New VA Secretary: 'I will not accept discrimination, harassment or assault at any level'

Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) is sworn in as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs as his wife Kari McDonough (R) looks on February 9, 2021 at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. McDonough was confirmed by the U.S. Senate yesterday with an 87-7 vote.
Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) is sworn in as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs as his wife Kari McDonough (R) looks on February 9, 2021 at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. McDonough was confirmed by the U.S. Senate yesterday with an 87-7 vote. Photo credit Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his first public statement, newly confirmed Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough promised a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, harassment and assault at the second-largest federal agency.

"All VA patients, staff, their families, caregivers, survivors, visitors, and advocates must feel safe in a workplace free of harassment and discrimination," McDonough said. "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."

McDonough further promised that the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration would both redouble efforts to care for veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma, "ensuring they can all count on VA's support."

The previous administration, including former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and his senior staff, were criticized for their handling of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination cases, and Wilkie faced calls for his removal over it.

All of the largest national veteran service organizations called for Wilkie to step down or be removed following a damning watchdog report released late last year that found he and his senior staff sought to discredit a veteran and senior congressional advisor who reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. Wilkie did not resign and was not removed in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

Under the previous administration, VA came under increasing scrutiny for issues of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. A federal survey found that about 22% of VA employees reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. Va had the highest rate of sexual harassment of the 24 federal agencies surveyed -- about 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported experiencing harassment over the two years. LGBTQ and Black women can face even higher rates of harassment.

Sexual harassment complaints at VA have increased in recent years, though the numbers likely underestimate the total cases filed since the department does not require harassment complaints to be reported to VA headquarters. In 2016, VA had 158 cases, which grew to 168 in 2017, a high of 225 in 2018 and 180 in 2019.

Watchdog reports also found that VA's sexual harassment prevention policies are inconsistent and incomplete.

A year ago, VA officials told Congress that for about two years, one in five veterans' military sexual trauma claims were wrongfully denied or improperly handled by VA.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials also said they recognized the issue of "the Gauntlet" or "the hallway of shame" at many VA medical facilities, where groups of men loiter, seemingly omnipresent and unavoidable at the entrance where patients and staff must pass to reach their appointments. The men, usually VA patients and veterans themselves, frequently volley sexually harassing comments of varying degrees of degradation and leering stares at passersby. Sometimes they invade personal space or follow patients and staff further into the hospital or parking lot. Sometimes, it goes beyond harassment and becomes sexual assault.

A nationwide union survey of VA employees found that nearly 80% believe racism is a series, pervasive problem at the massive federal agency, and more than half reported witnessing racial discrimination against veterans while at work.

Now, with a slate of newly installed staff and advisors, McDonough has promised to tackle issues of assault, harassment and discrimination at VA, which cares for roughly 9 million veterans and has a staff of about 400,000.

"President Biden gave me a clear mission — to be a fierce, staunch advocate for veterans and their families," McDonough said in his statement Tuesday. "His marching order to me is clear — fight like hell for veterans. And we are going to fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the benefits, services, respect and dignity they deserve."

Veterans and visitors can report to patient advocates, VA police and the Women Veterans Call Center. Call or text 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Employees can report to the Harassment Prevention Program, VA police or the Disruptive Behavior Reporting System. Call 1-888-566-3982, option 3. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual harassment or assault, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE or chat online at online.rainn.org

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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