The Department of Veterans Affairs and NGAUS share a sacred duty to advocate on behalf of the nation’s veterans, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told the 143rd General Conference & Exhibition on Sunday.
McDonough praised the association for those efforts and thanked Guardsmen around the country for their efforts over the past 18 months, to include the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, civil disturbances and the overseas fight.
He particularly honed in on the Guard’s efforts in Afghanistan over the past two decades and its COVID duty in more recent months, urging Afghan war veterans to seek help if disturbed by recent weeks in the country, including mass evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies, and imploring members of the Guard to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“When our country was attacked, the Guard ran to the fight, not away from it,” McDonough said. “And many of you volunteered to serve to protect us and defend our freedom.”
In the days, weeks, months, years, even decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of Guardsmen were called to active duty to secure the homeland and fight battles around the world, he said.
McDonough said he knows recent developments in Afghanistan are painful for many and their families.
“There’s no way anyone who didn’t serve in Afghanistan can fully understand,” he said. “But veterans do understand … and they’re ready and want to help.”
McDonough also urged COVID-19 vaccinations as the next way the Guard can serve to end the ongoing pandemic.
He said 99% of those dying from the coronavirus now are unvaccinated, saying that nearly every COVID death is preventable.
“The best way to honor lost loved ones is to get the vaccine,” he said, adding that it was the only way to end the pandemic and return to a normal life.
McDonough urged Guard units to turn to the VA and Vet Centers as a resource. He said the VA is offering more care, more benefits and more services to more veterans than ever before.
“You’re serving with great honor and courage, globally and locally. It’s what you do,” he said. “Whenever and wherever there’s trouble and someone needs a hand, you’re there. That’s what the Guard does, that’s what you’ve been doing for 385 years.”