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‘Leading with respect’: Veterans Affairs Department emphasizes nonabusive behavior

Most veterans who avail themselves to medical care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs know that the organization is committed to embracing a welcoming, diverse and respectful culture that does not tolerate harassing, disruptive or abusive behavior of any kind.

In December 2022, VA Director Denis McDonough wrote an open letter to veterans emphasizing that commitment. But for reasons unknown, this past month the VA has decided to resend the letter to its mailing list, and include a brochure with the heading, “Leading with respect.” The multi-page document has details that are designed to “ensure a harassment-free VA.”

Why the VA has seen fit to reissue the letter along with a brochure is not specified. It could be that there has been an uptick in abusive behavior at the VA in some of its many offices, but that is not stated nor has anything like that been reported in the national media. More likely, the VA just wants to drive home that such behavior will not be tolerated, and is again letting veterans know what is and what is not acceptable.

Examples are given of acceptable behavior including fostering a safe environment, holding oneself accountable, looking out for one another and promoting dignity and civility. In a red and orange box in order to stand out, examples are given that define prohibited behaviors, harassment and sexual assault: Offensive jokes or insults, rude or disrespectful flirting, rumors and gossip, intentionally misgendering, crude gestures, sexist remarks, cat calls, stalking, sexual touching and advances, groping and sexual coercion.

In his letter, McDonough stressed that in the event anyone experiences any harassment or sexual assault at a VA facility, it should be immediately reported. “We will investigate every report and take appropriate action,” he explained. He also noted that, “There is no wrong door for reporting” such negative behavior. “You can report to whomever you feel most comfortable speaking with about harassment or sexual assault.” Some resources that can be considered as designated points of contact include leaders at VA medical centers or clinics, vet centers, veterans’ benefit offices or veterans’ national cemeteries. There is also a toll-free number that can be called: (800) 698-2411.

The VA has also developed an initiative for individuals to commit to ending abusive behavior. It’s called the White Ribbon Pledge, and everyone is invited to take part. Go to va.gov/health/harassment-free. There is also free, on-line training available. For more information, go to veterantraining.va.gov/bystandertraining.

“Together, we will ensure that VA remains a trusted and safe environment for all,” McDonough said.

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