Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Student Veterans of American 15th National Conference (virtual)
January 6, 2023
Good afternoon. Thanks for that warm welcome. I hope you and those you love enjoyed a peaceful, safe, and revitalizing holiday season.
A few weeks ago, I sat in the House Chamber and listened to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Congress, and our country. It was a powerful speech, a memorable opportunity. Being here with you—heroes in your own right—I’m reminded of a few lines from that speech.
He told us, “Your well-being is the product of your national security—the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories.” In other words, our country’s peace and prosperity, our strength ... well ... that’s all because of you, and Vets who came before you.
America’s Vets. There’s nobody better.
Anthony ... Sergeant Ruscitto, thanks for your kind introduction and, more importantly, for your courageous leadership in the Marines, and, now, up at Syracuse.
Jared [Lyon, Pres. & CEO], good afternoon to you. Thanks, once again, for your kind invitation, for your own courageous service in the Navy and for leading this great organization.
To all the award finalists—you’re doing great work, taking care of each other and so many people in your local communities. Congratulations on your recognition. And when you graduate and you're thinking about a career, think about a career serving your fellow Vets at VA. We're hiring. Just stop by that VA hiring table to learn more. And that’s for all of you.
Let me acknowledge so many from across SVA who’ve been working hard over the holidays, and long before that, pulling together another spectacular convention—your 15th, and counting. That’s a hell of milestone. So, here’s to 15 more!
SVA’s story is an admirable example of Vets continuing to serve long after coming home. For 14 years now, you’ve been growing stronger and more united, marshalling resources, building support networks, advocating for Vets with a trusted, respected voice—at VA, among VSOs, and on The Hill and in state capitals around the country.
And you’re getting so much done—from 20 SVA chapters back in 2008 to over 1,500 chapters today; touching a quarter-million student Veterans every year; shaping on-campus services so Vets can focus on excelling, and leading; working with a loyal coalition of private and nonprofit partners—so many of them with you today—to ensure Vets get the knowledge and skills they need to continue their service; shaping the GI Bill so 21st century Vets have 21st century opportunities; and, throughout all this, holding us here at VA accountable, to you.
Let me emphasize that last point—holding VA accountable. Jared’s not shy about it. Look, nobody knows what student Vets and dependents and spouses using VA education services need better than SVA. And when it comes to delivering on the GI Bill, we’re counting on you to continue to help us get it right.
We’re bringing the GI Bill itself into the 21st century—the Digital GI Bill, a modern, integrated system. And soon, we’re rolling-out the next piece—Enrollment Manager. That’ll help avoid disrupting your spring enrollments. We heard your concerns about it, so we’ve postponed it.
When we do flip that switch in a few months, Enrollment Manager will be another step closer to where we need to be, for you. It’s intuitive for your School Certifying Officials ... they helped design and build it. It’ll mean easier access to the information they need to support you. It’ll mean better claims processing and customer service for you. And it’ll mean real-time info sharing between your SCOs and VA—the kind of info sharing we need.
The entire Digital GI Bill modernization—like everything we do now—is working to make our programs fit into your lives.
This is a principles-based upgrade. Because when it comes to your GI Bill, you shouldn’t have to worry. You shouldn’t have to worry if you’re going to get paid on time. You shouldn’t have to worry about platforms talking to each other. You shouldn’t have to worry about operating on decades-old programing languages which stopped being on private-sector machines before many of you were born!
When it comes to any VA benefits or services, you shouldn’t have to worry. Our duty is keeping you at the center of everything we do, leveraging lessons from what you’ve taught us about delivering better and better on the GI Bill, and from implementing the GI Bill for over 78 years.
And there are good lessons. The GI Bill’s taught us that investing in Vets pays enormous dividends to this country in economic prosperity, in intellectual capital, in honorable leadership—from local communities to the highest offices.
And implementing that first GI Bill—the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944—taught us some ugly lessons, too, lessons that we’re not going to forget, failures we can never repeat.
When in 1944 President Roosevelt signed that first historic GI Bill, he assured, “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”
It’s true, that first GI Bill’s helped most Vets—16 million Vets—buy homes, get jobs, get training, get an education, transition back to productive lives at home.
But here’s what else is true. It helped most Vets, and most Vets isn’t close to good enough. Our country failed a million Black Vets—men and women, both—at the local, state, and federal levels. After they finished fighting in Europe and the Pacific, Black Vets had to fight something as insidious as any enemy: Racism. They had to fight for something too many take for granted, still today.
And that fight’s still raging. VA hasn’t been immune. There have been unacceptable disparities in VA benefits decisions because of racism and because of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are working to right these wrongs, to ensure we’re combating institutional racism and discrimination, rather than perpetuating it.
