This past weekend marked two years since I took this job, and in that time, I have thought about my service in uniform every day. It feels like it was just yesterday, but in reality, I’ve been out of the Army a long time now, almost forty years. The military has changed a lot in those decades: new technologies, new uniforms, and new acronyms, just to name a few. Some things haven’t changed at all, though. Our troops today still wake up before the sunrise to do PT. They still do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. They still sit around under trees during leadership development classes listening to their superiors talk about how much harder it used to be, and look up to those men and women who blazed the trails before them.

Many of you probably remember that commander, or first sergeant, or squad leader, or master chief, with their war stories that were equal parts awe-inspiring and lessons learned. You took comfort in knowing that the person at the head of your formation had been there and done that and lived to tell about it so that you could be better trained and prepared for whatever lay ahead. I certainly do, all these years later. For me, it was a gentleman named Buzz McKay, an Airborne Ranger who served in Vietnam and was later the commander of the Jungle Warfare School in Panama. Buzz was a “soldier’s soldier,” and I would have followed him through the fiery gates without a second thought. He took care of me and his troops like his own children, and many years later, we caught up near Fort Benning, Georgia, and he reminded me why I took this job in the first place.

Buzz is a guy who would never ask for help, but would give you the last drops from his canteen in the jungle. Over the last two years, I’ve tried to make VA worthy of his selfless service and the sacrifices he made on behalf of our country. He is just one of many incredible people I served with or met along the way that push me every day to make the VA better, and looking back, it is these people that have made this job such an honor.

I believe that we are here on this Earth for our relationships. First with God; then with family; and then with friends and fellow citizens. I’ve traveled all across the country and have visited so many of our medical centers and clinics, and it’s the Veterans and their families that I meet that I will never forget. It’s amazing to hear their stories of service both in the military and what they have done since. It’s heartening to hear that VA has been there for them when they needed us, and frustrating to hear when we haven’t. We aren’t perfect. No one is. But my teammates and I wake up every day to try and get as close as we can.

VA Sec. Bob McDonald and Deputy Sec. Sloan Gibson

VA Sec. Bob McDonald and Deputy Sec. Sloan Gibson speak with VA employees.

I’ve been fortunate to spend every day of this journey at VA with someone I love, and that is my friend of 45 years and your deputy secretary, Sloan Gibson. Sloan and I lived next door to each other during our senior year at West Point and graduated in the same class, and he’s had my back ever since. Doing work you love with someone you love is the ultimate privilege, and I am fortunate enough to have him as my battle buddy here at VA.

I’m often asked what has most surprised me in taking this job, and the thing that has stood out the most is VA’s contribution to American medicine. We spend billions in medical research every year, and have invented some vital technologies that you have probably heard of or used yourself, like the nicotine patch to just name one. We also train more than 70 percent of the nation’s physicians through our partnerships with medical schools, and we are largest single employers of nurses, social workers and mental health professionals in the country.

As you have likely heard, and the president noted in his remarks this week, we’ve made tremendous changes across VA in the two short years since I arrived, from expanding Veterans’ access to healthcare and bending the curve on ending Veterans’ homelessness to dramatically reducing the disability claims backlog and starting to change the appeals process to be more Veteran-friendly. We have also made tremendous strides to put Veterans and their families at the center of everything we do, and that’s not some slogan; it’s a way of doing business.

The opportunity for VA to improve a Veteran’s life is really inspiring. When I was in Tucson, Arizona, last year, I met a gentleman who used to be homeless living in the desert before someone at VA found him. He came in and got his healthcare needs taken care of and then started on his college degree using the GI Bill benefits he had earned. He has since gotten a master’s degree and now works for VA as a peer counselor helping other homeless Veterans come out of the exact conditions he used to live in. I hear those stories every day, but usually the media doesn’t cover them.Secretary McDonald with Veterans

Despite what you may hear, VA continues to help more and more Veterans every year, because as we improve care, we enroll more Veterans to care for, which is exactly what we want. We and our VSO partners know that the best place for Veterans to receive care is at VA, and we are working to make that care as accessible as ever through same day access, telemedicine, increased clinical space, and on and on as part of our MyVA transformation. I know I’ve seen a real difference in our facilities and our staff over the last two years, and I hope you have too. If you haven’t been by in a while, I hope you’ll give us another chance.

