Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Congressional Black Caucus: Veterans Brain Trust Event
September 30, 2022
Good morning everyone.
Before I begin, I want to touch on Hurricane Ian—still a very dangerous storm.
Our thoughts are with the people of Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and helping Veterans and their families in the storm’s path.
We are continuing to closely monitor the storm and its impact on Veterans and employees in its wake. We’re also working closely with our federal partners to support ongoing emergency planning efforts.
To all those Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors who are in the storm’s path—the most important thing to do right now is to continue listening to the guidance being put out by local officials so that you can stay informed and stay safe.
So, let me first recognize Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, Congressional Black Caucus Chair—Congresswoman Beatty, thank you for your leadership of the CBC.
Congressman Bishop, thank you for that kind introduction and for your unwavering support of America’s Veterans.
And thanks to you and Congresswoman Johnson for your excellent work as co-chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Brain Trust.
I also recently learned Congresswoman Johnson was the first registered nurse elected to the Texas State House and Senate—as well as the first female African American Chief Psychiatric Nurse—at our VA hospital in Dallas, Texas.
Congresswoman, as you know, all of us at VA hold our nurses in the highest regard! So, thank you for the care you’ve provided Veterans over your distinguished career, and best of luck on your upcoming, well-deserved retirement.
Let me also acknowledge Congresswoman Underwood, who introduced the RAISE Act, increasing salaries for VA Nurses and Physician’s Assistants, signed into law by President Biden earlier this year. Thank you, Congresswoman, for enabling us to better care for the good people who provide care for our nation’s Veterans.
Thanks as well to the distinguished panel members, including Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, VA’s own Chief of Staff, Tanya Bradsher, Joy Ilem, Disabled American Veterans (DAV’s) Legislative Director, and LaKesha Stringer, a Navy Veteran and leader in her local Veteran community.
And to all the members and guests of the CBC here today, thank you.
It’s an honor to be here with all of you.
At VA, our job—our mission—is to serve Veterans as well as they’ve served us and our country.
And when I think of that mission, I think of Vets like retired Army Major General Linda Lee Singh—a Black woman Veteran who overcame so much to serve our country.
General Singh grew up in Maryland with extended family, in a small four-room house, with no plumbing or indoor bathroom.
Her family was poor. Her clothes were hand-me-downs, and she never had much spending money.
And though she played varsity basketball and made the honor roll in high school, her teenage years were difficult.
A family member sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager—the second time someone she trusted had sexually assaulted her.
When she told her parents, they argued, and she left her parents’ home, dropped out of high school, and found work at a pretzel stand.
One day, Singh approached a U.S. Army National Guard recruiter where she worked.
“What possessed me to walk over and redirect my life, I’m not sure,” she said, but she joined the Army.
She stated, “The recruiter had to persuade my parents to sign the papers because I wasn’t yet 18 … It was the best thing they ever did for me. It turned my life around.”
Thus started her extraordinary 38-year career as an enlisted Soldier and an officer.
She earned her commission. She earned four college degrees, including a Ph.D in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
She served overseas in Kosovo and in Afghanistan.
She rose to managing director at the consulting firm Accenture.
And in 2015 she was appointed as the 29th Adjutant General of Maryland—the first African American and first woman to hold that position.
Now, I tell that story not just because Major General Singh is unique, though she is.
... and not just because she’s a hero, though she is...
No, I tell that story because—in so many ways—Major General Singh is an example of what Veterans, and Black Veterans in particular, have to overcome to serve our nation.
Major General Singh overcame the worst of circumstances to become the very best of America.
In doing so, she became a role model for all Americans—and a reminder of why it is our nation’s most sacred obligation to serve Veterans like her, every day.
At VA, that’s exactly what we’re doing—fighting like hell to serve Veterans as well as they’ve served us.
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 benefits, we are processing claims faster than ever before.
When it comes to honoring Vets with the lasting resting places they deserve, we’re providing almost 94% of Vets with access to burial sites within 75 miles of their homes.
When it comes to world-class healthcare, study after study shows that we’re delivering better health outcomes for Veterans than the private sector—which is why Veteran trust scores for outpatient VA care have averaged over 90% in the past year.
And when it comes to advocating for Veterans, President Biden’s leading the way, making Veterans a core part of his Unity Agenda –securing the biggest budget proposal for Vets in VA history and signing the historic PACT Act into law.
And let me just take a moment on the PACT Act.
There are well over 2 million Black Veterans in our country.
Over 300,000 Black Americans served in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Over 104,000 served in SW Asia during Operations Desert Storm / Desert Shield, and an estimated 304,000 have served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
So, we want to take care of all those Veterans and for those experiencing health issues to file PACT Act claims—and we’re going to need your help to make that happen.
If you have Veteran constituents who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, burn pits, and other toxins—from the Vietnam era to the latest generation of Vets—please, encourage them to apply for the PACT Act-related benefits and care they’ve earned.
Any Veteran, family member, or survivor can learn more about the PACT Act at by visiting VA.gov/PACT or calling 1-800-MY-VA-411—that’s VA.gov/PACT, and 1-800-MY-VA-411—1-800-698-2411.
We need your help communicating that information to Vets, like we never have before.
Because we want every one of those Vets—every one—to get the care and benefits they deserve.
Next, we’re fighting like hell to end Veteran homelessness—a phrase that shouldn’t exist in America.
And we’re making progress.
Last October, 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 we not only accomplished those goals—we exceeded them.
And, nationwide this year, we’re going to get 38,000 Veterans into homes.
As of the end of last month, we’ve permanently housed nearly 26,554 homeless Veterans this year—on track to meet or exceed our goal.
And we’re driving hard on prevention by increasing the housing supply, making existing housing more affordable, and getting Veterans the wrap-around services they need.
With the help of Congress, VSOs, and other Veteran stakeholders, we are going to do it.
Because no Veteran should be homeless in the country they fought to defend.
Next, we’re fighting to prevent Veteran suicide.
Two weeks ago, VA released our 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
And, once again, a couple of big things stand out to me from the report.
First, 6,146 Veterans died by suicide in 2020.
That’s devastating. It’s unacceptable.
But that report also reminded me of something else—that suicide prevention is possible. That there is hope.
Because suicides decreased in 2020, for the second year in a row. Fewer Vets died in 2020 than in any year since 2006, the biggest decreases we’ve seen since 2001.
Most importantly, 343 fewer Vets died in 2020 than did in 2019.
That’s 343 Vets who are alive today, getting a second chance at life.
And nothing—nothing—could matter more than that.
So, we’re looking to build on that momentum by providing first-of-their-kind grants to suicide prevention organizations on the ground, by rolling out 988, the new national suicide prevention lifeline, that connects Vets quickly and directly to the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988, then pressing 1, by continuing to offer tele-mental health sessions, and by ramping up our lethal means safety efforts to prevent warning signs from turning into tragedies.
So, from incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion into everything we do, to increasing access, to the PACT Act, to ending homelessness, to suicide prevention—that’s where we’re going.
That’s how we’re going to fight like hell for Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors—including Veterans like Major General Singh.
We want to serve Black Veterans, all Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors every bit as well as they served us.
With your help, we’re going to give them our very best. Because they deserve nothing less.
So, thank you for the invitation to be here today.
Thank you for all you do.
And thank you for your partnership in serving Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors as well as they’ve served us.