The following are the prepared remarks delivered by Secretary Denis McDonough at the American Legion’s 103rd National Convention.
Good morning, everyone, and what a terrific showing by the American Legion, by Legionnaires.
Commander Dillard, Paul, thank you for that kind introduction and, more importantly, for your courageous service in Vietnam and your devotion to Veterans and their families in these decades after.
Auxiliary President Kathy Daudistel, good morning, and thank you for lifting up America’s hidden heroes, Veterans’ caregivers.
Commander Mike Fox and all the Sons of the American Legion, congratulations on your 50th national convention and 90th birthday!
And Chanin, good to see you escaped the beltway for a few days … I really appreciate you.
There are so many here deserving recognition, deserving of our deep gratitude, but none more deserving than America’s Veterans, you Legionnaires, and your families, caregivers, and survivors.
My deepest thanks to all of you for your service, your selflessness, your courage. You are the heart of this country. And you’re at the heart of everything we do at VA. It’s always inspiring for me to be with you.
And it’s especially nice to be back up in this neck of the woods, not too far from my old stomping grounds in Stillwater. As a young man back in 1988 … seems like yesterday … I played Legion baseball in Bayport, Minnesota, for Post #491. And coming to a baseball town like this so close to home, I’m reminded of the legends that Legion baseball has given this country, like Navy Vet Bob Feller, or Ted Williams, Navy Vet of World War II and Marine Vet in Korea.
And since we’re in Milwaukee, we can’t forget 1964 American Legion Baseball Player of the Year, Army Vet, Hall of Famer, and Brewer alum Rollie Fingers. And pitching these days for the Brew Crew is Brandon Woodruff, who played American Legion Baseball for Post #49 in Tupelo … winning pitcher against the Cubs on Saturday, in fact.
It’s often said that there’s nothing more American than baseball. But the American Legion damn sure gives baseball a run for its money. My point here is that Legion Baseball is just one of so many ways that you are a part of the very fabric of this nation, and the contributions the Legion has made to Veterans and this country over the years are really incalculable:
- Planting the seed that grew into the Department of Veterans Affairs we have today.
- Giving Vets and families the GI Bill of Rights that fueled the Greatest Generation and is still investing in our country’s future—over $410 billion in GI Bill education benefits to 27 million Vets and their families, so far.
And as the past year demonstrates, the Legion is fighting harder and harder for Vets, from zeroing-out Legion’s nearly 5,000 Legacy Appeals claims to Buddy Checks during the pandemic, which touched well over 234,000 Vets at a time when they need that compassionate outreach the most, to the nearly 5,000 Vets you helped get jobs, to the more than $700,000 in Legacy Scholarships and nearly $500,000 in national scholarships for the next generation of great Americans.
I could go on and on, you know. But the bottom line is this: The American Legion, well, you’re awesome, some of our nation’s premier advocates for Veterans, their families and, really, for all Americans. So, I thank you for all you’ve done, for your partnership, and for all I know you’ll do in the future.
Now, I want to talk today about what we’ve done at VA over the past year—and what we’re going to do over the next year—to deliver for Veterans. And I know that it hasn’t been an easy year—for anyone. But that just means that our shared mission has never been more important than it is right now.
And I’m proud to say that together with The American Legion we’re stepping up for Vets, and we’re delivering. 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 the benefits that Vets have earned and deserve, we are processing Veteran claims faster than ever before, and we’ve worked together to get the claims backlog down to the lowest total in years.
When it comes to honoring Vets with the lasting resting places they deserve, we are now providing almost 94% of Vets with access to burial sites within 75 miles of their homes, and we’ve expanded our Veterans Legacy Memorial program—which keeps Veterans’ stories alive long after they’re gone—to about 4.5 million Veterans.
When it comes to providing world-class healthcare to Veterans and their families, study after study shows that we’re delivering better health outcomes for Veterans than the private sector, which is why 90% of Vets now trust us to deliver their care.
And when it comes to advocating for Veterans, with your support, President Biden is leading the way by making Veterans a core part of his Unity Agenda, including securing the biggest budget proposal for Vets in VA history, delivering the first toxic exposure presumptives for Vets who have fought our wars for the past 30 years, and most importantly, signing the historic PACT Act into law.
And look, all of that work—every bit of it—adds up to the one statistic that will always matter most: Veterans lives saved, or improved, by the work we do together.
We’ve made these strides for Vets by asking ourselves three core questions every day we come to work, every time we make a decision, and every time we set a goal.
