CHELSEA — U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited Maine on Saturday to take part in the VA Maine Healthcare System’s celebration of the Togus facility’s 150th year of operation.

Speaking at a media session before the official proceedings, McDonald talked about changes being made to improve veterans care and emphasized the VA’s commitment to not only continue to care for veterans but also their families and future generations.

“While much has changed in the 150 years that this site has been operating and taking care of veterans in our country, the one thing that has not changed is the covenant with our government and its veterans,” McDonald said in front of the Civil War memorial in the Togus National Cemetery. “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.”

Hundreds lined the roads inside the Togus campus for a parade followed by a ceremony honoring Togus’ 150 years of service to veterans. Togus Director Ryan Lilly said VA health care is considered a “team sport and we have a strong team.”

“Let’s commit to make the next 150 years even better,” said Lilly, who became director of Togus in 2012.

Togus admitted its first veteran on Nov. 10, 1866, after President Abraham Lincoln, in his last piece of legislation before his assassination, established a network of facilities to care for veterans.


Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said at the event that every political thought he has comes from Lincoln and that Togus “is nothing without the people who’ve been here for 150 years serving our veterans.”

King said the work is not easy, with budget limitations and political back-and-forth, but “we’ve got to be resolved to do right by our veterans.”

Other speakers included Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

“Maine and Togus have a proud record of honoring and caring for our veterans,” Collins said. “This historic celebration is a powerful reminder of what we can do together.”

Poliquin said Maine is a small but great state and caring for veterans should not be about politics.

“Taking care of our veterans should not be a political issue,” Poliquin said. “They fought for us over there, so it’s our turn to care for them right here.”


Pingree said people in Maine appreciate the work McDonald is doing and the attention he is paying to the state.

McDonald, a retired Army paratrooper and the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, was also in Augusta in July for the Maine Military and Community Network conference, where he gave the keynote address.

At that event and Saturday’s at Togus, McDonald spoke about the improvements in wait times for veterans and the continued increase in access to medical care. He said the department has completed 4 million more appointments than a year ago. More than 1,200 new doctors and 2,300 new nurses have also been added, he indicated.

“We need to continue to add more access, more doctors and more nurses,” the secretary said. “We also would like to have a relationship with the Maine Medical Center, and we are working to get that authorized.”

Throughout the campus Saturday, dignitaries, veterans, families and members of the public spoke highly of the services at Togus and throughout the VA network.

Earl BeDen, of South China, is a Navy veteran and works at Togus taking care of the campus’ signage. The Michigan native said the support from people is “just wonderful.”


“What I see here is a compassion from not just the people who work here, but people in the community and around the state,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

While most people had positive things to say about Togus and the way it cares for veterans, one veteran walking near a large group of people enjoying burgers, hot dogs and chicken, said he couldn’t go to the ceremony on the other side of campus because he “didn’t want to hear the administration lie to all the veterans.”

The Eastern Branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, as the facility was first called, began in 1866 and has been serving veterans since then. McDonald said the covenant between the government and its veterans ensures it’ll be around in another 150.

“This covenant needs to extend and needs to perpetuate,” McDonald said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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