that. We at VA support the bill, too, for many reasons. The first is that it helps VA accomplish a priority goal—that is, getting more Vets into VA care, because study after study shows, Vets in VA care do better. This legislation will significantly expand the number of Veterans who come to VA for their care, which is fantastic.

Second, and even more importantly, this bill will ensure that millions of Veterans get the toxic exposure benefits that they’ve earned and deserve, and, in some cases, have been waiting on for decades. Addressing toxic exposure is a top priority for the Administration, with President Biden becoming the first president to proactively address particulate exposure for Vets who fought our wars the past 30 years.

With his leadership, we’ve fundamentally redesigned the presumptive decision-making process. We have a new model that takes all available science and Vet claims data into account, with one goal in mind—getting Vets timely access to benefits they’ve earned. And with President Biden leading the way, we’ve added new presumptions of service connection for asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis, and nine rare respiratory cancers.

Looking ahead, the PACT Act is going to go even further in delivering toxic exposure benefits for Vets—adding more than 20 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to our list of service presumptions; expanding presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure, to include places like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll; strengthening our toxic exposure research; and really setting VA up for success by bolstering our infrastructure needs, giving us the tools we need to better recruit and retain our civil servants, and increasing funding for claims processing—additional authorities that will help implement and deliver this massive expansion of VA’s scope and mission.

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Now, just getting this bill to the brink of passage has been hard work for so many people, like you, who have been fighting and advocating for Vets. It’s also been a graduate level study in bipartisan legislation that’s united Congress in ways too rarely seen these days ... unified them with a sharp, singular focus on what’s good for Vets.

In short, it’s no exaggeration to say that this is a historic moment, and it’s an honor to be a part of it. It’s a historic moment for VA. It’s a historic moment for NACVSO. It’s a historic moment for the Vets we serve. And it’s a historic moment in the story of this country’s support of our Vets—the PACT Act would be one of the largest health and benefit expansions in VA’s history—comparable to the Agent Orange Act in scope and scale.

So, among so much else, this legislation is a huge vote of confidence in all of you—in your expertise, your devotion, your commitment, and in the strength and durability of our partnership—a partnership that’s never been more important than it is right now. Because when this bill passes, we’re going to be transparent with Veterans and VSOs. We’re really going to need your help communicating to Veterans about the process, about what this bill means—and doesn’t mean—for them and their families. We’re going to need you to help Veterans file claims for these new benefits, as we always do.  And we’re going to need your feedback about how Vets are feeling about PACT Act implementation—about what’s going well and what’s not—because nobody knows the Veterans in your areas better than you.

So, no, implementation, execution, it won’t be easy. But nothing of this magnitude and importance ever is. There wasn’t anything easy about breathing life into this great association so many years ago at that VA hospital in Minnesota. There’s nothing easy about keeping this organization growing, improving, thriving, and serving Vets in the ways folks like Crystal have. And there certainly isn’t anything easy about what Vets have done for us, and continue to do for us, every day.

But Vets stepped forward. They did the work. They did the hard thing, not the easy thing, and delivered. And now, with the PACT Act, it’s our job to do that for them. We’re going to do this incredibly important work, together. And in doing it and doing it well, we honor them—and deliver for them.

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One more point, and then I’ll kick it back to Nichole to open up for discussion. Vets trust VA to deliver on this. And they trust in you, to help deliver on this and make sure we get it right—hold us accountable to them, like Crystal did for Bob. And I’ll tell you what—I’ve been reminded today, as I am every day, that in your hands, Vets’ trust is well placed. I can think of no group of people in whom I have more confidence to help us succeed in this than all of you.

So, Nichole, everyone, thanks. I look forward to our conversation, and to working with you to deliver for Vets like Bob. Because they deserve our very best, and we’ll never settle for anything less.

With that, Nichole, you want to open it up?

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