First, “Are we putting Veterans at the center of everything we do?” That means making VA easy for Veterans to use, with projects like new VA mobile apps that give Vets access to their benefits right on their phones. It means making sure that every pathway into VA is a front door to all VA services, so Vets can access all we have to offer. And it means making sure that we’re delivering for Vets on time, every time, through projects like claims automation—which is cutting claims processing time for certain conditions from several months to several days.
The second question we ask ourselves is, “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 question we ask ourselves goes back to something that President Biden charged VA to do on the day I was sworn in: “fight like hell for Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.” “Fight like hell.” So, we use that charge, that question, to guide us every day: “Are we fighting like hell for those who fought for us?”
That’s our North Star. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are. And that’s how we’ll get where we’re going in the future—for Veterans, their family members, caregivers, and survivors. Let me give you a few examples.
First, we’re fighting like hell to maximize access to world-class care for Vets across America. That’s why we will 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 getting their care at home, we’re meeting Vets where they are by doubling down on tele-health and tele-appeals. We’re also supporting our caregivers—who are critical to helping Veterans age at home—by expanding the program of comprehensive assistance this October to cover all generations of Veterans and by changing our policies to allow even more Veterans and their caregivers into the program, so they can get the support they need.
For Vets who are getting care in the 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 their care directly from VA, we’re going to modernize our facilities—because Vets in the 21st century should not be forced to receive care in 20th century buildings. Instead, we need to build 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—and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
And look, the bottom line with access is the same as ever—Vets who receive their care at VA do better. Our VA clinicians know Veterans—in many cases, they are Veterans—and there is nobody better at caring for Veterans than them. Just look at the statistics. 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. 20 percent! So, please, whenever Vets come to you asking where they should get their care, send them to us. Because I promise you—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 here 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.
Last October, for example, 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 with your help, we not only accomplished those goals—we exceeded them. And that, that was just the beginning. Nationwide this year, we’re going to get 38,000 Veterans into homes. 38,000. We’re not going to try to do it, or take our best shot at doing it. With your help, we are going to do it. In fact, three-quarters of the way through the year now, we’ve permanently housed nearly 22,500 homeless Veterans—on track to meet, perhaps even exceed, our goal.
And look, as we continue to get this done, we’ll be driving hard on prevention, too—by increasing the housing supply, by making existing housing more affordable, and by getting every Veteran the wraparound services they need. Because no Veteran should be homeless in the country they fought to defend. Not one. And we will deliver for them, together.
Third … here we are on the eve of National Suicide Prevention Month … and we’re fighting like hell to prevent Veteran suicide. And I appreciate that you’ll be diving into Veteran suicide prevention a little later.
You may have seen VA’s recent report on Veteran suicides in 2019—the most current year for which we have data. A couple big things stand out to me from that 2019 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 reminded me of something else—which is that suicide prevention is possible, that there is hope. Because there were 399 fewer Veteran suicides in 2019 than in 2018—the biggest decrease in 20 years. That’s 399 Vets who are alive today … getting a second chance at life. Nothing—nothing—could matter more than that.
So, we’re looking to build on that momentum—together—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 to Vets who want them, making sure that they get their mental health care exactly when they need it—and not a second later; by ramping up our lethal means safety efforts to prevent warning signs from turning into tragedies. And much, much more.
And let me say how grateful I am for the Legion’s “Be The One” campaign you rolled out in May to empower everyone to save the life of a Vet who is at risk. Because it will make a difference.
I know. I’ve seen it. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a Veteran named Amanda Barbosa. Amanda’s been through a lot, and at what she remembers as the lowest point in her life, she came to the VA clinic at Fort Benning, Georgia. And she’s said, “VA saved my life, and turned it around, completely.”
Well, today, Amanda’s doing great. She’s powerful. She’s thriving. There’s nothing more important than that. And what’s so incredibly beautiful about Amanda’s journey is that now she’s devoted to saving other Veterans’ lives. I’ll tell you more about that in a few minutes.
Suicide prevention is the Legion’s number one priority. And at VA, we’re right there with you. It is our top clinical priority, bar none, and together, we’re going to keep saving Vets’ lives, help them not only survive, but thrive, like Amanda is.
Fourth, we’re continuing to fight like hell to make sure that all Veterans feel welcome and safe at VA. Not some Veterans—all Veterans. That means getting women Vets—our fastest growing cohort of Vets—the care they’ve earned, and deserve. It means making sure that LGBTQ+ Vets feel supported—and well-served—by every part of VA. It means investigating, identifying, and eliminating any racial disparities that exist at VA, and setting up processes to prevent them in the future. It means helping non-citizen Veterans stay in the United States, where they belong, and making sure that eligible, deported Veterans have access to VA benefits. And it means delivering care and benefits to those with Other-Than-Honorable discharges, too.