Two years into this job, I am as optimistic as ever about the future of the VA and America’s Veterans generally. There is a lot more work to do, but I am excited to lead VA in this time of great opportunity as we take on tough challenges and make a difference in the lives of such amazing men and women who have done so much for our country. After everything this nation has given to me and my family, it’s a privilege to be able to give back to my fellow Veterans.

Louisiana National Cemetery serviceSoldier, Marine and Baton Rouge police officer laid to rest at VA national cemetery
Rio OlympicsHere are the 16 Servicemembers on 2016 U.S. Olympic Team

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30 Comments

  1. Kay Lewis August 12, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    First ,I have to say the VA was helpfull by providing aid benefits when my WWII Vet husband suffered with COPD and later when in a nursing home until his death in 2019. At that time I filed a spousal claim and attempted to prove his disability was service connected due to his time in occupied Japan at the end of that war. He had not wanted me to appeal for that while he was alive as he was afraid of losing the aid he was getting. I was encouraged to pursue this after his death as his illnesses had completely drained all our resources and finances. My claim went to appeal four years ago (at least). I have submitted copious material to back up and prove this claim.I am turning 80 years old this month and realize I will probably die before this is completed, My Texas Vet. Commission rep has tried to expedite but we are always told the appeal is in the “pile” with thousands of others. If there is anything your office can do to expedite it would be be most appreciated. His VA file # is (redacted). I will provide any information you need.

    I also must compliment the VA for outstanding care my Vet daughter has received for her PTSD and associated problems. I am her caregiver and have found our local VA facility and practioners make us feel they do care and want to help. She has never had a major delay in care. Thank you for tha.t

  2. James Rudolph Spina August 12, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I never even knew I might be entitled to Disability pay for some of my health related issues I can now attribute to Agent Orange exposure from two tours in Vietnam during the height of the AO usage and in some of the heaviest sprayed areas. I have Sensory Neuropathy in both feet and lower legs (diagnosed by the VA ) and have applied for disability consideration and submitted all kinds of evidence that this condition is more than likely caused by AO exposure. After almost a year of waiting my application was denied. It seems like Neuropathy is only considered service connected if you also have diabetes, which I do not have. I then, after this denial, submitted an appeal with even more information supporting my claim and I submitted it on the ‘fast track’ method Now, after 15 months waiting for an answer to my appeal, I have again been denied and the letter I got seems like all the same wording they used for y original submission. In addition to the Neuropathy, I was denied and then appealed and was denied again application for Sleep Apnea (also diagnosed by the VA). I can now appeal AGAIN but I am getting frustrated and yet know I must persevere if I am going to possibly get any consideration. I must say though that the VA Health Care System care that I am getting is EXCELLENT and I use VA doctors and facilities exclusively for all my health care needs.

  3. Deborah Lolley August 8, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I do not understand why anyone in the military who goes overseas with two arms, two legs, their vision, no traumatic brain injury, no burns, etc., and then returns with missing limbs, blindness, traumatic brain injury etc., has to fill out the first piece of paper to get benefits. Their medical problems are obvious. What is there to evaluate? Putting those who left here whole and come back broken in the position of having to prove their injuries and go through the laborious amount of paperwork is deplorable. Receiving benefits should be automatic. Period. I realize PTSD evaluations will still need to be done.

    Also, there are organizations like the Mayo Clinic who have patient care, scheduling and follow-up down to a science. The VA needs to use the experts these organizations have to revamp the failed system. The VA needs to come to terms that they cannot and will not be able to fix the system on their own and using text book consultants is not the answer either.

