MIGHTY 25: Victor LaGroon serves as voice for inclusion within the VA
Victor LaGroon has built a legacy of serving this country in every way possible from mentoring youth, being a soldier and removing cancer treatment disparities. There’s no end in sight.
“I enlisted in the Army the day before my 35th birthday in 2003. I’m the seventh person in my family to serve in the military and honestly it wasn’t all about being patriotic but more like thinking it was my turn,” he explained. “Prior to 9/11 I don’t think any of us thought this was going to be the longest war.”
LaGroon left a thriving career running a treatment facility for adolescent boys to raise his right hand.
“I was helping boys become young men and getting them through some of the hardest and most challenging times of their lives,” he added.
After boot camp, he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York, where he was an intelligence analyst. He trained heavily for the deserts of Afghanistan before continuous injuries led him to an early medical retirement.
“General Austin, who is now the Secretary of Defense, was my commanding officer at the time and General Milley actually helped to stand up my brigade. Life really does go full circle even when we least expect it,” LaGroon laughed. “I loved every part of it and being a soldier, a leader and something very few people say they did.”
He turned home to Chicago to figure out what his next mission was going to be, all the while figuring out how to be a husband, father and brother all over again.
“I happened to fall into this opportunity at University of Chicago to build a cancer disparities program. Coming from military intelligence going into cancer disparities and cancer genetics is a pretty deep leap,” LaGroon admitted. “This is when my military training kicked in. How do you tackle learning and get smart fast? That was my challenge and I took it head on.”
And he did it well, eventually moving on to the University of Illinois to work for the Cancer Center in various capacities.
“I did health Legislative Affairs for a while for the Vice Chancellor and led the building of one of the largest federally qualified health centers in the country. So that was an amazing and death-defying feat that I probably wouldn't ever take on again,” Lagroon said. “At the time, I was volunteering as the Chair for the Advisory Council on Veterans Affairs and I got a call from the mayor's office.”
It was Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff for then-President Barack Obama.
“He asked me for advice on a new position they were creating and I gave it. Next thing I know his office is calling me telling me he wants me to apply for it. Telling him I already had a job didn’t mean much,” LaGroon laughed. “Long story short, I became the first director of the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs. And, again, life gave me another opportunity to serve. I take it as the mayor said ‘When the President calls, you answer’. And he said, ‘In Chicago, I'm the president and I'm calling’. I said, ‘Well, I'm answering’. I jumped into local government.”
LaGroon focused on building partnerships at the federal level and creating new resources for their local veterans.
“In another full circle moment I met with General Milley. He saw my 10th Mountain lapel pin on my jacket and started giving me grief about us thinking we’re tough,” he shared. “We ended up having a pretty lengthy conversation about America’s youth saying we were throwing away too many of them and we were going to need them. To hear the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say that meant a lot.”
After that role, he went back into the nonprofit world to serve City of Hope, creating mentorship and stem programs for youth. LaGroon enjoyed the role for four years before receiving a call from an old colleague working out of southern California.
“It was deep into a Chicago winter and he asked me if I wanted to move out there to build a new program for a premier cancer center. I did what I always do, I leaned into the opportunity and said why not. It gave me a growth opportunity,” he explained.
The experience was everything he’d hoped for until the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down. LaGroon took that as a sign to go back to the East Coast and continue working with the likes of General Milley and legislators like Congressman Nancy Pelosi while he figured out his next mission.
LaGroon was testifying on Capitol Hill and doing his best to advocate for the military when he received yet another call. This time, to become the Chief Diversity Officer for the VA.
“I get to work on making sure that no veteran is left on the fringe of our society, that we are reaching out deeply and broadly, to bring every voice to the table. It's been with its challenges internally and externally since the position is brand new,” he said. “It's been a gift to me to have had these opportunities, time and time again to serve.”
Today, he’s returning back to the private sector and excited to build a new program with the Morehouse School of Medicine to tackle cancer disparities and health literacy for veterans. He’s also building something brand new, Veterans for Democracy.
“I've had really good conversations with Tammy Duckworth and Seth Moulton in particular. And we talk a lot about service after service. One of the most important things in the commonality is where we've overlooked everyday veterans who return back to the community to impact the local community,” LaGroon explained. “We have kind of looked over that group, this new generation has come home to change America in their own positive way. I want to highlight the amazing work of everyday veterans that are making an impact in their communities and encouraging other veterans to leverage those skills to make social and civil impacts.”
As he reflects on his career and life, Lagroon is proud.
“I can honestly say service drastically changed my life. From Boy Scouts to being in the Army, it all impacted who I became and every opportunity I’ve ever been afforded,” he shared. I want to encourage others to serve and that we have this collective domino effect of being the difference in the world.”
You can follow this MIGHTY Army veteran on LinkedIn here.