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

Military Sexual Trauma Training Symposium
Washington, DC
June 21, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone.

Mike, thank you for that kind introduction and, Tom, thanks for offering me the opportunity to help kick-off this year’s very, very important symposium. And let me recognize Cheryl Rawls, Dave Pittenger, Deshaun Sewell, and the whole MST Symposium team who’ve worked so hard to bring us together this afternoon and for the next several days. It’s no small task, but this symposium is so critically important to the Veterans we serve.

A little later, you’ll hear from Angela, a Veteran who—along with two other Vets—will share her experiences with the MST claims process. But, let me tell you about who Angela is.

Angela grew up with her mom and dad, brother and sister, in a beautiful little town near the center of North Carolina—a factory town ... one of those textile communities the Tarheel State’s famous for. They’re the salt-of-the-earth kind of people who help make this country great. Angela’s grandfather, one of the Greatest Generation, fought in World War II. And her brother and sister both joined the Air Force after graduating high school back in 1981. As Angela would tell you, where she grew up, if you wanted to make something of yourself, you either went to college, or you went into the military.  

Well, Angela wanted to make something of herself. And she’s done just that. Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, and taking her brother’s and sister’s lead, Angela decided to serve, to build on her family’s tradition of uniformed service. With her excellent scores on her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the ASVAB, the Army was champing at the bit when Angela walked through the door of the recruiter’s office—offering her a slot as a Pershing Missile Crew Member. But Angela ... Angela wanted to be an Administrative Specialist, like her sister, and with that decided, she signed on the dotted line.

Just a few days after she took her oath of enlistment—swearing to support and defend our Constitution—Angela got a wonderful letter from North Carolina A&T State University, America’s largest historically black university in Greensboro. A&T offered Angela a full ride scholarship. She turned it down.

Why? Because that’s what her oath meant to her. It was, and in fact still is, something sacred, a solemn obligation, a promise. The Army had placed its trust in her, and she wasn’t going to break that trust. Then, one night in basic training, a drill sergeant broke that trust.

And even shouldering that enormous burden, for eight years Angela continued to serve this country—from Fort Carson to Fort Meyers to Fort Sheridan to Panama. Angela met her husband in the Army—a wonderful, kind, generous Veteran who has supported her, who guided her to VA services. And their daughter—the apple of their eye—is a Veteran, too! She excelled in the military, like her aunt and uncle, her mother and her father, and her great grandfather ... carrying on the family’s growing legacy of service to this great country.

What incredible devotion. She continued serving this country, all of us, with the same kind of dignity, quiet courage, and grace ... the same kind of honor and fortitude most can only aspire to. There is tremendous valor and courage in her utterly selfless service to this country, and in her personal fight. And it takes a hell of a lot of courage to come forward and let people know that you’ve been injured by sexual trauma, to talk about those invisible wounds that people can’t see.

And Angela, she never, ever broke that oath. That really tells you something about the kind of proud, strong, really heroic person Angela is. That is what Angela’s about. And we, this nation, we owe Veterans like her everything.

Now, I didn’t go into details of Angela’s trauma. I didn’t recite the details of that profound betrayal, because I want us to remember her whole story. I’m not going to recite statistics—important statistics—because we know them. And as important as it is for us to understand the numbers—to understand what the statistics and data tells us, and to use them to help us do better for Veterans—the heart of the matter isn’t about the numbers. What is most meaningful, what the heart of the matter is, is who Angela is—someone who swore an oath to give everything to this country, and stood by it, and honored it, no matter what.

And so, what we have to be about is helping Veterans like Angela recover, helping them tap back into their courage, their grace; helping them remember, revive, and restore their dignity, their honor. Because while the tragedy and their heroic struggles in the aftermath may accentuate or even depend on their incredible strength and valor—and, hopefully, bring them to us, bring them to VA—that betrayal, that’s not what defines them. What defines them is their humanity, their dignity, and  their grace—during the worst of circumstances. And there’s nothing more precious than our dignity as human beings.

The President often says, it’s our nation’s most sacred obligation 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. And when someone signs up to serve our country in the military, we make them a promise. If you fight for us, we’ll fight for you. If you serve us, we’ll serve you. If you take care of us, we will take care of you when you come home. Our country as a whole makes that promise. But it’s our job, here at VA, yours and mine, to keep that promise. They fought for us, and it’s our job at VA to fight like hell for them.

And your fight—some of you Veterans, some of you military sexual trauma survivors—well, your fight on behalf of the survivors of Military Sexual Trauma is one of the toughest fights of all. They put their fragile trust in you when, in too many cases, their trust has been battered and bruised, time after time over days, months, years, sometimes even decades.

They put their trust in you under some of the most difficult, perpetually painful, and utterly heart-wrenching circumstances—circumstances that are simply unimaginable for anyone who’s not been violated by Military Sexual Trauma, or for anyone who—like you—hasn’t gotten into the trenches with these Veterans time and again and engaged as intimately and personally and as passionately as you all do. They put their trust in your hands. And in your hands, as the performance of this team demonstrates, in your hands it’s well-placed. As one Veteran put it, “Thank you for continuing to fight for my life ... when the battle was too tough for me.”

Listen, I know your work’s not easy, your fight for Veterans isn’t easy—not just hearing Veterans’ stories of their wounding, but also researching, gathering information, collecting documentation. And then having to come to the right determination—some of the toughest calls that there are. I admire your talents and dedication as much as I admire your courage in choosing this job.  

Thanks to so many good people participating in this symposium—bringing their experiences, their varied perspectives, their expertise—you’re going to get the skills and training you need, and you’ll be better equipped for the fight.

So, this afternoon, here’s what I ask of you. Dedicate yourselves to recognizing the humanity of our Veterans. Commit yourselves to seeing and knowing the Veteran as a Veteran, and as a person. Remember and embrace their human dignity. Like Angela, they’re so much more than their wounding, the Military Sexual Trauma they suffered.

I’ll leave you with this. I’m so grateful for this country’s Veterans. I’m so grateful for all of you—for your own courage and strength and devotion to them, for your own humanity. But in this job, here’s the gratitude that really matters, and you hear it in this letter from another Veteran, Michelle:

I just wanted to thank you for all of your help this past year. With your help, I was able to prove ... I was a victim of MST. It's been a struggle since the MST in May of 2000, but I persevered, and did the best I could. I could have quit back then, but I didn't. I kept going and outlasted all of [them] ... I will retire with my head held high ... knowing that I served my country to the best of my ability.

Thank you all for working so hard to serve Veterans, as well as they have served us. May God bless them, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And may we always give them our very best.