“He’ll have to go a long way to prove himself to a very skeptical population who would prefer someone with more direct veteran and VA experience,” said Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.
“He’s starting in a position of public deficit because of who he is not,” he said.
Veterans groups have come to expect VA chiefs to carry deep community ties into the job, and there is disappointment among group leaders that McDonough did not serve in uniform, said one top veterans service organization official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the selection.
Another longtime veteran advocate wondered if the pick meant Biden takes VA seriously.
“Is this just a crony pick, or an afterthought? He has zero affiliation with veterans,” the advocate said. “No one’s saying you have to be a hard core vet to lead VA, but we have someone here who is not a vet who doesn’t understand the culture of the only Cabinet-level agency with a built-in constituency that’s actually engaged and vocal.”
The Biden transition team said McDonough, chosen for his closeness to Biden and experience wrangling bureaucracy, is eager to win over skeptics and has started outreach to veterans leaders.
“McDonough knows how to pull every lever of government to effectively serve our veterans and their families,” the transition said.
If confirmed, McDonough would be the 11th VA secretary since the agency was elevated to a Cabinet-level organization in 1989 but only its second nonveteran leader. VA, the second-largest federal agency, includes health care for 9 million veterans, a vast benefits bureaucracy and dozens of national cemeteries, with a budget of $263 billion in 2021.
Selecting McDonough, a trusted Obama administration hand, is a promising sign for a strong relationship with Biden off the bat, Butler said. His efforts to guide the VA Choice Act, a measure that allowed veterans to seek non-VA care and a bill President Trump has tried to take credit for, also shows chops for navigating Capitol Hill, he said.
But Butler also said out of IAVA’s three desired criteria for a VA secretary — a veteran, health-care experience and bureaucracy management — McDonough meets only the management requirement. Yet he has not overseen anything close to the size of VA, a workforce that has crested 300,000 employees.
The pick was so unexpected that Amvets, a veterans service organization, had prepared news releases centered on other candidates but not any material on McDonough, said executive director Joe Chenelly.
Amvets was looking forward to a woman or a veteran of post-9/11 military to lead VA, Chenelly said, in a pivotal moment when female veterans are the fastest growing group within VA.
“We were thinking this was going to be history, but not this kind of history,” Chenelly said. “We’re a little concerned, but we have open ears. We want to hear as soon as possible about his vision.”
Recent VA secretaries, including Robert Wilkie and Bob McDonald, leaned on their prior service to connect with veterans. Trump’s first VA secretary, David Shulkin, did not serve in the military.
Other veterans groups, including Wounded Warrior Project, welcomed the selection of McDonough.
Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, said it was more important for McDonough to be experienced and influential within policy circles.
“You don’t have to be a veteran to be a great veterans advocate,” Weidman said. “He’s very serious, and he’ll get things done.”
The selection, he said, renewed optimism that McDonough will work with veterans groups on unfinished work, including linking toxic exposure to health concerns.
Burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, defoliants such as Agent Orange in Vietnam and depleted uranium during the Gulf War have left veterans with crippling problems, but VA has been slow to recognize the evidence, which has affected benefits and care, Weidman said.
Progress has stalled in recent years, he said.
“The Trump administration basically blew off the veterans organizations and didn’t take us seriously,” Weidman said.
Other veterans group leaders have voiced similar frustrations with current VA chief Wilkie, necessitating repairs to the relationship between VA’s executive office and veterans groups, they said.
VA’s inspector general said Wilkie openly denigrated the staffer, Andrea Goldstein, and ascribed political motives to her claims in a report issued Thursday. Wilkie denied the claims.
McDonough does carry some ties to prior service members. His wife, Kari, is the president and co-founder of Vets’ Community Connections, a nonprofit group based in San Diego focused on strengthening ties between veterans and the larger community.
Patrick Murphy, a former lawmaker and Army undersecretary who was a candidate for the position, congratulated McDonough on Twitter.
“He’s a good man & cares deeply about meeting the challenges the VA faces today,” Murphy said.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.