The senate confirmed Robert Wilkie to be President Donald Trump’s next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
WASHINGTON â€” Who is Robert Wilkie?
Heâ€™s a Pentagon official whoâ€™s about to be the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, after winning confirmation by the Senate Monday. Â Â
â€œHeâ€™s going to be fantastic,â€ Trump said Tuesday at a Veterans of Foreign Wars event in Kansas City, Missouri.
The president said â€œthereâ€™s been nothing more important to meâ€ than fulfilling his campaign pledges to fix the VA for veterans. â€œIt was a very important commitment that I made to you during the campaign, and weâ€™re fulfilling that commitment.â€
Still, Wilkie faces a daunting task in taking over an agency that has been rife with personnel infighting at headquarters for months and problems for veterans seeking medical care across the country for years.
He will quickly be under pressure to implement efforts to address the VAâ€™s seemingly intractable shortfalls. Here are five things to know about Wilkie and what he brings to the job:
He hasÂ military discipline
Wilkie, who is undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, is also an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserves, and he previously served in the Navy Reserves. He grew up an â€œArmy bratâ€ on Fort Bragg and in Fayetteville, North Carolina.Â His father was gravely injured in the Vietnam War and his great-grandfather served in World War I.
After graduating from Wake Forest University, Wilkie earned a law degree from Loyola University New Orleans, a masters in international and comparative law from Georgetown University and a masters in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.
He was an assistant secretary of Defense during the administration of George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009 and worked at the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice. In his current post, which he has held since November 2017, Wilkie oversees â€œhealth affairs; training; and personnel requirements and management, including equal opportunity, morale, welfare, recreation, and the quality of life for military families,â€ according to his biography
No health care experience
Wilkie does not have the health care experience his predecessor had. David Shulkin, whom Trump fired in a tweet in March, is a doctor and longtime hospital executive. But Wilkie said he believes the greatest problems facing the agency are “administrative and bureaucratic,” rather than medical.
He has the benefit of serving as acting secretary of the VA after Shulkin was fired until Trump nominated him to take the job.
â€œMany of the issues I encountered as acting secretary were not with the quality of medical care but with getting our veterans through the door to reach that care,â€ Wilkie said during his confirmation hearing last month.
“Those problems are both administrative and bureaucratic. Alexander Hamilton said that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration. That is where VAÂ must go.â€
He’s politicallyÂ savvy
Wilkie has extensive experience on Capitol Hill, where he was an aide to former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms and a senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
In the 1990s, he was counsel and international security adviser to former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
During the Trump administration, he helped facilitate the Senate confirmation process of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and he previously did the same with Robert Gates and retired admiralÂ Mike Mullen.
During his confirmation hearing, Sen Jon Tester, D-Mont., highlighted Wilkie’sÂ adeptness at interacting with Congress, which will be key to the success of VA overhaul efforts.
â€œYou’ve gotten pretty good at this,â€ Tester said. â€œI don’t know how many times you’ve been in front of a committee to be confirmed, but you ain’t a rookie. You not only answer questions, but you anticipated questions as good as anybody I’ve ever seen in front of a Senate committeeâ€¦ It’s going to be really important that we have a strong leader. You’ve got a lot of challenges in front of you. And I would just say that I think you’ve got the tools to do the job.â€
There’s been some controversy
Wilkieâ€™s confirmation process was not without bumps. Just before his hearing in June, The Washington Post published a story detailing controversial positions he has taken.
In 1993, he defended Helmsâ€™ effort to renew a patent on a logo featuring the Confederate flag, saying â€œWhat we are seeing is an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history.â€ Around the same time, Wilkie attended ceremonies honoring Confederate soldiers.
During a stint as chair of the North Carolina Republican Party in 1996, Wilkie attacked a Democrat for having â€œopenly courted money from the homosexual community,â€ the Post reported.
At his confirmation hearing, Wilkie said, â€œI welcome a scrutiny of my entire record.
â€œThe Washington Post seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago. If I had been what the Washington Post implied, I don’t believe I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis,â€ he said. â€œSo I’m very â€” I will stand on my record.”
He appreciates theÂ cost of war
Wilkie, 55, and his wife, Julie, have known each other since childhood in Fayetteville, where they walked to high school together past a veteransâ€™ hospital.
â€œEvery day on our way to and from high school, we would see a sign outside the veteransâ€™ hospital that says that â€˜the price of freedom is visible here,â€™â€ he said.
Wilkie said that his great-grandfather impressed upon him â€œthe cost paid by ordinary Americans caught up in the incommunicable experience of war.â€
â€œMy own life changed when my father returned from his second combat tour in Vietnam,â€ he said. â€œWhen he came home after almost a year in Army hospitals, he weighed less than half of what he did when he left. I watched the agonizing recovery, and that experience was on my mind when I was asked to come to VA.â€
At the VA, which serves some 9 million veterans at more than 1,200 medical facilities, Wilkie said his top priorities will be improving the culture and providing top-notch â€œcustomer serviceâ€ â€“ in health care and benefit claims.
â€œWhen an American veteran comes to VA, it is not up to him to employ a team of lawyers to get VAÂ to say yes,â€ he said. â€œIt is up to VAÂ to get the veteran to yes, and that is customer service.â€
More: 6 big things the new Veterans Affairs chief will have to address