'Steep Learning Curve:' Muted Response to VA Secretary Nominee from Veterans Groups

Denis McDonough at a farewell ceremony for Ash Carter.
Then White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon, Dec. 2, 2013. (Dept. of Defense/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton)

President-elect Joe Biden's choice of an Obama administration insider with no military or health care background to head the Department of Veterans Affairs has been met with a mix of qualified support, non-commitment, and stunned disappointment by veterans groups.

The two largest veterans service organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, reserved judgment on Denis McDonough, former White House chief of staff, to head the VA. Biden announced Thursday that McDonough was his nominee. If confirmed, McDonough would be only the second non-veteran to serve in the post, after Trump VA Secretary David Shulkin.

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Chanin Nuntavong, the American Legion's executive director of government affairs, said in a phone interview that the Legion "looks forward to working with whoever is VA secretary" and developing "a good partnership," but added that McDonough still had to make it through Senate confirmation.

In a statement, the VFW had a similar response: "It remains premature for the VFW to comment on the nomination of Mr. McDonough until he goes through the Senate confirmation process."

Other veterans advocates -- some on the record and some privately -- expressed disappointment and voiced concerns that Biden had chosen to go with someone he knew well from his White House days, when they'd hoped he would make a statement by naming the first post-9/11 veteran or the first woman to head VA.

"Denis McDonough, if confirmed, has an incredibly steep learning curve in front of him," Jeremy Butler, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement.

He said IAVA had stated three criteria for the next person to lead the VA -- a veteran, a medical professional and an individual with experience running large bureaucracies.

"Denis McDonough arguably meets one of those criteria at best" with his background in dealing with large government agencies from the White House, Butler said.

In a statement, Joe Chenelly, national executive director of the AMVETS veterans service organization, echoed the sentiments.

"We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran. Maybe a woman veteran. Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well," Chenelly said.

In a later statement Thursday, AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown gave qualified support to Biden's choice and congratulated McDonough.

"While we are concerned that this nominee is not a veteran and may not fully understand the Department of Veterans Affairs and its complexities, we are in need of new ideas and leadership," Brown said.

When he announced the pick, Biden said that McDonough would bring to the VA his experience as "a lifelong public servant who has been engaged at the highest level in shaping domestic and foreign policy."

Those outside the White House who have worked with the 51-year-old McDonough also attested to his character and grasp of veterans issues.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington, chief executive officer of the Wounded Warrior Project, said that McDonough used his White House positions to help "address complex issues facing military service members, veterans, and their families, bringing a whole-of-government approach to issues facing the Department of Defense and VA."

"Having spent time with Mr. McDonough in Afghanistan in 2009, and again in the Pentagon between 2013-2015, it's clear he cares deeply for this critical work" at the VA, Linnington said in a statement.

Philip Carter, an Iraq veteran, adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, and former military and veterans issues analyst at the Center for a New American Security Security, also praised McDonough's character and abilities.

"I've known [McDonough] almost 15 years," Carter said in a Twitter post. "He's a crisis-tested public servant who has worked at the highest levels, and knows [better than almost anyone] how to effectively pull the levers of government to support & serve veterans and their families."

"Denis was always there for service members, veterans, and their families. He led/managed and delivered results -- from post-9/11 GI Bill to Joining Forces to veteran homelessness," Carter added.

Biden's selection bypassed several candidates who'd been publicly championed for the job.

The main union at the VA, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 260,000 of the more than 390,000 VA workers, had lobbied for the nomination of former Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., an Iraq veteran and former undersecretary of the Army.

In a Nov. 17 Twitter post, the AFGE said "it's long past time we had a VA Secretary that understands veterans and those who care for them every day. And there couldn't be anyone better for the job than Patrick Murphy."

Others in the veterans community had mentioned the possibility that Biden might choose Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq veteran and combat amputee also believed to have been on Biden's short list for Defense Secretary before he nominated retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin.

Another outside possibility for VA secretary was W. Scott Gould, a former Navy captain and deputy secretary at the VA in the Obama administration. Gould is married to Michele Flournoy, who was widely expected to be tapped for defense secretary before Biden chose Austin for the job.

Since his time in the White House, McDonough has been teaching public policy at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

R. Scott Appleby, dean of the Keough School, called McDonough, an "outstanding role model of an American patriot who cares deeply about advancing human dignity globally and here at home."

A Stillwater, Minnesota, native, McDonough has attributed his public service to the values he learned from playing safety on the football teams coached by Hall of Fame legend John Gagliardi at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

When he died in 2018, McDonough spoke at the funeral.

"There's thousands of young men who came through St. John's and were able to do things because of the lessons they learned from John," McDonough said.

"And whether that was a lesson about perseverance, or clarity of thought, or the remarkable marriage and love story he had with his wife and the way he honored his wife," he said. "These are lessons we all took."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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