Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Secretary Denis McDonough Remarks, National Press Club
November 7, 2022
Jen, thanks for that kind introduction, and for leading this truly great, and important, organization.
Let me recognize the Press Club’s American Legion Post and its commander, Tom Young, and all the Veterans Service Organizations represented here ... you are critical to helping us serve Vets, their family members, caregivers, and survivors.
In just a little bit, as the sun starts setting over the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, they’ll begin the solemn tradition of reading 58,281 names etched in those slabs of polished black granite ... among them, approximately 1,500 still Missing in Action.
So, in this 40th anniversary year of the Memorial Wall, I’m honored to welcome home Vietnam Veteran Corporal Jan Scruggs, and all the Vietnam Vets.
Corporal Scruggs, Welcome home.
And on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you.
Thank you for your courageous service, for opening hearts to Vietnam Vets’ heroic service, and for so well-honoring your brothers- and sisters-in-arms who died for this country, and for each other.
Corporal Scruggs, and all Vets here today, would you stand, if you’re able, and be recognized?
Words can never express the depth of our gratitude to you ... our Vets ... your courage, selflessness, service, and the sacrifices made by you and your families.
But, there is virtue in trying, in reminding everyone how these courageous men and women put their lives on the line, for all of us ... how much they gave, often their last full measure of devotion ... ... how much each is willing to give so the highest of ideals of our nation might endure for all Americans.
Veterans’ valor is a constant reminder of true loyalty, true courage, true patriotism.
Finally, to all you courageous journalists here today: many of you have gone to battle fields, to cities under siege, and risked great danger to tell servicemembers’ and Veterans’ stories. And in so doing, you help us serve Veterans better than we ever could alone. Thank you for holding all of us accountable, to all of the Vets.
It’s a privilege to be here as we prepare for Veterans Day. As we all know, Veterans Day is a day to honor Vets, to remember what they’ve done for our nation, and to recognize that when those Vets serve and sacrifice, so do their families, caregivers, and survivors.
But Veterans Day is something more. It’s a call to action for all Americans to fulfill our sacred duty, as Americans, and serve Veterans as well as they’ve served us. Not just today, but every day. So, I want to talk about what we’ve done at VA over the past year to serve Vets, and what we will do this next year to deliver, for them.
With the President’s leadership, Congress’s support, the work of VSOs, and many others, we’re stepping up for Vets.
Since President Biden took office, we’ve delivered more care and more benefits to more Veterans than any other time in our nation’s history.
When it comes to benefits Vets have earned and deserve, we’re processing their claims faster than ever before.
In fact, VA processed 1.7 million Veteran claims in Fiscal Year 22—shattering the previous year’s record by 12%. And we’ve gotten the claims backlog down to the lowest in years—down to nearly 144,000 claims as of this month.
When it comes to honoring Vets with lasting resting places they deserve, we’re now providing almost 94% of Vets with access to burial sites within 75 miles of their homes. That’s possible by building and maintaining our 155 VA national cemeteries, and by funding construction, maintenance, and expansion of 121 state, territorial, and tribal Veteran cemeteries. And we’ve expanded our online Veterans Legacy Memorial program to about 4.5 million Veterans—keeping Veterans’ stories alive long after they’re gone.
When it comes to providing world-class healthcare to Veterans, study after study shows—we’re delivering better health outcomes for Veterans than the private sector, which is why 90% of Vets who come to VA now trust us to deliver their care.
And when it comes to advocating for Veterans, President Biden’s leading the way. He’s challenged all of us to make Vets a core part of a Unity Agenda that rises above politics. And he’s hell-bent on fighting for Vets with same kind of indomitable will and sheer determination they bring to the battlefields we send them to. When it comes to our Veterans and their families, he’s unyielding.
All of that work adds up to the one statistic that will always matter most—Veterans lives saved, or improved. There’s nothing more important than that.
Now, we’ve made this progress by challenging ourselves with three questions every day.
