Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
123rd VFW National Convention
July 19, 2022
Thank you, Fritz [Mihelcic], for that kind introduction, for your decorated service to our country, and for your steadfast leadership as National Commander-in-Chief of the VFW.
It’s an honor to be here with you, and with so many other great Veterans and staunch advocates for Veterans.
- Tim Borland, your incoming Commander-in-Chief;
- Kevin Jones, who’s retiring this year after decades of service to Vets and the VFW;
- Ryan Gallucci, your fantastic National Service Director;
- All of the Veteran Service Officers here today, who serve Vets on the ground every day;
And most of all, to the Veterans, their family members, caregivers, and survivors here today it’s great to be with you for the 123rd annual convention of VFW.
I’d like to begin today with a story—the story of Roxanne Payne.
From the time she was a teenager, Roxanne knew that she wanted to serve our country so she decided to join the Air Force, and wound up serving four years on active duty.
She’s a hero ... an example of the very best America has to offer ... someone who dreamt about serving our country, then went out and did it.
But the cost of Roxanne’s selfless service was steep, and stayed with her long after she left the military.
She suffered from post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma. And then, like so many others during the pandemic, she fell on some difficult times.
Roxanne went through a divorce, and then—all of a sudden—contracted COVID-19 which kept her from doing her job, and made it difficult for her to support her children.
Long story short, Roxanne found herself unable to pay her electricity bill unable to make ends meet in the country she had served so well.
Then, she reached out to her local VA, and we told her about VFW’s Unmet Needs Program.
So, she filed an application, and in no time at all, you got her the aid she needed—and helped pay her bills.
You helped her—we helped her—in the time when she needed it most.
In her own words, she says, “[you] kept our lights on. I can’t imagine what would have happened if they were turned off.”
“The support really meant the world to me and my family.”
“Thank you—from the bottom of our hearts.” That, right there, is the impact of the VFW.
And that’s what our partnership—between VA and VFW—is all about: working together to deliver for Veterans like Roxanne.
You know, when President Biden spoke to you last year, he talked about our nation’s one truly sacred obligation: to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home.
The second part of that obligation—caring for Veterans and their families when they return home—that’s our shared mission at VA and VFW.
It’s our job—our responsibility—to serve Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors as well as they’ve served us as well as they’ve served our country.
And for 123 years at the VFW, you’ve done exactly that—by delivering for Vets-in-need via programs like Unmet Needs, and by helping Veterans get every benefit, and every dollar, that they’ve earned and so rightly deserve.
So, thank you—from the bottom of my heart—for your partnership.
And more than that, thank you for all you do for Veterans like Roxanne.
Because they, their families, caregivers, and survivors deserve our very best and together, we’ll never—ever—settle for anything less.
Now, I want to talk today about what we’ve done over the past year—and what we’re going to do over the next year—to deliver for Veterans.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it hasn’t been an easy year—for anyone.
Between COVID continuing to be a very real threat, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the return of war to Europe after all we’ve done to secure peace in that region, and everything else, this has been a time when—for one reason or another—many Vets have needed our help at VA, and your help at VFW.
But that just means that our shared mission has never been more important than it is right now.
And I’m proud to say that despite everything, together, we’re stepping up for Vets in this time when they need us most—just like Vets have stepped up for our country when we needed them most.
Since President Biden took office, we’ve delivered more care and more benefits to more Veterans than any time in our nation’s history.
When it comes to delivering the benefits that Vets have earned and deserve, we are processing Veteran claims faster than ever before we’ve already completed more Board hearings this year than any year in Board history and we’ve worked together to get the claims backlog down to the lowest total in years.
When it comes to honoring Vets with the lasting resting places they deserve, we are now providing almost 94% of Vets with access to burial sites within 75 miles of their homes and we’ve expanded our Veterans Legacy Memorial program—which keeps Veterans’ stories alive long after they’re gone—to approximately 4.5 million Veterans.
When it comes to providing world-class healthcare to Veterans and their families, study after study shows that we’re delivering better health outcomes for Veterans than the private sector which is why 90% of Veterans now trust us to deliver their care.
And when it comes to advocating for Veterans, with your support, President Biden is leading the way by making Veterans a core part of his Unity Agenda—including securing the biggest budget proposal for Vets in VA history delivering the first toxic exposure presumptives for Vets who have fought our wars for the past 30 years and bringing the historic PACT Act—the biggest expansion of Veteran benefits ever—to the brink of passage.
And look, all of that work—every bit of it—adds up to the one statistic that will always matter most: Veterans lives saved, or improved, by the work we do together.
We’ve made these strides for Vets by asking ourselves three core questions every day we come to work, every time we make a decision, every time we set a goal.
First, “are we putting the Veteran at the center of everything we do?”
That means making VA easy for Veterans to use, via projects like the new VA mobile app, which gives Vets access to their benefits right on their phones.
