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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Survivors Forum
Washington, DC
January 26, 2023


Good morning. Josh, thanks for the kind introduction. Ann, thanks to you and your team for being such passionate advocates for survivors, and for organizing this forum.

VA’s Office of Survivors Assistance answers thousands of emails and phone calls every year assisting survivors with questions and challenges relating to their benefits. That’s what we’re here for. So please, if there’s anything we can do for you, shoot a note to That’s if you have any questions or concerns.

Most importantly, my humble appreciation to each survivor joining us today. You are here because you loved someone who served this country—someone who gave everything for this country. When Veterans served, we know that their families, their caregivers, and survivors sacrificed right alongside with them. Their sacrifice has been your sacrifice. So, we are—all of us—forever in your debt.

Today, you’ll spend the morning hearing from experts on the one of the biggest expansions of Veteran benefits in history that President Biden signed into law last August—a law that will deliver care and benefits to millions of toxic exposed Veterans and you, their survivors. But the story of that law is so much more than words on a piece of legislation. It’s the story of survivors like you.

The law honors Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, a decorated combat medic. During his 13-month deployment to Iraq, Sergeant Robinson stood guard for weeks on end over a toxic burn pit. As a result, tragically, Sergeant Robinson passed away at the age of 39 after a three-year battle with a rare form of lung cancer. He left behind his wife, Danielle, and his little girl, Brielle.

After saying good-bye, Danielle met with other widows and family members whose loved ones were affected by toxic exposure. Danielle knew what it was like to feel so alone during Sergeant Robinson’s fight, so she found a community of fellow-survivors. They shared their stories of their Veterans’ courageous fights. And that community came together to do something—something profound and, really, historic. Danielle came to Washington to fulfill Sergeant Robinson’s dying wish—his wish that she keep caring for his brothers-and sisters-in-arms. So Danielle pounded the steps and hallways of Capitol Hill. In spite of countless sleepless nights, Danielle endured, fighting to see that legislation become law.

You might remember that Danielle sat beside First Lady Dr. Jill Biden during President Biden’s first State of the Union Address. He said that night, “Through [Danielle’s] pain, she found purpose to demand that we do better.” And the country did. Danielle, Brielle, and Sergeant Robinson’s mom, Susan, were right there when President Biden signed the landmark legislation into law. You see, Danielle’s work is a testament to the miraculous work survivors do—for those they lost, and for their fellow survivors who have suffered loss. Their work, your work, can be transformational. So, these are powerful, uplifting stories of courageous survivors, like you—remembering the love, celebrating the lives, and sharing the journeys of our nation’s Veterans.

Let me quickly share a similar story of service that inspires me—the story of a mother and a daughter. I first met Cindy Chip last September during the Military Suicide Awareness Walk here in DC. Cindy lost her son, Sergeant Michael Hardegree, when his armored vehicle rolled over after returning from a combat mission in Iraq in 2007. Cindy, like so many survivors, turned grief into action—advocating for Veterans and their families, and she eventually served as the President of American Gold Star Mothers.

Cindy told me her family had recently experienced a second tragedy. Her son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Derrick Shaw, lost his fight with cancer not long after retiring from a distinguished 21-year career in the Army. Like millions of others, Derrick was exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan.

In about a decade, Cindy had lost her son, and then she lost her son-in-law.

Cindy’s daughter, Beth, had lost her brother. And then her husband.

I sat down with Cindy and Beth again last month. I listened to them describe the challenges they experienced in the months and years following their heartbreaking loss. I witnessed the resilience they—and so many survivors—display every single day.

And they’re a constant reminder of VA’s obligation—our obligation to deliver timely access to the benefits that Veterans and families like you have earned, including environmental exposure benefits, educational benefits, survivor benefits, home loans, lasting resting places that honor your loved ones’ service, and so much more. That’s what President Biden calls this nation’s most 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 sacred obligation is ours to fulfill here at VA.

Ultimately, this is why I reflect on these two stories today. They are a reminder of our mission to serve Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors every bit as well as they have served us. They are also a reminder that listening to survivors is not enough. Listening must turn into action, and action into positive outcomes and experiences for all Veterans, families, caregivers, and survivors. Checking boxes, setting goals, or creating processes is not enough. The only thing that matters is that we deliver results on behalf of all Veterans, families, caregivers, and survivors.

For far too long, survivors have felt alone. Well, you’re not alone any longer. We’ll move heaven and earth to ensure that you and your families have seamless access to the wide range of services and benefits your loved ones earned, and you deserve. And we’re fighting like hell to keep that promise.

May God bless the memories of the fallen and bless their loved ones—like all of you—who carry on their legacies. And may we always, always, give you the very best.