First, “Are we putting Veterans at the center of everything we do?” That means making sure we meet Vets where they are, so they can access all we have to offer. It means making VA easy for Vets to use, with tools like new VA mobile apps that give Vets access to their benefits, right on their phones. It means making sure we’re delivering for Vets on time, every time, through initiatives like claims automation—cutting claims processing time for certain conditions from several months, to several days.
And as we approach the one year anniversary the untimely death of Major Ian Fishback, let me underscore the vital importance of this question—putting Vets at the center of all we do. Every door to VA has to be a front door, with multiple touch points to all our services. And that means wherever a Veteran is treated—at the local, state, or federal level—that care has to be integrated, coordinated, especially when it comes to mental health care. Vets and their families should expect that, demand it. And going forward, with the new tools we have in place in VISN 10, they will have that.
The second question, “Are we improving outcomes for Veterans with everything we do?” That means timely access to world-class healthcare, earned benefits, and the lasting resting places Vets deserve. No matter what. Because Veterans, not us, are the ultimate judges of our success.
And the third goes back to something President Biden charged VA with the day I was sworn in—“Fight like hell for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.” That’s our North Star—are we fighting like hell for those who fought for us? That’s what we seek to do, every day.
Let me give you a few examples.
First, we’re fighting like hell to maximize access to world-class care for Vets across America.
We’ll 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 Vets getting care at home, we’re meeting them where they are, doubling down on tele-appeals, tele-health, and tele-oncology.
VA clinicians have seen more than 9,000 Vets through tele-oncology, and we are expanding this life saving tool to include clinical trials, increasing rural Veterans' opportunities previously unavailable to them because of their remote locations.
We’re also supporting our caregivers by expanding the program of comprehensive assistance in October to cover all generations of Veterans, and by changing our policies so even more Vets get that support they need.
For Vets getting care in their 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 care directly from VA, we’re going to modernize our facilities—because Vets in the 21st century shouldn’t be forced to get care in 20th century buildings.
We need a VA health care system with the right facilities, in the right places, to provide the right care for Veterans in every part of the country.
The bottom line with access is the same as ever. Vets who get their care at VA do better. Our VA clinicians know Veterans—in many cases our clinicians are Veterans—and there’s nobody better at caring for Vets than them.
That’s one reason why Vets who come to VA emergency rooms by ambulance are 20% more likely to survive in the following 30 days than those who were transported to private hospitals.
So, if anybody’s asking where Vets should get their care, send the Veterans to us. 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 shouldn’t exist in America. Our focus 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.
A year ago, from this podium, I told you about two ambitious goals for 2021 to address Veteran homelessness in LA—where there are more homeless Vets than anywhere else in America.
The first goal was getting all of the roughly 40 homeless Veterans living on Veterans Row ... a homeless encampment out in LA ... into housing. The second goal was getting 500 Veterans in LA into housing by the end of the year. We not only accomplished those goals, we exceeded them—and used them to demonstrate that if we can tackle this problem in LA, we can tackle it anywhere.
So, we set another ambitious goal earlier this year, for 2022—place 38,000 homeless Vets into permanent housing by the end of this year. At the end of September, we’d already housed nearly 31,000 Vets—over 81% of our goal—putting us on track to house even more Veterans than we anticipated.
And we’re not letting up. We’re driving hard on homelessness prevention by increasing the housing supply, making existing housing more affordable, and getting every Veteran wraparound services they need.
And last Thursday, we released the 2022 PIT Count results. It shows that the number of Vets experiencing homelessness on a single night last January was 33,136—a decrease of 11% over January 2020, which was the last year a full PIT Count was conducted. That’s the biggest improvement in more than five years.
So, we’re not just taking our best shot at fighting Veteran homelessness. With the help of partners like HUD, USICH, VSOs, local communities, and front-line staff in VA’s Homeless Programs Office we are going to end Veteran homeless. Because no Veteran should be homeless in this country they fought to defend. Not now, not ever.
Third, we’re fighting like hell to prevent Veteran suicide.
You saw VA’s recent report on Veteran suicides in 2020—the most current data we have. A couple big things stand out from that report. First, more than 6,000 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 reminds us that suicide prevention is possible. There is hope.
