Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Denis McDonough, President Joe Biden's selection to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Wednesday his first priority, if confirmed, would be to guide the nation's veterans through the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, McDonough presented the issues Biden tasked him with focusing on, placing top priority on the virus which has resulted in the deaths of more than 8,700 veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The president directed me to focus on getting our veterans through this pandemic," he said to open the hearing.
In leading the department, McDonough will be tasked with administering COVID-19 vaccines to millions of veterans and VA employees. He told the senators Wednesday that he will "be a staunch and fierce advocate for veterans getting access" to the vaccine as the administration seeks to reach 150 million inoculations in Biden's first 100 days.
"This won't be easy," he said. "The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges, challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans."
McDonough, who previously served as White House chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, also said he would place a "relentless focus" on providing timely and high quality healthcare to veterans, ensuring they receive VA benefits, reducing veteran suicide and homelessness rates, and making the department more inclusive for women, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans.
He also faced questions about his lack of military experience as he would be the second VA secretary in history who is not a veteran.
Citing his time in the Obama administration, McDonough said he "witnessed the heavy burdens of long deployments" on trips to Afghanistan and met with families who lost loved ones during their service as well as injured service members.
"Beside their hospital beds when they come home, I've seen their resilience in the face of wounds -- visible and invisible -- that can last a lifetime," he said.
McDonough also said he would seek to apply his experience from his previous stint in the White House to the position.
"I am ready for this mission," he said. "As a former White House chief of staff, I bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government. I understand how to untangle and solve large, complex challenges -- both across and within large agencies. I have seen firsthand that when our government is at its best, it can help serve the American people -- including our veterans -- and allow them to live in security and dignity."