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 Drug Court Professionals 27th Annual Conference RISE22
Nashville, TN
July 26, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone! What an incredible showing for RISE22 ... record attendance, I’m told.

There are so many folks to recognize, and thank, this afternoon. I’ll begin with you, General Tate. Thank you for that kind introduction, for your more than three decades of courageous service in uniform, and for your unyielding advocacy for your fellow Vets in the years after.

Carson Fox, Karen Freeman-Wilson, and all the members of the Executive Committee and the Board, thank you for the invitation to join you today, and for sharing your expertise, leadership, and love with the Vets that NADCP serves.

Judge Russell, you’ve lifted up so many Veterans over the years, first in Buffalo and, now, across the country in over 620 Veteran Treatment Courts and other Veteran-focused courts. Thank you for your abiding devotion to America’s Vets.  

Scott [Tirocchi], thanks to you and the whole Justice for Vets team for all you do, including training court staff and volunteer Vet mentors ... a few of whom, I understand, are here today. 

Let me also acknowledge VA’s Veterans Justice Program Director and Veteran Treatment Court Hall of Famer Sean Clark and his team of 400-plus Veteran Justice Outreach Specialists, who fight for Vets every single day.

And most of all, my deepest thanks to all the Vets here: for your courageous service, and for continuing to serve your fellow Vets and Americans back here at home, on the front lines in your communities. It is a fight, and once again you’ve volunteered to be right in the thick of it. To all the Vets here today, please stand if you’re able and be recognized.

Thank you.

...

You know, President Biden often talks about our nation’s one truly sacred obligation.

That is, to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and then to care for them and their families when they get back home. The second part of that obligation—caring for Vets and their families when they return home—well, that second part is our shared mission, for all of us here, at VA, and in every one of those Vet Courts.

Because when someone signs up to serve our country in the military—like many of you did—we make 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, yours and mine, to keep it. Because Veterans fought for all of us. Now, it’s our job to fight like hell, for them.

And your fights with Veteran trauma, substance use, justice involvement, well, your fights for those you serve are some of the toughest of all. So, thank you for joining us in fighting them.

...

Now, in a few minutes, you’ll hear Jaymes Poling, one of our heroic Vets, tell the story of his own fight, his own trauma, and his inspiring recovery. It’s going to lift you up and blow you away. But before we get to his story, I want to tell you a couple stories about the miracle of this work that we do together—the stories of Evelyn and Barry.

Evelyn, an army Vet, was born and raised in Colona, Illinois. When she was just four years old, she lost her dad, a Vietnam-era Navy Vet now resting in the hallowed grounds of the Rock Island National Cemetery. And even at her young age, Evelyn’s dad and his service inspired her.

So a few years after high school, Evelyn enlisted in the Army, honoring her dad while looking to find her own path by swearing an oath to give everything to this country. And Evelyn stood by it, honored that oath. She put her trust in the Army. And, tragically, the Army broke that trust. Twice she was painfully and deeply wounded, by military sexual trauma. Still, she persevered. She did her duty. She continued to serve honorably.

After leaving service, Evelyn started building her own life, went to college on her GI Bill, became a teacher, and for the next seven years, inspired those kids she taught. But as she’ll tell you, that wounding, that trauma she suffered while serving, it was sabotaging her, and eventually, it pulled her life apart.

And a lot of good people started fighting like hell for Evelyn.

...

Now, Barry. Barry’s a Vet who grew up a long way from Illinois, down in Gainesville, Florida. Barry comes from a family of Vets, too. His grandfather and a brother are Army Vets, another brother a Marine Vet, and his cousin’s a Navy Veteran. When it was his time, Barry built on that tradition, swore that same oath, and enlisted in the Army, a Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic with duty at Fort Carson, Colorado, with the Military Police. But after Barry completed his service, he found himself involved with the justice system.

And then, lot of good people started fighting like hell, for Barry. And, as it turned out, Evelyn was prominent among them. You see, Evelyn’s trauma didn’t defeat her—thanks to her strong sense of duty, a range of services and support from VA, and her own indomitable spirit. Even as she continues to deal with the wounds from trauma, Evelyn found her next mission in life—serving her fellow Vets as a volunteer peer mentor. And that’s what brought their paths together.

Evelyn was there to motivate and inspire Barry, to help him remember what’s possible, what he’s capable of achieving, even as she was remembering that and growing stronger, herself. Well, today, Barry’s a Veteran Court graduate. He has a good job that he enjoys overseeing ship ops at a Florida shipyard. He has a stable life for his kids, and they’re doing well. And Evelyn’s continuing to march on her life’s path, putting her arms around other fellow Vets who need her special, unique kind of spirit to lift them up.

That’s the power of this work. It brings people together. It heals them. And it helps them. It gives them that second chance that they need, and deserve.

...