There were 343 fewer Veteran suicides in 2020 than in 2019, the second year we’ve seen a decrease. That’s 343 Vets who are alive today, getting a second chance at life. Nothing matters more than that.
So, we’re building on that momentum. We’re providing first-of-their-kind grants to suicide prevention organizations on the ground. We’re ramping up our lethal means safety efforts to prevent warning signs from turning into tragedies. We’re continuing to offer tele-mental health sessions to Vets who want them. We’re making sure they get their mental health care exactly when they need it—and not a second later. And we rolled out 9-8-8, the new national suicide prevention lifeline that’s connecting Vets quickly and directly to the Veterans Crisis Line by just dialing 9-8-8, then pressing 1.
Because preventing Veteran suicide is our top clinical priority, and we will stop at nothing—nothing—to help Vets not only survive, but thrive.
Fourth, we’re continuing to fight like hell to make sure all Veterans feel welcome and safe at VA. Not some Veterans. All Veterans.
We’re doing that by helping non-citizen Veterans stay in the United States, where they belong, and making sure that eligible, deported Vets have access to VA benefits. We’re delivering care and benefits to those with Other-Than-Honorable discharges. We’re eliminating any racial disparities that exist at VA, and setting up processes to prevent them in the future. We’re making sure LGBTQ+ Vets are supported—and well-served—across VA.
Last month, for example, we closed a gap in benefits for surviving spouses of LGBTQ+ Veterans—righting a wrong that’s a legacy of the discriminatory federal ban on same-sex marriages.
And we’re getting women Vets—our fastest growing cohort of Vets—the care they’ve earned, and deserve. A few weeks ago, I visited the Military Women’s Memorial, for their 25th Anniversary. Etched in the glass panes in the ceiling are powerful words of courageous women Vets, words the sun illuminates when the light hits that glass just right.
Well, none of those words are more illuminating than those of World War II Veteran Lieutenant Anne Brehm ... words that always bear repeating.
“Let the generations know,” she said, “that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom ... that our resolve was as great as the brave men who stood among us.”
My late colleague and friend, and a great friend of America’s Veterans Secretary Ash Carter was committed to that principle. It was Secretary Carter who opened all military roles to women. He’d be proud that women Vets have been our fastest growing cohort, and we’re proud to serve them.
But we haven’t always done as well by women Vets as we should have. So, we’re fighting like hell to serve them as well as they’ve served us. We’ve done that by taking important steps to make our health care facilities and programs safe, respectful, and welcoming to women Vets; by providing Women Vet Coordinators in every regional office to help them access benefits and provide assistance specific to them; by having VBA dedicate one specially trained team to review all military sexual trauma claims, so we do not re-traumatize survivors who come forward to seek the benefits they’ve earned; and by listening to VA health care providers and Vets from across the country, who sounded the alarm that abortion restrictions were creating a medical emergency for pregnant Vets.
That’s why we made the patient safety decision to offer abortion counseling, and—in certain cases—abortions to pregnant Veterans and eligible VA beneficiaries. Because at VA we don’t serve some Vets. We serve all Vets.
For far 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, no Vet has to fight for the quality care and benefits they’ve earned—no matter who they are, where they’re from, or who they love.
Last—but in no way least—we’re fighting like hell to deliver for toxic-exposed Veterans.
And one of your own has led the country in that fight—Veteran and journalist Kelly Kennedy. About this time 14 years ago, Kelly started the thankless and rigorous task of holding people accountable when she published her first of dozens of articles on the casualties of burn pits. Over the years, her work catalyzed the national conversation on burn pits, educated us on the effects of toxic exposure on battlefield in stark terms we could no longer turn away from.
She told painful stories of servicemembers deteriorating and dying after exposure to poisons they breathed when deployed. She first introduced us to the enormous dangers of things most had never heard about—like fine and superfine particulate matter, and chemicals troops may have been ingesting that sound as horrific as they are: arsenic, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid.
Kelly told the human stories of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and families who were suffering, so we as a nation would not, and could not, forget.
