Steve Brock & Jeff Le: Veterans will benefit if Denis McDonough is confirmed as Veterans Affairs secretary

President-elect Joe Biden has made a wise choice in selecting former White House Chief of Staff and Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. McDonough is the right leader for a difficult job in tumultuous times.

We know this to be true from our own experience. One of us served for 28 years as a Navy officer and worked directly with then-Deputy National Security Adviser McDonough in the White House during the Obama administration. The other oversaw veterans affairs at the Cabinet level in the governor’s office in California, home to 1.6 million veterans. 

While McDonough’s nomination may have come as a surprise to many because he is not a veteran, we believe he is exceptionally qualified to become Veterans Affairs secretary. 


McDonough embodies the leadership traits most valued by veterans: an ethos of people first, mission always. Accessible and results-driven, McDonough empowers and inspires staff. His unique brand of leadership will bring a critical morale boost and confidence that the Department of Veterans Affairs desperately needs.

A world-class manager, McDonough is “a fierce advocate and relentless workhorse,” as Biden described him.

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While leading the National Security Council, McDonough understood the sacred trust between those making national security policy and those who go into harm’s way to complete the mission. And he never lost sight of the critical contributions of our military families.

McDonough’s track record of designing and implementing government-wide policies to strengthen health care and mental wellness programs will position the Department of Veterans Affairs for success across all veteran communities, including post-9/11, older, women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ and rural veterans.

McDonough has promised to forge meaningful, powerful partnerships with veteran service organizations, their members, families, caregivers, and survivors to provide world-class value-based health care at scale for all 9 million veterans in our country.

Most importantly, McDonough recognizes that taking care of veterans must be one of the top commitments of the entire federal government, not just the Department of Veterans Affairs.

McDonough has the proven acumen to mobilize the full spectrum of federal and state agencies in common cause for veterans. We’ve seen firsthand his skill forging interagency cooperation to get things done.  

Veteran service organizations supporting this complex ecosystem can rest assured there is no leader better equipped to utilize the levers of government to deliver policies to serve our veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is in desperate need of new leadership.

Tragically, more than 6,000 veterans and 90 employees in the department’s care homes and medical centers have died from the coronavirus. Cases are increasing at an alarming rate among those who served. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health, homelessness, and food insecurity challenges veterans already faced.

By one estimate, 550 more veterans are expected to commit suicide over the next year due to the added strain from the pandemic. This comes on top of the average of 20 veterans who already end their own lives every day in America

Denis McDonough in 2013, when he was President Obama’s chief of staff (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Denis McDonough in 2013, when he was President Obama’s chief of staff (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

With veterans losing their jobs and access to critical services during the pandemic, the risk of homelessness and new substance use disorders has skyrocketed. A June study found almost 40 percent of veteran and military families required food support during the pandemic.

Yet in this time of incredible need, the Department of Veterans Affairs is rudderless and in crisis. It is failing the service members who sacrificed so much for us at precisely the time they most need help.

Veterans have lost confidence in their leaders. Six of the country’s most influential veterans groups — the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America — recently called for Secretary Robert Wilkie to be fired following a damning report from the Office of  Inspector General.

The report found pervasive misconduct and mismanagement at the highest level, including efforts to smear a veteran for her substantiated claim of sexual harassment and to stonewall the investigation into her claims. We owe these veterans so much more.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, both California Democrats, called on Secretary Wilke to resign after the critical report was issued.


We must do better because beyond the current crises, enormous challenges lie ahead. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of the 2.7 million Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have post-traumatic stress and over 414,000 have traumatic brain injuries.

Another 34,000 Vietnam War veterans suffer from prolonged and significant health issues, likely caused by the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. 

As we simultaneously confront the pandemic, economic recession, racial inequality, homelessness and health care transformation, our nation is fortunate that a public servant of McDonough’s caliber, courage and commitment has stepped forward.


After his selection by President-elect Biden was announced, McDonough said he would “fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the health care, respect and dignity they deserve” if the Senate confirms him as Veterans Affairs secretary.

Now it’s our turn to fight like hell to give him that chance. Contact your senator today to urge him or her to support Denis McDonough. We know he is more than up for the job. He will not let our veterans down.

Jeff Le served as deputy Cabinet secretary to California Gov. Jerry Brown from 2015 to 2019 and oversaw military and veterans’ affairs. He is a political partner at the Truman National Security Project. Follow him @JeffreyDLe.

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