Because when you signed up to serve, you made a promise, and in return we made a promise to you. If you fight for us, we will fight for you. If you serve us, we will 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 at VA to keep that promise, to each of you. And we’ve long failed to keep that sacred promise for Black Vets, other Veterans of color, and LGBTQ+ Vets.
But in this administration, no Vet 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. At VA, those fights are over. Over.
Let me just say a few words about another historic benefit, a benefit many of you fought for and made possible for your battle buddies. I’m referring to new access to care and benefits for Vets exposed to burn pits over 30 years of war in CENTCOM.
Many of you know from firsthand experience—while you were fighting for us, you breathed in toxic fumes from burn pits and other sources. You may have developed conditions that followed you home from war, conditions that impacted your lives months or years later, or that, in some cases, took the lives of those you served alongside. Those you love.
That’s why on August 10th President Biden signed this new benefit into law, to expand VA health care and benefits for millions of toxic exposed Vets and their survivors—including many of you in that room today.
Here’s what you need to know.
First, apply for your benefits and care, right now.
A Vet named Tim White fought four combat tours in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2008 with the Mississippi National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group. Now he’s fighting allergic rhinitis. And Tim remembers what many of you do—working right alongside burn pits spewing caustic, black smoke into the air. “It was everywhere,” Tim remembers. “This smell would permeate you.”
Last November—because of VA’s new presumptives for toxic exposure—Tim’s claim for allergic rhinitis was granted. Here’s what else. Back in 2010, Tim was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He fought that back, and, thank God, he’s in remission. Thanks to this new law, he’s filing a claim for that now, too. And he’ll be covered. And that can change his life, and his family’s lives, for the better.
And since Tim’s already enrolled in VA health care, he says he’ll be getting his Toxic Exposure Screening, too. So, if you’re not enrolled in VA health care, like Tim, get enrolled, today, at the VA Claims Clinic tables. Then, after you’re enrolled, join over 1 million other Vets and get your toxic exposure screening.
Apply for your benefits, right now, at the VA Claims Clinic, and get your COVID vaccine, boosters, and flu shots, while you’re there.
Second, we started expediting burn-pit- and other toxic-exposure-related claims for terminally ill Vets on 12 December.
Here’s what I mean by expedite. A Vet with a malignant brain tumor filed his claim on July 5th. He got his decision 12 December—100%, retroactive to August 10th when President Biden signed the law—because of his service in Iraq and Kuwait.
A Vet with prostate cancer filed on August 8th. August. Decision on 12 December—100%, based on his service in Afghanistan, retroactive to August 10th.
A Vet with pancreatic cancer filed on 17 August. 12 December—100%, based on his service in Iraq and Kuwait ... retroactive to August 10th.
We mean business with this new benefit. And on New Year’s Day, we started processing claims for all Vets and their survivors ... over twenty-one hundred of those claims have been granted, so far. So, get your claim in as soon as you can. Listen, if you apply before August 10th, decisions will be backdated to August 10th last year, the day President Biden signed the law.
Third, I’ve heard that some Vets worry that applying for these new benefits will impact their current benefits. The truth is that with this new law, you’re 32 times more likely to have your benefits increase, or stay the same, than to see a decrease.
Fourth, there are people who will try to convince you to pay them, or you should hire a lawyer, to apply for VA benefits. Not true. Applying is free, and easy, by working directly with VA or a Veteran Service Organization.
And fifth, learn more about these new benefits—and apply, anytime—by visiting VA.gov/PACT or by calling 1-800-MY-VA-411.
Join the nearly 280,000 Vets and survivors who’ve already applied for their burn-pit- and toxic-exposure-related care and benefits. This new benefit is about us keeping our promise to you.
And we’re delivering.
A few words, in closing, on this second anniversary of January 6th, and on your place in our country’s future.
It was right about this time two years ago that a mob of insurrectionists attacked our democracy and our Constitution.
It was one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history. Yet, thanks to the enormous courage of people who stepped up to defend the country when we needed it most—many of them Veterans who spilled their blood in a brutal hand-to-hand battle to defend our Capitol and our Constitution, Vets like Staff Sergeant Brian Sicknick, who sacrificed his own life.
Thanks to them, our democracy held.
Thanks to them, and thanks to you, our democracy endures.
Your NatCon theme this year is "On the shoulders of giants."
Our country needs you, right now, more than ever, to be the giants. Our country needs you to be lifting up others, as you always have, on your broad shoulders. Our country needs what you learned in the military—that camaraderie, that togetherness, truth, true service, true patriotism.
Because we are all stronger when we are together, when we are one. And your good example teaches all Americans, reminds each of us what it really means to be an American.
So, I thank you. I thank you this day, in particular.
God bless you. God bless our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always serve you, as well as you have served this country.