Denis McDonough, 51, at a White House ceremony in 2014, served as deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama and later took the job as Obama’s chief of staff.

Denis McDonough, 51, at a White House ceremony in 2014, served as deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama and later took the job as Obama’s chief of staff. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Denis McDonough, a longtime aide of former President Barack Obama, to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The Biden transition team made the announcement official in an email Thursday morning. A member of the transition team, speaking anonymously, said Biden chose McDonough because he’s a “crisis-tested public servant” with “the empathy, the character, the integrity and ethics, and the relentless work ethic the position demands.”

“McDonough helped lead the Obama-Biden administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans and earned the trust of the president-elect as a first-class manager with the knowledge and vision to deliver results,” the official announcement said.

McDonough is expected to address the public Friday afternoon during an event where Biden will officially introduce him as his nominee.

McDonough, 51, served as principal deputy national security adviser under Obama and later took the job as Obama’s chief of staff. McDonough began working with Obama in 2007 as the then-senator’s senior foreign policy adviser. Before working for Obama, McDonough held staff positions in the House and Senate.

If confirmed, McDonough would become only the second secretary of Veterans Affairs who is not a veteran. David Shulkin, whom President Donald Trump nominated as VA secretary at the start of his presidency, was the first.

As head of the VA, McDonough would be in charge of the country’s second-largest federal agency, with 400,000 employees and an annual budget that recently surpassed $200 billion.

Some leaders in national veterans’ organizations were pushing Biden’s team to nominate a woman, a post-9/11 veteran or a combination of both. Since 1989, when the department was created as a Cabinet-level agency, all of its secretaries have been men. No post-9/11 veteran has taken the helm of the agency.

“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,” said Joe Chenelly, national director of AMVETS. “We are looking forward to hearing from President-Elect Biden on his thinking behind this nomination.”

Women are the fastest-growing demographic in the military, with the number using VA health care almost tripling since 2000, from 160,000 to 475,000, according to VA data. Veterans’ advocates have criticized the department for being slow to adapt to treating more women.

Veterans who served after the 9/11 terrorist attacks are becoming a larger portion of the U.S. veteran population. A report released by the Census Bureau this year shows that post-9/11 veterans have the highest rate of disabilities connected to their military service than any other group of veterans — a finding that indicates a growing number of younger veterans will need VA resources.

Biden has been focused on one issue that’s plagued Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans: toxic exposure. Biden’s son, Beau, was a post-9/11 veteran and a member of the Delaware Army National Guard who served in Iraq in 2008. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, and his father suspects exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq could have been to blame.

In a statement on Veterans Day, Biden said he wants to ensure that “no veteran is locked out of treatment for conditions related to toxic exposures.”

While some leaders in the veterans community are weary of Biden’s pick of McDonough, VoteVets, a liberal veterans organization, praised it.

“What the VA needs, more than anything, is an experienced manager with a deep depth of knowledge about how the agency works, how it interacts with other agencies, and how to quickly build the agency back even better,” Will Fischer, senior adviser to VoteVets, said in a statement.

A member of Biden’s transition team said that McDonough helped lead the Obama administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans and often collaborated with former VA Secretary Bob McDonald on policy priorities.

In a statement Thursday, McDonald supported McDonough’s nomination, saying he would be an empathetic leader of the VA.

“His leadership and support as then White House chief of staff was very helpful to what we achieved while I was secretary,” McDonald said. “He is a crisis-tested leader of character with great knowledge, skills and experience in using the levers of government.”

During his time on the National Security Council, McDonough regularly traveled to see troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, a Biden transition team member said. He also visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to visit wounded service members.

McDonough’s wife, Kari, is the co-founder and president of Vets Community Connections, which aims to help veterans, service members and their families integrate into their communities after military service.

If McDonough’s nomination is successful, he will take over the VA at a challenging time. The agency, which operates the country’s largest health care system, is grappling with the logistics of administering coronavirus vaccines to millions of veterans and a staff of more than 400,000. At the same time, the department is reporting its highest-ever number of active coronavirus cases among VA patients and is still providing support to states through its fourth mission to serve as backup for the American medical system.

The Veterans Benefits Administration, which is responsible for managing financial assistance to veterans, is working through a backlog of hundreds of thousands of benefits claims after the process was paused at the start of the pandemic.

The VA is also facing tens of thousands of personnel vacancies, as well as growing suicide and homelessness among veterans that isn’t ebbing despite recent efforts. The department is also undergoing a major change to its electronic health record system, building a new network of private-sector medical providers to treat VA patients and expanding its assistance program for veteran caregivers.

Congress recently mandated that a commission conduct a comprehensive review of VA facilities and determine buildings to close and where to invest. The commission’s work is set for 2022.

Advocates for minority and female veterans are also calling for a culture change at the VA, and for the department to become more inclusive.

Biden chose McDonough to replace current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who has led the department since March 2018. Wilkie came to the VA from the Pentagon, where he worked as the undersecretary of personnel and readiness. He took over the VA after Trump fired Shulkin.

Biden announced the pick Thursday along with his choices of Tom Vilsack for secretary of Agriculture, Marcia Fudge for secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Katherine Tai as U.S Trade Representative and Susan Rice as director of the Domestic Policy Council.

“This dedicated and distinguished group of public servants will bring the highest level of experience, compassion, and integrity to bear, solving problems and expanding possibilities for the American people in the face of steep challenges,” Biden said in a statement. “This is the right team for this moment in history, and I know that each of these leaders will hit the ground running on day one to take on the interconnected crises families are facing today.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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