By Steve Balestrieri
Denis McDonough was sworn in as the Veterans Affairs secretary after the Senate confirmed his appointment. He’s the seventh of President Biden’s cabinet-level appointees to be confirmed. His confirmation easily passed the Senate with 87 in favor and only seven against.
McDonough was previously the chief of staff during former President Barack Obama’s second term and also worked as deputy national security adviser. The Biden administration continues to bring in members from the Obama years with whom the President feels comfortable.
Only the second VA secretary to have never served in the military, McDonough has called his appointment the “honor of my lifetime [sic] to join the VA workforce in serving veterans.” However, President Biden said that McDonough’s extensive government experience has more than qualified him for the job.
McDonough said he will “fight like hell” for veterans’ issues. He will face a multitude of challenges as the 11th secretary of veterans affairs, not the least of which will be the task of vaccinating millions of veterans and VA healthcare workers against COVID-19 and treating those already infected with the virus.
A further challenge will be the need to increase the VA’s budget. This will be even more pressing given the ballooning costs associated with a huge number of veterans needing benefits after having served for nearly 20 continuous years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict areas.
In his first address as the head of veterans affairs, McDonough has vowed to base all of his decisions around “whether it increases veterans’ access to care and benefits and improves outcomes for them.”
“At this moment when our country must come together, caring for you, our country’s veterans, and your families, is a mission that can unite us all,” McDonough said in his statement.
“The president has called on every American to embrace our responsibility to support our veterans and their families. So this administration will work with other federal departments and agencies… and with other state and local organizations, both public and private, who have the best interests of veterans and their families at heart,” he added.
McDonough also addressed the scandal of sexual assault and coverup that the previous secretary, Robert Wilkie, had faced when allegations had surfaced of the mishandling of a sexual assault claim by a veteran at the Washington DC VA medical center. Several members of Congress had called for Wilkie’s resignation over that. McDonough vowed that a similar situation would not be tolerated.
“All VA patients, staff, their families, caregivers, survivors, visitors, and advocates must feel safe in a workplace free of harassment and discrimination,” McDonough said. “I will not accept discrimination, harassment, or assault at any level or at any facility within VA. We will provide a safe, inclusive environment for veterans and VA employees.”
Many veterans groups from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars had urged the Biden administration to choose a veteran to head the VA. But McDonough believes that his experience in several different levels of government will allow him to untangle and solve complex challenges.