  4. Christine Higby August 7, 2016 at 12:24 am

    My father is a veteran of WWII, has a 60% disability for frostbite on both feet. Filed for “Aid + Attendance twice and was
    denied both times. It took 2 years to find out that his disabilities aren’t worth the hell he went through from the D-Day landing
    to his honorable discharge in 1945. So no extra help for him!!!!!! Today I received a letter from the V.A. stating that they
    have over paid his compensation by over $8,000.00. They plan to withhold his monthly benefit check until it is paid in full, or
    we could send in the full amount within 30 days. Now I ask all the higher ups from the V.A. Administration + the politicians,
    How can he possibly be expected to pay back that amount (If he does indeed owe them), in 30 days? It took 2 years and two claims to find out he could not get extra funds for the home care he deserves. This administration has let my father down. They won’t give him funds for more home care, they want to take money back that he doesn’t have. My father is 92 years old, has a service related disability, was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease more than 10 years ago, and his V.A. doctor declared him 100% disabled. He can do virtually nothing for himself. But in the Veterans Administrations eyes Alzheimers has nothing to do with his disability from the service. Very possibly his PTSD
    played a role in the disease, but as you can see they don’t want to help these older vets., they want money back from them. It is a travesty what the organization is getting away with. You should all be ashamed to say you are “Americans”
    here to help your fellow vets who helped to make this country a better place. By the way, they did away with any health
    visits to veterans in the northwest of MA. Some vets can’t travel 20-55 miles for care at a “Veterans Facility.. So to close as my fathers daughter and P.O.A. I am once again put to the test of trying to figure out what happened within the V.A. system that says they need $8,000.00 back. My chances are not very good to achieve this feat in 30 days. For my loving father I will try my hardest to stand up for him. Everyone knows nobody else will. God bless us all.
    ,

  5. Regina "Jean" Reaves August 6, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Bob.

    You are a gentleman, a patriot, and think through each issue with a wisdom that is awe inspiring. We do have much much more to do but my prayer is that overall leadership is also wise and realizes the foundation that is currently in place and as we continue we don’t tear down that foundation but we build on it.

  6. Preston Russ August 6, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    We need strong leadership in the VA, someone that will stand up to the political class, someone that will punish and remove those employees of the VA that have put forth lies and that have treated veterans with disrespect and shown that they really don’t care about the veterans. Giving great speeches is not leadership, it is just a cover up.

  7. David marana August 5, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Hon McDonald,
    I commend you for your accomplishment and admire your pride, and optimism. You embody a well trained leader. However, just as you used to take care of your subordinates during your military time, you also need to consider finding the balance of continuing to take care of our deserving veterans and taking care of your subordinates down to the lowest level. Your executives, directors and other subordinate leaders may have actually provided you with genuine data to support your assertions. But at the expense of burnout subordinates? What you’ve observed from subordinates during your visits was superficial? Also, I agree with Mr Hugh’s above. Additionally, make it so VAs general staff recruitment rhetoric about bringing in new subordinates with fresh ideas can actually pursue and execute improvement innovations and not be stifled by some homesteading self serving incumbents and or by the status quo. V/R david

  8. John Greklek-Torres, MSW, CASAC August 5, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    The VA has made tremendous changes since my discharge in 1985. For example, I was not allowed to access VA medical services even with an honorable discharge. How insane was that. I was working full time and had private insurance and only Champus Insurance was taken at the time, and there was an income restriction. There were some really rude and racist people at the time at the Stratton VA. It was a wonder bread sort of environment, and believe me I was very happy to receive my medical services at Albany Medical or St Peter’s. Looking back, the leadership was different and really was stuck in the old guard mentality. Today, the VA has a new face of hope for soldiers. The Stratton VA has made incredible strides hiring people of color. I recently returned after 30 years of avoiding treatment for my PTSD. Imagine that, 30 Years! It feels good to be back home.

  9. John D Price August 5, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Why is it that there is always sufficient funds and then some appropriated for the VA, and then somehow between there and Our veterans it gets lost in the traffic and redirected to somekind of a useless program, maybe even rebuilding the infrastructure In this country while we rebuild other countries that asked us to come over and assist them in their wars potholes road every highway in this nation … Not even enough money for veterans the fix their vehicle suspension because every benefit that we are entitled to those two other countries nations and sadder that are not entitled to it?

  10. Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan August 5, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    August 5, 2016

    Today, I was apart of the Omaha National Cemetery Dedication, my husband and I were Patriot Guard Riders at this event.. We are wishing to bury his brother, Robert Lee Patlan, born July 12, 1967, died, September 29, 2013. He had been cremated in 2013 and has been waiting, in an urn to be laid to rest in Omaha’s National Cemetery. He proudly served in the Navy and was honorably discharged. I would like Robert, to be placed on a list, if available to be buried at your earliest convenience.

    We are friends of Former Congressman Lee Terry, who led the effort for this cemetery in Omaha. God Bless him!

    Please send any information possible to begin the process..

