Veteran groups with focus on minority vets will present their priorities to Congress

Airmen stand at attention during a retreat ceremony March 30, 2018, on Kadena Air Base, Japan. An all-female formation was coordinated in honor of Women’s History Month, which brings attention to the accomplishments and achievements of women throughout history.
Airmen stand at attention during a retreat ceremony March 30, 2018, on Kadena Air Base, Japan. An all-female formation was coordinated in honor of Women’s History Month, which brings attention to the accomplishments and achievements of women throughout history. Photo credit Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony/Air Force

Four new veteran service organizations focused on advocating for minority veterans will join the largest veteran groups in presenting their priorities to Congress this year.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, announced the additions to the committee's VSO legislative presentations on Wednesday. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Association for Black Veterans (NABVETS), Minority Veterans of America (MVA), and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) will all join the oldest, largest and most established veterans groups in presenting to lawmakers priorities they believe Congresss should legislate in the coming years. Those presentations begin next week.

“This week, I announced that our Committee will prioritize creating a welcoming VA and building equity for all veterans. Our greatest chance at making progress on this goal is to ensure that VSOs that have made diversity, equity, and inclusion their top priority have a seat at the table,” Takano said in a statement. “Our yearly legislative presentations provide critical insight into VSOs’ priorities and the needs of their members, but for too long, VSOs that specifically advocate for minority veterans have been excluded."

As the veteran population growns, Takano continued, with women and other minority groups, including people of color among the fastest growing cohorts, Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies must adapt to serve those groups.

"With more women, LGBTQ+, Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native veterans than ever before, we have to ensure that the VSOs that advocate on their behalf are a part of the conversation," Takano said. "This is a small first step towards truly building equity, but a crucial one as the Committee reaffirms its commitment to addressing inequities across VA. All veterans should know they have a place at VA and feel safe and welcomed walking through its doors.”

Takano and other lawmakers on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have increasingly said they wanted to make minority veterans, including women, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans, among others, a bigger priority in their work.

Under the Biden administration, that focus is also being heard at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where newly installed Secretary Denis McDonough recently ordered a review of policies at the department to ensure inclusion of LGBTQ veterans, families and staff, in line with broader executive orders from the president.

In his first press briefing Tuesday, McDonough vowed to make minority veterans, families and staff a priority of his VA, and that he planned to install a diverse leadership team. He didn't share a timeline for putting that team together, however, but said it would be an important example of his dedication to a mission of inclusivity.

McDonough also specifically promised to address racial disparities within VA. Last year, a union survey showed that the majority (78%) of VA employees believe racism is a series, pervasive problem at the department, and 55% said they witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while at work.

Black VA staff and civil rights leaders also called on former President Donald Trump and former Secretary Robert Wilkie to address what they described as devastating incidents of racism within the department.

“Confronting this question of racial inequity will be a fundamental part of my tenure here, not least because the president is demanding it,” McDonough told reporters Tuesday.

Veterans of color have also been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with VA researchers saying there was an "urgent need to proactively tailor strategies to contain and prevent further outbreaks in racial and ethnic minority communities."

In his first statement as leader of the second-largest federal agency, McDonough vowed that he would not accept "discrimination, harassment or assault at any level" within VA, a priority he shares with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Takano. A senior advisor to Takano and other Veterans Affairs lawmakers, who is also a Navy veteran, said she was sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center in 2019, which grew into an even greater scandal when an internal watchdog report found the former VA secretary and his senior staff attempted to discredit her.

Following that report, lawmakers including leaders such as Takano, all of the major national veteran service organizations, and some of those that represent minority veterans, called for Wilkie's removal, just weeks before McDonough would be confirmed as secretary in his place.

A Government Accountability Office report released last year showed one in four VA employees experienced sexual harassment and one in three witnessed harassment. Previous VA data showed one in four women veterans also face harassment at VA medical facilities, and some women veterans delayed care because of it.

Takano and other Veterans Affairs lawmakers in Congress, including the Congressional Women Veterans Task Force, have made addressing harassment and assault a priority in their legislative work. Under the previous administration, veterans told Connecting Vets they were disturbed to hear a former senior VA leader tell lawmakers that harassment was "not pervasive" at the sprawling department.

"All VA patients, staff, their families, caregivers, survivors, visitors, and advocates must feel safe in a workplace free of harassment and discrimination," McDonough said in a statement shortly after his confirmation as secretary. "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."

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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