Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Denis McDonough pledged Friday to “fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the health care, respect and dignity they deserve” if confirmed to the post by lawmakers next year.

In his first public remarks since President-elect Joe Biden announced him as his pick to lead VA, McDonough said he sees his mission of improving services for veterans as one that can unite the entire country, even amid the fractured aftermath of the recent presidential election.

“Taking care of our veterans is not a job for the VA alone,” McDonough said in a press conference announcing several new Biden Cabinet nominees. “Every federal department and agency has a role to play. And I will fight like hell to make that happen.

“Even though only 1 percent of Americans wear the uniform, under President Biden, every American will be called upon to embrace our responsibility to support our veterans, and our military families.”

If confirmed, the 51-year-old former chief of staff for President Barack Obama would be only the second person without military experience to lead the department. The pick was seen as a surprise among many in the veterans community, most of whom offered cautious support after the announcement on Thursday.

McDonough gave a nod to that skepticism in his remarks, saying he looks forward to being a “partner” with the veterans organizations moving ahead.

Biden on Friday said he is confident that McDonough brings the right mix of government experience and enthusiasm to the post.

“He knows the cost of war on veterans and their families, from the toll on their physical and mental health to access to good paying jobs,” Biden said. “He’s a fierce advocate and a relentless workhorse.

“And I believe, and I think everyone who’s ever worked with Denis knows, he’s a world-class manager with an innate understanding of how government can and must work for our veterans.”

Members of Biden’s transition team have emphasized McDonough’s past work behind-the-scenes on VA issues in the wake of the 2014 wait time scandals, which forced the resignation of then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

In a statement Thursday, former VA Secretary Bob McDonald (who replaced Shinseki) praised McDonough as “a crisis-tested leader of character with great knowledge, skills, and experience in using the levers of government.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs had a budget of more than $220 billion for fiscal 2020, employing 400,000-plus staff. Last year, the department provided medical care for more than 9 million veterans and disability benefits for more than 5 million.

McDonough said one of his primary goals will be to “make our VA even more welcoming to all veterans — including our women veterans, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans — and keeping faith with our incredible military families and caregivers.”

McDonough’s wife, Kari, is co-founder and president of Vets Community Connections, a non-profit focused on outreach to veterans and military families. Biden referenced her work in connection with his own wife’s past work on the Joining Forces campaign during Obama’s presidency.

No timeline has been set on confirmation hearings for McDonough or the other Biden Cabinet nominees. Biden’s inauguration is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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