Now listen, we know it’s usually more than one thing that knocks Vets and their families down—it’s usually a series of circumstances and incidents. Perhaps it’s financial challenges like unemployment or debt coupled with a broken home, the loss of a loved one, or substance use. Perhaps it’s chronic pain from an injury, Traumatic Brain Injury, or post-traumatic stress. Or it might be a complex array of interconnected factors accumulating as a destructive force.

And when I heard Barry and Evelyn’s story, it occurred to me that—likewise—it’s usually an equally complex array of things that puts them on the pathway to recovery, that helps them remember and recover and build meaningful, more fulfilling lives as contributing members of their communities.

Sure, Evelyn was right there with Barry to guide him, support him, to give him the kind of Vet-to-Vet encouragement that’s so effective, and a kick in the butt when he needed it. But surrounding Barry and Evelyn were teams of people bringing to bear the services and support they needed.

Down in Florida’s 19th Circuit, it was Marine Corps Vet and Judge Robert Belanger and the good people on his Vet Court team, like Jodi Cheslock, Barry’s public defender who took the time to find out that Barry’s a Vet and point him to the Vet Court; Yleana Ramirez, the Court Program Specialist who introduced Barry to the court and encouraged him to participate. From VA, it was Veteran Justice Outreach Specialist Tanya Mazzei and Mason Youell’s whole team of folks at VA’s West Palm Beach Homeless Program Office, who tailor VA wrap-around services and support for Vets and their families. And there were many others from that local community, like Veteran Service Organizations who are so devoted to our Vets.

So, while the path down to crisis may be lined with an array of complex factors, the road back up is about an array of other factors, like the resiliency of the human spirit and a combination of the right services and support.

And listen—we all sometimes find ourselves in places where we need help. It bears repeating, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” There, but for the grace of God, go I.

That's what it means to be human. We fail. We fall. There should be no shame in either. None. And there's certainly no shame in getting some help through those tough times. But as Judge Russell has explained so well, “Many of our Veterans have a warrior mentality ... they believe it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help. They think they’re fine when we know they’re not. We have to help them understand,” he said, “that it’s a sign of strength to ask for help, and we are there to serve them.”

That's what we can do, together. Help people up in the times when they need it. And at VA, it’s our mission to get Vets that support. And we need your help.

...

So, today, I have three quick asks for you.

First, you should know that at VA, we have programs prioritizing recovery at every point along the road home, programs that promote healing and strength. And you should know that at VA, when it comes to addressing trauma and the myriad symptoms and challenges rooted in trauma, our National Center for PTSD is there—for all of you and those you’re supporting, Veteran or otherwise.

Take a look at PTSD.VA.Gov. You’ll find an abundance of evidence-based information about PTSD. You’ll have access to a bunch of award-winning mobile apps like PTSD Coach. And you’ll find many, many other PTSD resources for Vets, for families, for professionals, and the general public. So, please, visit PTSD.VA.Gov, and point others there, too.

Second, anytime a Vet-in-need crosses your path—whether that’s in treatment court, heading to treatment court, or walking down the street—please know that you all have the largest integrated health care system in the country ready to help you help that Veteran.

You can reach out to your local VA facility, and we’ll help. You can reach out to your local Veterans Service Organization, they’ll help link us up. You can visit VA.Gov. Or you can just call us, 24/7, at 800-MyVA411. That’s 800-698-2411.  The first prompt you hear points you to the Veterans Crisis Line. The next prompt points you to the Veteran Homeless Help Line. Simply put, there is no wrong door to get Vets to VA. And we want you to direct them to us whenever you can.

And third, if you need to find out if one of your justice-involved clients is a Veteran ... or not ... please take advantage of the Veterans Re-Entry Search Service, or VRSS. It’s an easy-to-use tool that supports partnerships between your criminal justice organizations and VA. And it will alert VA staff to Vets in your populations, so our team can get Vets the help they need to ensure a successful re-entry.

So, bottom line, help Vets find VA. You’ll be helping serve them, and helping us accomplish a priority goal. That is, getting more Vets into VA care—because, as study after study shows, Vets in VA care do better.

...

So, that’s all I would ask of you. But before I go, I also want to thank you—because let’s not forget, RISE22 is a celebration, and rightly so. More than 7,000 of you have come together for a single, admirable, and critical purpose: to save lives by instilling hope and providing the life-saving treatment the people you serve need.

What greater gift can anybody give? People, often Veterans, put their trust in you. They put their trust in you when, in many cases, their trust has been battered and bruised, time after time, over days, months, years, sometimes even decades. They put their trust in your hands.

And let me tell you what. In your hands, their trust is well-placed. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all for what you do. Thank you for your partnership. And most of all, thank you for joining VA in serving Vets like Barry and Evelyn as well as they have served us. Let’s keep it up.

May God bless our Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.