Because at VA we don’t serve some Vets. We serve all Vets. For 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 Veteran 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.
And last, but in no way least, we’re fighting like hell to deliver for toxic-exposed Veterans. You know, Commander Dillard testified to Congress earlier this year that “the purpose of the American Legion is to ensure [our Vets] aren’t forgotten after the fighting is over.” Paul, you’re standing by those words. American Legion is standing by those words.
And, as a result of that commitment and your actions behind it, you helped see to it that the PACT Act made it to the President’s desk … and became a law that will deliver care and benefits to millions of toxic exposed Veterans and their survivors. Listen, so many of you know from your own firsthand experience that while Vets were off fighting for us, many were breathing in toxic fumes from burn pits and other sources. And then months or years later, developed conditions that followed you home from war, that impacted your lives, that, in some cases, took the lives of those you served alongside and loved long after the guns fell silent.
Now, it’s our job as a nation to provide you, your families, and your survivors with benefits and care for those conditions. With American Legion’s enduring strong support, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
It’s a monumental moment for you, for VA, and most importantly, for all those we serve. Because with this new law, VA has recognized more than 20 new presumptions of service connection for toxic exposure-related conditions so Vets living with those conditions will get the care and benefits they deserve.
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. All told, this is one of the biggest expansions of Veteran benefits in history.
That’s a great thing. And it would not have happened without your hard work. But like anything else of this importance and magnitude, implementing it and executing, that won’t be easy. So, we’re going to continue relying on your help, especially in communicating to Legionnaires and all your fellow Vets what this bill means for them and their families.
So, please, share these messages with any Veteran or survivor you know.
First, we at VA want Veterans and survivors to apply for their PACT Act benefits right now … right now. August 11th, the day after the PACT Act was signed into law, was our all-time high for online disability compensation claims. And we need to build on that momentum, keep breaking records for Vets.
Second—and I want to be very clear on this point, because it’s an important one—the conditions in the PACT Act were supposed to take effect over the next few years, but we’re not going to do that. Veterans have waited too long for this care and these benefits already, and we’re not going to make them wait any longer. So, instead of phasing-in conditions over the coming years, we’re making all conditions outlined in the PACT Act presumptive August 10 … the day the bill was signed into law. And VA will begin processing PACT Act benefits on January 1st, which is the earliest date possible.
And third, 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.
So, that’s what every Veteran needs to know about the PACT Act, and we really need your help communicating it. Because we want every Veteran—every single one—to get the care they need and the benefits they deserve. And we won’t rest until they do.
So, from access, to ending homelessness, to suicide prevention, to the PACT Act—that’s where we’re going, that’s how we’re going to fight like hell for Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
And remember Amanda Barbosa, whom I mentioned earlier? One of the millions of Vets we’re all fighting for? I’ll close by sharing the rest of her story.
Today, Amanda’s well and healthy, and now she’s fighting like hell for her husband Rafael, and for millions of Vets like him. You see, Rafael’s a Marine Vet, and an Army Vet. He’s one of the Vets exposed to toxins when he was deployed to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and Kuwait. Just two years after he was honorably discharged, Rafael and his family were hit with some devastating news.
Rafael got a cancer diagnosis.
Well, Amanda started caring for Rafael, filed his VA claim, and three weeks later, they had a decision—100% service connection.
But for Amanda, her fight didn’t end there. She saw other battles ahead, battles for millions of Vets like Rafael who may have been exposed to toxins. She’ll tell you that what she’s learned advocating for Rafael has made her a stronger, better advocate for Veterans. And with her strength, her fortitude, her unyielding devotion to Vets, she’s done amazing work.
In fact, I first met Amanda at the US Capitol, earlier this month. She’s one of those tough-as-hell Vets who was spending nights on the steps of Congress, enduring the oppressive heat and pounding thunderstorms, until the PACT Act passed the Senate.
And I saw her again at the White House when President Biden signed the PACT Act … met her and Rafael’s 13-year-old son, Walker, who was as excited about the PACT Act as just about anybody because of what it means for Vets’ kids.
And, as Amanda sees it, it’s her great privilege to stand with Vets and their families, to help save lives, just like you all do every day.
It is my privilege to know her. And it is my privilege and honor to know you, to stand with all of you, and to fight for you.
Commander Dillard, thanks for your kind invitation. And from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of every Vet we serve, my thanks for all that you do, for helping make sure Vets like Amanda and Rafael receive the care and benefits they’ve earned, and deserve.
Because—together—it’s our job to serve Vets every bit as well as they’ve served us.
God bless you all. And God bless our nation’s servicemembers, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.