  11. Tom Perkins August 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Respectfully, all of this pie in the sky stuff has resulted in ZERO improvement from what this 100% SC and other Vets can see. Long wait times, very hard to get RXs prescribed by non VA, backed up claims etc.

    When will see some REAL change………..and not political mumbo jumbo? When / If Trump gets elected?

  12. Ronald Perri August 5, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    I sent an IRIS inquiry concerning the status of my appeal. I received a letter informing me that the average processing of an NOD is 289 days. The letter arrived on the day my appeal turned 700 days old. Oh, and they thanked me for my service. Totally tone deaf.

  13. Palmer Holden August 5, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    All I need to know to measure Sec. McDonald’s success is how many malcreants have been fired. I could be generous and let him include forced resignations (with a nice retirement package).

  14. Ernest Masse August 5, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    I know many are having problems getting their health care, I must be one of the lucky ones in the so called failed system. I owe my life to the fine Doctors and staff at the Providence VA. They found an Islet tumor in the tail of my pancreas and within a few days I was in the Boston VA hospital (West Roxbury) seeing a surgeon Dr. Gold. He removed the tumor and I have recovered with no side affects. The year before I had a tumor removed from my left kidney, had a tumor removed from my throat with 30 treatments of radiation, and a hernia fix all within a year and 2 months. All being done at the Providence VA. I want to take a moment to thank all the Doctors (especially Dr. Plot kin my primer care) and the staff of nurses who took care of me great job to all.
    Not all VA hospitals are having problems getting their health care to the vets.

  15. David Brent Liles August 5, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Mr. McDonald you need to resign your position, I’ve been waiting for the VA OKC for 45 days and still don’t have a f-ing PT start date for my service – connected injury 20yrs ago while on active – duty! You was suppose to fix that!

  16. Jack Lawson Easterwood August 5, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    I am one of the “First Sergeants” the Director mentioned in his post. If the same standard that are set and maintained by the VA as the Military, many of the problems would evaporate. I have waited for 71 days fro a Cat Scan only to have to wait for additional hour and half past the set appoint time. Still waiting on an upgrade disability retro pay since last year. (Amy audit completed and sent to VA in January of this year). While I have only praise for the Care Givers (Doctors and Nurse Practitioners), I have mostly scorn for the paper pushers and mid management types who often give the impression of caring less for the veteran. I think they sometimes forget who is the important ones in the long chain of caring for the ones who need their help. Just my two cents.

  17. Greg Benson August 5, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    How about how a PA can take away your meds and claim breach of contract after the VA sends you to an out side doctor for emergency surgery! Doctor gives you pain meds for two weeks and tell you not to use the other ones til the stronger meds are gone! Try to explain to your PA and all she can say it’s out of her hands! You contact those above her and those above him and same story! They won’t fix you and they won’t help stop the pain! The VA turning their backs to us again and again!

  18. Tosandra Branham August 5, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Awesome! Make U.S. Proud!

  19. Robert D Genung August 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    I applied and got a PTSD disability. But not for my hearing loss, no records to be found for my tour in Vietnam. As for AO, if u don’t have one of the ailments listed, to bad. U sprayed us, so pay us. Don’t wait until I’m dying.
    Cudos go out to the people at Rancho Cucamonga / Loma-Linda office. They work their butts off to try and help all who walk thru their doors.

  20. Billy J Shafer August 5, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    Robert You should know the VA doesn’t care about us blue water guys. I was on the USS Saratoga CVA 60 1972. Flew through Da nang quite often. You are correct about them wanting us to die off. Get a bigger bonus check that way. I have had three heart attacks and a stroke. Health was confirmed bad due to Agent Orange exposure by the VA. But suddenly my records got lost. Now just one excuse after another.

    Hope the ones that get a bonus check. Will stop and thank us that died waiting for help. For making it possible for them to get that check.

  21. Samuel Hammerschmidt August 5, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Did you have to wait in line ? Your Disneyland comments still linger in my mind and as comments above state the internal problems and incompetent staff appointments continue which includes your appointment. You have done very little to solve the problems but continue help with the covering up while VETS wait for service that takes and unacceptable time frame. You sir should be ashamed of yourself for the Deaths of the VETS in the VA Health Care System.

