Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough became the 11th secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.
Vice President Kamala Harris administered the oath of office to McDonough using his father's Bible. McDonough's wife, Karin Hillstrom, was present at the brief event, as were their two sons. The couple's college-aged daughter, Addie, joined via video.
During his confirmation hearing, McDonough said he would work to ensure that veterans are receiving the best care, support and treatment through the COVID-19 pandemic; he also pledged to ensure that the VA improves services for all veterans.
On Tuesday, he said he would make every decision based on whether it "increases veterans' access to care and benefits and improves outcomes for them."
"Assessments of our efforts will be measured by the outcomes we generate for veterans and by listening to what veterans have to say about their experiences," McDonough said in a message to employees and veterans.
He will "ensure that VA welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans" and strive to make sure employees live up to the department's core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence in "all our interactions," he said.
"This means that all VA patients, staff, their families, caregivers, survivors, visitors and advocates must feel safe in a workplace free of harassment and discrimination. 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," McDonough said.
He also singled out veterans who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military, saying the department will "redouble efforts" to provide care and services for them.
"We can achieve our mission only by embracing the incredible diversity that defines our veteran population and all of America, leveraging everyone's talents and passions," McDonough said.
The Senate confirmed McDonough's nomination Monday in an 87-7 vote; all those who voted against him were Republicans and five were veterans. None of those who opposed the nomination publicly said why they were against it.
Speaking before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the VA has "one of the most sacred missions" of government -- caring for veterans -- and the task requires "organization, institutional know-how, and administrative troubleshooting."
"I am confident that Mr. McDonough's decades of experience at the highest levels of government make him well-qualified to take on the job," Schumer said.
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, also praised McDonough before the vote.
"He has experience leading and implementing policy across the federal government and has earned a reputation for being able to make government work better. Although he is not a veteran, he has made his case that he is personally devoted to serving veterans and seeing them achieve success, and it is my belief that he is sincere in that assertion," Moran said.
McDonough takes office as the VA is in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, which had killed 9,648 VA patients and sickened at least 215,000 as of Tuesday. The department continues to provide support at non-VA facilities, including 2,417 staff members working with state and local health care systems as part of the nationwide pandemic response.
And it is working through the process of vaccinating its nine million VA patients. As of Tuesday, the VA had vaccinated more than 898,000 veterans.
"President Biden gave me a clear mission -- to be a fierce, staunch advocate for veterans and their families. His marching order to me is clear: Fight like hell for veterans," McDonough said.
His nomination came as a surprise to veterans organizations, some of which expressed disappointment in the selection of a non-veteran.
But following his confirmation vote, many expressed a desire to work with him to benefit veterans.
"Though we have and will continue to confront VA policies when we believe they fall short, the American Legion also believes that VA is a system worth preserving for America's veterans. Congratulations, Secretary McDonough," American Legion National Commander Bill Oxford said.
"The new secretary arrives at a time when the VA is challenged to meet the critical needs of veterans during a deadly and continuing pandemic. We encourage him to act as a true partner in helping veterans obtain the quality and timely services they need, and to work transparently and with accountability with the [veteran and military service organization] community toward that goal," Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Executive Vice President Tom Porter said.
Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative organization that supports broader use of private health networks and physicians to provide care to veterans, issued a statement expressing hope that McDonough will preserve the VA's community care programs as they were outlined by the Mission Act, signed by former President Donald Trump.
"We call on the Secretary to provide assurances community care access standards will not be walked back, and veterans will retain the freedom to choose the care that meets their unique needs," CVA Executive Director Nate Anderson said.