It means working to turn every Veteran entryway to VA—whether it’s the Transition Assistance Program or the GI Bill or health care—into a front door to all VA services, so Vets can access all we have to offer.
And it means making sure that we’re delivering for Vets on time, every time, via projects like claims automation—which is cutting claims processing time for certain conditions down from several months to several days.
The second question we ask ourselves is “are we improving outcomes for Veterans with everything we do?”
That means timely access to world-class health care, earned benefits, and the lasting resting places Vets deserve.
No matter what.
Because Vets, not us, are the ultimate judges of our success.
And the third question we ask ourselves goes back to something that President Biden charged VA to do on the day I was sworn in: “fight like hell for Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.”
“Fight like hell.”
So, not a day goes by when we don’t use that charge, that question, to guide us: “are we fighting like hell for those who fought for us?”
That’s our North Star.
That’s our job.
That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are right now. And that’s how we’ll get where we’re going—for Veterans, their family members, caregivers, and survivors.
Let me give you a few examples.
First, we’re fighting like hell to maximize access to world-class care for Veterans across America.
This is always top of mind for us, but it’s particularly so as the pandemic continues to put Vets and their families at risk.
That’s why we encourage all of you to go get vaccinated, or get your booster shots, at VA vaccination clinics like the one right here at this convention.
And that’s why we will stop at nothing to make sure Veterans have the best possible experience wherever they access VA care at home, in the community, or at VA.
For those getting their care at home, we’re meeting Vets where they are by doubling down on tele-health and tele-appeals. We’re also supporting our caregivers—who are critical to helping Veterans age at home—by expanding the program of comprehensive assistance this October to cover all generations of Veterans and by changing our policies to allow even more Veterans and their caregivers into the program, so they can get the support they need.
For Vets who are getting care in the community, we’re working to make their experiences as timely and seamless as possible—so they get the care they need, wherever they live.
And for those getting their care directly from VA, we’re going to modernize our facilities—because Vets in the 21st century should not be forced to receive care in 20th century buildings.
Instead, we need to build a health care footprint with the right facilities, in the right places, to provide the right care for Veterans in every part of the country—and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
And look, the bottom line with access is the same as ever: Vets in VA care do better.
Our VA clinicians know Veterans—in many cases, they are Veterans—and there is nobody better at caring for Veterans than them.
Just look at the statistics.
Vets who come to VA emergency rooms via ambulance are 20% more likely to survive in the following 30 days than those who were transported to private hospitals.
So, please, whenever a Veteran comes to you asking where they should get their care, send them to us.
Because I promise you: we’re going to get them the world-class care they’ve earned.
Next, we’re fighting like hell to end Veteran homelessness... a phrase that simply shouldn’t exist in America.
Our focus here is on two simple goals: getting Veterans into homes, and preventing them from falling into homelessness in the first place.
And we’re making real progress.
Last October, for example, we set two ambitious goals to address Veteran homelessness in LA—where there are more homeless Vets than anywhere else in America:
- The first goal was to get all of the roughly 40 homeless Veterans living on Veterans Row—a homeless encampment out in LA—into housing.
- The second was to get 500 Veterans in LA into housing by the end of the year… making sure they were home for the holidays.
I’m proud to say that with your help, we not only accomplished those goals—we exceeded them.
And that was just the beginning.
Nationwide this year, we’re going to get 38,000 Veterans into homes.
We’re not going to try to do it, or take our best shot at doing it with your help, we are going to do it.
In fact, halfway through the year, we’ve permanently housed more than 19,000 homeless Veterans—putting us right on track to meet our goal.
And look, as we continue to get this done, we’ll be driving hard on prevention, too—by increasing the housing supply, by making existing housing more affordable, and by getting every Veteran the wraparound services they need.
Because no Veteran should be homeless in the country they fought to defend.
And we will deliver for them, together.
Third, we’re fighting like hell to prevent Veteran suicide.
You may have seen VA’s recent report on Veteran suicides in 2019—the most current year for which we have data.
A couple big things stand out to me from that report:
First, more than six thousand Veterans died by suicide that year.
That’s devastating, it’s unacceptable, and it’s why this work is so critical.
But that report also reminded me of something else—which is that suicide prevention is possible, that there is hope.
Because there were 399 fewer Veteran suicides in 2019 than in 2018—the biggest decrease in 20 years.
That’s 399 Vets who are alive today, getting a second chance at life.
Largely because of your work, our work, and the VFW community.
Nothing—nothing—could matter more than that.
So, we’re looking to build on that momentum—together—by providing first-of-their-kind grants to suicide prevention organizations on the ground. by rolling out 988, the new national suicide prevention lifeline, which connects Vets quickly and directly to the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988, then pressing 1 by continuing to offer tele-mental health sessions to Vets who want them, making sure that they get their mental health care exactly when they need it—and not a second later.
by ramping up our lethal means safety efforts to prevent warning signs from turning into tragedies.
And much, much more.
Suicide prevention is our top clinical priority, bar none—and together, we’re going to keep saving Vets lives...
and help them not only survive, but thrive.
