HAMPTON, Va. - Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the United States, Dennis McDonough, toured the Hampton VA Medical Center on Friday afternoon.
The Secretary along with Congresswoman Elaine Luria, Congressman Bobby Scott, and Senator Mark Warner visited with VA leadership and staff and received briefings on the status of COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
However, before meeting with the state and national leaders, News 3 asked local veterans what their biggest concerns are when it comes to the VA system.
One man who didn't want his name disclosed said, "I think hands-down, hands-down mental health is the biggest issue in the military."
After facing back-to-back deployments, he medically retired from the Navy due to PTSD.
"After my second deployment everything really bubbled over. I had to get my transition into receiving my mental health help because I was just a mess," he said. "Post military transitioning into civilian life was extremely difficult. I mean I'm medically retired, but the process of doing that and tack on mental health, it’s a nightmare."
He said navigating the system into civilian life hasn't been easy.
If given the opportunity he said he would ask the VA's leadership, "What can be done to help people that are active duty with these issues that are super stressful but they're so quiet that they don't want to say anything because they don't want to lose their job, they don't want to be embarrassed by their shipmates or their peers? I want to know what can be done to help them."
When News 3 Reporter Erin Miller asked Secretary McDonough about mental health he said, "It's an overwhelming priority. It's a national priority for us and our team here."
He said under his watch, the VA's focus is on increasing access and finding veterans who need support, but aren't in the system yet.
Records show over the past year, virtual counseling has increased and been successful but it's not enough.
"We have to reach out and find those veterans [that aren't involved in the system yet] and make sure that they are aware of the services that are available to them," Sec. McDonough said. "Mental health is a part of whole health."
During the tour officials also talked about investing in the Hampton VA's infrastructure. Given its age and decorated history, there's a push to renovate areas of the campus.
Sec. McDonough also addressed recruitment efforts.
He said, "Through the CARES Act funding from last year, through the American Rescue Plan, where we got $14.5 billion extra dollars thanks to the President and these members of Congress, and then through our budget submission for this year where we are asking for 8.2% increase, we are getting the resources that we need to recruit and keep personnel to ensure that our vets don’t have to wait."
The Hampton VA Medical Center reports more than 50 additional primary care providers have been hired over the course of the last period.
Another topic at the top of mind is the vaccination program. Doctors and nurses within the VA are continuing to battle hesitancy from patients.
To date, across the country 2.5 million veterans are reported to have received their vaccine and more than 5 million doses have been administered.
Sec. McDonough said the partnership with local universities, like Hampton University, has helped increase trust. Deployment of mobile vaccination sites has also assisted in getting more veterans their shots.
To expand access for all, there have also been talks from leaders about building a VA on the Southside in Hampton Roads. When asked about it on Friday, Sec. McDonough said it's still in progress and couldn't offer a timeline just yet.