In his first message to veterans and department staff since his confirmation, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough promised to base all of his decisions around “whether it increases veterans’ access to care and benefits and improves outcomes for them” as he takes on the task of reforming the massive federal bureaucracy.

“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 a statement shortly after he was sworn into office Tuesday.

“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.”

McDonough, who served as chief of staff under President Barack Obama, is only the second non-veteran to be confirmed to VA’s top leadership role. The Senate voted 87-7 on Monday in favor of his nomination, and Vice President Kamala Harris formally swore him into office less than 18 hours later.

Most of the themes in McDonough’s first message as secretary echoed the same promises he outlined in his confirmation hearing last month.

He said the department is prepared to “do everything in our power to help veterans get through this pandemic [and] help them build civilian lives through education and jobs worthy of their skills and service.” He also promised to keep the department’s focus on ending veterans sucide and homelessness while making VA a place that “welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color, and LGBTQ veterans.”

In a nod to scandals that undermined the last months of his predecessor, former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, McDonough also said that his leadership team will put an emphasis on preventing discrimination and sexual harassment throughout the VA system. Numerous veteran groups and Democratic lawmakers had called for Wilkie’s resignation for mishandling a sexual assault claim by a veteran visiting the Washington, D.C. VA medical center.

“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.”

The White House has yet to release the names of nominees of other senior VA appointees, including McDonough’s top deputy and head of VA health care programs. On Tuesday, McDonough hinted only that those nominees would reflect “the incredible diversity that defines our veteran population and all of America.”

Specific announcements on those personnel are expected in coming weeks.

McDonough said that now that his confirmation is finished, he is moving forward to “fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the benefits, services, respect, and dignity they deserve,” echoing a line he has used numerous times since his own nomination was announced in December.

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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