  22. Billy J Shafer August 5, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    The VA lost my records three years ago. When I contact them I am told to fill out the request for health information form 10-5345a. Which I have five times now. But I don’t think they even read my request. Because I get a blank form with instructions on how to fill it out. Sent to the wrong address. Even though my current address is on the form. As well as the form is filled out per the instruction.

    I am not asking for anything special. Just the help I was promised I would get. But I guess I will join the other veterans that are dying off waiting for help. I guess the more of us that die off. The bigger the bonus the VA leaders will get.

  23. Kerri E. Teed August 5, 2016 at 11:07 am

    It seems like the VA has gotten worse over the past couple years instead of improving. I hear lots of fluff and propaganda coming from the VA but nothing substantial has improved. The buildings have gotten prettier to make the public think things are better for Veterans but it is just smoke and mirrors. In the language of the military, the VA is unsat.

    • Michael Keating August 10, 2016 at 9:30 am

      I am not trying to be a smart (redacted) or come of like a know it all but we have to take responsibility for some of our actions. It was a tough route but the wife and I backed everything up on a jump drive. That way if there were any questions, we had the answer. My VSO who is also the County VSO where we live was a really big help. She also made copies of everything and kept it in her safe at work. It seems like a lot of veterans have this chip on their shoulder. Granted they promised us the benefits, but you can bet your sweet bippy if they won’t give it to me I will do everything in my power to take what is rightfully mind.

  24. Robert A Buono August 5, 2016 at 10:34 am

    It took 9 months for the VA to finally supply my C file to my lawyers, yet if we need to file an appeal to a decision, we have to have it filed in 60 days! How ludicrous is that? If that file is needed to file the appeal, well, guess you are just out of luck. If you are doing so much, why have you turned your back on the thousands of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Vets and literally thumbed you nose at the law voted in 1991 (Agent Orange Bill) in the face of overwhelming evidence that blue water navy actually ingested toxins from agent orange waters off the shore of Vietnam. Guess you are just waiting for us to die off! Better get prepared to add to the wall another 70 or 80 thousand name cause there are lots of us that died in Vietnam, we just haven’t made it to the wall yet!

  25. LC Hughs August 5, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Bob

    You can make even more improvements to the VA if you would stop the “nepotism” within your organizations hiring system and start getting fresh blood into the VA. You need motivated people with new ideas to take it to the next level. Take a look at hiring actions and you’ll see that most GS-15 are marked for internal VA personnel ONLY. “If you keep doing the same thing, the same way, you will get the same result”.

  26. Michael Bryant August 3, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    And it still takes months if not years to get any kind of response, when applying for a disability upgrade, adding spouses to a veteran’s disability benefits, and any other administrative requests. The bureaucracy, bureaucrats, and red tape have not changed, Getting through to them is more difficult than bailing out the Titanic with a soup spoon.
    I am in the process of adopting my great-granddaughter, and am expecting it to take at least 6-12 months to get her added to my disability benefits,once the adoption is complete.

    • Michael Caris August 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      I served in Vietnam 1968-1969 with the 101st Airborne Division. Since I returned home, I have sought help in many areas, primarily PTSD. The VAMC at St. Cloud, Minnesota, has provided outstanding services with both my physical and mental health needs.

      Now I need to step up and defend the professionals that take care of me. They are outstanding in every way. I can access services when I need them without long delays. This extends to not only my physical health, but my mental health as well.

      I hate to read so many criticisms of the VA when they’ve done so much for me. Keep up the great work!

    • Jack Lawson Easterwood August 5, 2016 at 1:28 pm

      I am one of those “First Sergeant”, the Director mentioned and I have to say, I don’t find the VA living up to the same standards that we, the members of the Military both set and maintained. I have waited for 71 days fro a Cat Scan only to wait more than an hour and half for the ten minute procedure, after the scheduled appointment time. I am still waiting for a disability upgrade retro pay, since last year. (The Army audit was finished in January of this year). While I understand the huge problems facing the VA due to the inability to attract good, honest professionals (Doctors, Nurses and Techs); I also feel that there are some VA workers who just don’t care about the people they are supposed to e serving. Not so much the care givers, as the paper pushers and Mid level management. In fact, one would be hard pressed to receive better care from any Primary Care Doctor or Nurse Practitioner than is found at the VA. That said, there is still much to be done to bring the VA up to par in their service to the veterans of this country.

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