Before speaking with the press as the 150th anniversary festivities got underway at the Togus VA Hospital in Chelsea on September 17, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited with some Civil War veterans buried in the West Cemetery.
The guy who has made some 50 jumps as an Army paratrooper met a few guys who helped save the country more than 150 years ago — and suffered medically or mentally for doing so until they died at Togus.
McDonald and his requisite entourage — including former Maine congressman Michael Michaud, now a VA employee — arrived around 9:20 a.m. at West Cemetery, located off the Hallowell Road that cuts through the back of the Togus campus. The cemetery spreads across rolling terrain, unlike the flat land occupied by the East Cemetery.
Fittingly for the hospital’s 150th anniversary, American flags adorned all the white grave stones. Dedicated by Togus residents in 1889, the gray-stone Soldiers’ Monument sported red, white, and blue hunting, and a lectern to which a VA seal was attached stood at road level.
Clad in black suits and dark sunglasses, four security men accompanied McDonald. Maintaining a respectful distance, they “moved” when the secretary moved. The movie Men in Black came to mind, of course, but no threats lurked in the woods surrounding West Cemetery.
McDonald could have hurried immediately to the lectern, said a few words, fielded a few questions from the five-member press contingent, and then left for the 10 a.m. Togus parade.
Instead he and Jim Doherty, staff assistant to the Togus director, walked into a nearby section of the cemetery and spent a few minutes talking quietly and looking over the white grave stones stretching away to Hallowell Street.
Doherty stepped away; McDonald, a West Point graduate and former member of the 82nd Airborne Division, walked a bit farther into the cemetery. Kneeling, he stopped and closely examined several graves, including that of Patrick O’Shea, a 53-year-old Civil War veteran who died at Togus on Feb. 11, 1883.
Most likely an Irishman, O’Shea had served with Co. B, 17th Massachusetts Infantry.
McDonald soon walked to the lectern and spoke about “the covenant between our government and its veterans.” This covenant was established when President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill creating national homes for disabled veterans. The first such home to open was at Togus in 1866.
McDonald was appointed VA secretary in 2014 after his predecessor resigned amidst revelations of patient-care scandals. Since then the Obama Administration has moved to “strongly reinforce that commitment” made by Lincoln, McDonald said.
“This commitment the government has with its veterans is unique in the world,” he stressed. “The United States is one of the few countries that has a Department of Veterans Affairs.”
McDonald discussed specific efforts (and the results of) being made to improve patient access and care. “In terms of medical care, we’re increasing access to medical care for veterans,” he said. “We’ve had four million more completed appointments versus a year ago.
“Our commitment to veterans is rock solid, and we are working hard with members of Congress and others to transform the department to better care for veterans,” McDonald said
From where he stood by the monument, McDonald looked out across tree-shadowed or sunlit white grave stones stretching in neat rows almost to Hallowell Street. In time, a TV reporter asked what the secretary thought while studying the grave stones prior to the press conference.
He had prayed, McDonald responded. He had also thought about “the tremendous heroism” of the dead veterans, who date from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and other period conflicts, and World War I.
McDonald found it “humbling to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, humbling to have gone to West Point, humbling to have served in our military, and humbling to be able to celebrate this day here.
“There are people buried here who gave their lives up at a very young age for all of us,” he said.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.