Fourth, we’re continuing to fight like hell to make sure that all Veterans feel welcome and safe at VA.
Not some Veterans.
That means getting women Vets, our fastest growing cohort of Vets, the care they’ve earned and deserve.
It means making sure that LGBTQ+ Vets feel supported—and well served—by every part of VA.
It means investigating, identifying, and eliminating any racial disparities that exist at VA, and setting up processes to prevent them from ever returning.
It means helping non-citizen Vets stay in the United States, where they belong, and making sure that eligible deported Veterans have access to VA benefits.
And it means delivering care and benefits to those with Other-Than-Honorable discharges, too.
Because we at VA don’t serve some Vets. We serve all Vets.
And for too long, too many Veterans who fought around the world to protect our rights and freedoms have had to fight brutal battles here at home for their own rights and freedoms.
But at VA, those fights are over.
In this administration, nobody is going to have to fight to get the quality care and benefits they’ve earned—no matter who they are, where they’re from, or who they love.
And one more thing on this: to any Veteran, or Veteran spouse, who wants to come work with us to help us deliver for all Vets: our doors, and applications, are always open at VA-dot-GOV-slash-jobs.
There’s no better mission in the world—and we want you to come help us do it.
And last, but in no way least, we’re fighting like hell to pass the PACT Act—a new bill that, if passed, will keep our nation’s promise to Vets who suffer from conditions related to environmental exposures.
For anyone who doesn’t know, while Veterans were off fighting for us for our freedoms many of them were breathing in toxic fumes and particulate matter from burn pits and other sources.
And, months or years later, they developed conditions that followed them home from war that impacted their lives—in some cases, took their lives—long after the final bullets of war were fired.
It’s our job to provide those Vets and their survivors with benefits and care for those conditions.
And if passed, this bill—the PACT Act—will finally do that.
This is a monumental moment for Veterans, and a monumental moment for our partnership, too.
And I know you’ve put everything you have behind supporting this bill, making it your number one legislative priority. So—on behalf of the Vets we serve—thank you.
We at VA are thrilled about the bill, too, for many reasons.
The first is that it will bring hundreds of thousands of new Vets into VA care ... and increase the health care benefits of many more ... which is fantastic, and will result in better health outcomes across the board.
Second, thanks to your advocacy, the bill will invest in VA’s infrastructure and workforce to help us deliver that additional care.
And third, and most importantly, this bill will ensure that generations of Veterans—and their survivors—will get the toxic exposure benefits that they’ve earned and, in some cases, have been waiting on for decades.
Addressing toxic exposure is—and has been—a top priority for this administration, with President Biden adding new presumptions of service connection for asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis, and nine rare respiratory cancers already.
Looking ahead, the PACT Act is going to go even further in delivering toxic exposure benefits for Vets ...
guaranteeing benefits for more than 20 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions;
strengthening our toxic exposure research;
and solidifying our new process for establishing presumptives, which puts one goal above all else: getting Vets timely access to the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.
In short, it’s no exaggeration to say that the passage of this bill will be a historic moment for Veterans, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.
And, 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 is absolutely critical right now.
Because when this bill passes, we’re going to need your help.
We’re going to need your help communicating to Veterans about the rollout of this bill, and about what it means for them and their families.
We’re going to need your feedback about how Vets are feeling about PACT Act implementation—because nobody knows the Veterans in your communities better than you.
We’re going to need your support and guidance as we work through the PACT Act claims caseload, which could number in the millions.
And most of all, we’re going to need your help getting Veterans to apply for their PACT Act benefits.
Because we want every Veteran—every single Veteran—to apply for the benefits they’ve earned.
So, no, implementation and execution of this bill... it won’t be easy.
But nothing of this magnitude and importance ever is.
In fact, nothing Veterans have ever done for this country has been easy.
But Vets have stepped up for us, and now, it’s our turn to step up for them.
So, we’re going to do this incredibly important work, together.
And in doing it and doing it well, we will honor our nation’s Vets—and deliver for them.
So—from access to ending homelessness to the PACT Act—that’s where we’re going that’s how we’re going to fight like hell for Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
And make no mistake: We can’t do any of this without you.
To me, our shared mission all comes back to the promise that our country makes whenever someone signs up to serve in the military.
It’s a promise that’s as simple as it is fundamental.
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.
The thing is, our country as a whole makes that promise. But it’s us—at VA and VFW—who are most responsible for keeping that promise.
For 123 years, you’ve been doing exactly that by making VA what it is today, and delivering Vets billions in earned benefits by serving generations of Veterans as well as they’ve served us and by keeping the lights on for Veterans like Roxanne Payne, even in the moments that feel the darkest.
especially in the moments that feel the darkest.
So, thank you—all of you—for always putting up with me.
Thank you for your partnership.
And most of all, thank you for joining us in fighting like hell for Veterans every single day.
Let’s keep it up.
May God Bless our nation’s Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.