The last four years have been tumultuous for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In that time, the department responsible for serving our veterans has confronted a global pandemic, provided its Fourth Mission support to serve as our country’s backup health-care system, and confronted natural disasters that tested VA’s ability to continue caring for veterans during the public health emergency.
During the previous administration, VA targeted whistleblowers for retaliation, questioned and diminished survivors of sexual harassment and assault, expressed hostility towards organized labor, and obstructed Congress’ oversight efforts. Despite these challenges and setbacks, it is with hope and optimism that I look forward to working with Secretary-designate Denis McDonough to ensure VA is prepared to serve current and future generations of veterans.
His first priority should be taking the necessary steps to repair and rebuild the trust of veterans and the VA employees that serve them. Those on the front lines of the mission, VA’s talented workforce, must be heard and valued. Throughout the pandemic, VA’s low level workers — the housekeepers and cleaning staff who showed up every day, despite the risk and chronic staff shortages — proved just how essential they are. While VA utilized its expedited hiring authority, with over 32,000 vacancies still lingering, our new secretary must continue to prioritize hiring and fight against privatization.
VA’s next secretary must recognize the extraordinary diversity of our veteran population, which includes more women, LGBTQ+, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native veterans than ever before. The secretary must uplift the voices of traditional and newly emerging veterans service organizations and ensure all veterans know they have a place at VA. I’m heartened that in one of President Biden’s first actions he reversed the prohibition on diversity and inclusion training, already showing a promise to increase equity across government. To build a stronger, more welcoming, and more effective VA, we must begin the work to earn back the trust the institution has lost.
We also need to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war. Passing the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act last Congress was a massive step forward to ensure those exposed to toxic substances during their service are acknowledged and cared for, but it took more than 40 years to achieve that. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on our veterans, and there’s no reason that they and their survivors should have to fight VA for the care and benefits they earned. If America is willing to send our service members into harm’s way to defend our democracy, then she must be willing to ensure we take care of all those who have borne the battle.
In the 116th Congress, the committee worked tirelessly to develop and advance two bipartisan, bicameral packages to prevent veteran suicide. These bills were incredibly strong first steps, but as long as 17 veterans die by suicide each day, our work must continue. This Congress, we’ll continue fighting for expanded lethal means counseling for all veterans, so Veterans Benefits Administration staff, contractors, community care network providers, and caregivers can provide lifesaving information to our veterans. We’ll work to make sure community providers have a better understanding of military and veteran culture, so they can provide the best treatment possible, and we’ll support efforts for increased outreach to our most at-risk veterans, including women, LGBTQ+, and Native veterans.
Cultural change starts at the top. I look forward to working with Secretary-designate McDonough to ensure that VA cares for and supports all veterans who walk through its facilities and empowers its workforce. All veterans should feel welcome, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or race. Any veteran with toxic exposure should have access to VA. We must continue to work to meaningfully address veteran suicide.
Our country may not be perfect, but it is full of promise, and veterans know that’s worth fighting for. Together, with Secretary-designate McDonough and President Biden — someone who deeply understands the sacrifices service members, veterans, and their families make — we can build back better for our veterans and restore their faith in VA.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
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