As the 11th secretary of Veterans Affairs since President Ronald Reagan established it as a cabinet-level organization in 1988, Secretary Denis McDonough hardly has big shoes to fill.
Each secretary has made promises, and some have made changes: Jesse Brown expanded service to all veterans but particularly for women veterans, and he extended health care through a series of clinics. Edward Derwinski added some benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Bob McDonald created the first Veterans Experience Office expressly to improve the us-against-them feeling so many veterans complain about.
But in the background, scandals arose. Eric Shinseki, beloved by his staff and by his boss, President Barack Obama, inherited a benefits backlog issue that went back years. It was first highlighted during the Walter Reed Scandal in 2007 under Secretary James Nicholson, when soldiers faced a Defense Department backlog in the military medical retirement system. After leaving the military and beginning VA's benefits process, they then faced a second 400,000-plus case backlog at VA. Nicholson had also resigned.
Health benefits were denied to Gulf War veterans, Vietnam veterans, and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans killed themselves at high rates -- and a VA official issued the infamous "shhh!" memo wondering if VA officials should issue a statement before someone "stumbled" on the problem. And 13,000 old benefits cases were found in a filing cabinet.
Most recently, Sec. Robert Wilkie, a President Donald Trump appointee, chose to discredit a House Veterans Affairs staffer and Navy reservist after she reported being groped and verbally assaulted at a VA facility in Washington -- rather than look into the case and work to prevent it from happening again. Reporting from ProPublica led to a government investigation.