I imagine part of that was about being a good journalist, guided by the spirit of greats like Joe Galloway, Dickey Chapelle, and others. And I imagine a lot of it was about compassion, deep devotion to servicemembers and her fellow Vets.
And now, nearly a decade and a half later, as a result of her hard work—and, certainly, the hard work, heavy lifting, and persistent voices of many, many others—one of the biggest expansions of Veteran benefits in history was signed into law by President Biden, a law that will deliver care and benefits to millions of toxic exposed Veterans and their survivors.
With this new law, VA has recognized new presumptions of service connection for more than 20 health conditions related to toxic exposures—including exposures like Agent Orange, burn pits, and more.
We’ll bring generations of new Vets into VA health care and increase the health care benefits of many more—and that will result in better health outcomes, across the board. We’ll deliver benefits to more survivors of Vets who passed away from toxic exposure. And we’ll invest in our workforce and our infrastructure to deliver those additional services—and modernize 31 more VA health care facilities.
This is a great thing. And I don’t think it would have happened ... not when it did ... without Kelly’s dogged pursuit of the truth. That’s what I mean when I say you make VA better—telling the stories that need to be told, and holding us accountable to Veterans and their survivors.
Kelly, on behalf of the Vets we serve, thank you.
Like anything else of this importance and magnitude, implementing this new legislation won’t be easy. So, we’re going to count on your help—to hold us accountable, yes, and especially, to communicate to Vets what this bill means for them, and their families. This is what we want every Veteran to know about the new law on toxic exposure.
First point—we want Veterans and survivors of Central Command from 1991 to 2021, thirty years of war, to apply for their toxic exposure benefits right now ... right now. So far, Veterans have filed nearly 137,000 [136,957] PACT Act claims.
Second point, and I want to be very clear here, because it’s important. We made all conditions outlined in this new law presumptive August 10, the day the bill was signed into law, rather than phasing them in over the coming years. VA will begin processing benefits claims filed under this new law on January 1st, the earliest date possible.
And beginning tomorrow, we’re offering enrolled Veterans a new toxic exposure screening—an important step toward making sure that all toxic exposed Veterans get the care and benefits they deserve. Because Vets have waited too long. We’re not going to make them wait any longer.
Third point. For Vets who file for a toxic exposure related condition before the one-year anniversary of the signing—that is, for those who file before August 9, 2023—their claims will be retroactive to the date of signing.
Fourth point. I’m proud to announce for the first time today, on National Cancer Awareness Day, that we’re expediting benefits delivery for Veterans with cancer conditions covered in this law. This work is a part of President Biden’s vision for the Cancer Moonshot, and it’s a part of his broader efforts to end cancer as we know it. So, we will expedite Veterans claims if they have been diagnosed with melanoma, brain cancer, neck cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, glioblastoma, head cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, lymphoma of any type, and lymphomatic cancer of any type.
And fifth point. Any Veteran, family member, or survivor can learn more about this new law by visiting VA.gov/PACT or calling 1-800-MY-VA-411 [1-800-698-2411].
So, that’s what every Vet needs to know about this new law. And we need your help communicating it, so every Veteran gets the care they need, and the benefits they deserve. We won’t rest, until they do.
So, from access, to ending homelessness, to suicide prevention, to toxic exposures—that’s where we’re going. That’s how we’re going to keep fighting like hell for Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
Now, let me say a final word to you Vets. Your honorable service in uniform set the example for the rest of the country. You’re the keepers of our national ethos: that deep and abiding sense of purpose you learned in serving, your camaraderie, your sense of teamwork that made you stronger, together—in combat and, now, in your communities that’s so unique today.
Looking around, that's exactly what we need today. Camaraderie. Truth. Togetherness. True service. True patriotism.
And it’s something that all of us—each of us—can learn from. Because we are, all, stronger when we are together—when we are one.
So, again, to all the Veterans here today and watching, thank you—for everything. And, to the Press Club, my thanks for all that you do holding us accountable to Vets, and telling their stories in the powerful ways that you do.
God bless you all. And God bless our nation’s servicemembers, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
Now, Jen, let’s go to questions.