President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs heads to committee consideration tomorrow.
Air Force Reserve Officer Robert Wilkie, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, fielded questions from senators during a June 27th confirmation hearing. Discussions ranged across a number of issues, including the recently passed VA Mission Act, privatization, appointment scheduling, and funding for a caregivers program. On Tuesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will meet to consider advancing the nomination.
Wilkie has been serving as the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs since Dr. David Shulkin’s high-profile departure from the post in March. Veterans’ groups have expressed support for the nominee, with several citing Wilkie’s experience as making him qualified to run the second largest department in the US government.
Darin Selnick, senior advisor for Concerned Veterans for America, says the VA has recently made progress legislatively but now is the time to focus on implementation. And, he sees Wilkie as the right person to do the job.
“I think with Wilkie coming onboard, once he clears the nomination, we’ll have the right team in place to move things forward. It’s a big organization, you have to understand how the organization works and you have to have the right team and Shulkin just wasn’t the right guy and that’s why the President replaced him,” he said.
Benefits of a veteran at the helm
The biggest personal experience a veteran has is with their VA healthcare, Selnick explains, which is why he dedicated his time to this specific area since retiring from the Air Force. He was special assistant to three VA secretaries during the Bush administration and senior advisor to former Secretary Shulkin.
“I think it’s crucial that someone who is a veteran heads up the VA. Shulkin was the first one who wasn’t and as his senior advisor, it showed. Not that he didn’t try, not that he didn’t honestly want to do a good job, but simply he didn’t get it,” he said.
From 2017-2018, Selnick was the Veteran Affairs Advisor, Domestic Policy Council, at the White House. He was responsible for veterans policy and coordination of efforts with other White House offices, VA and other federal agencies. He said the President’s directive was to give veterans control over their benefit, which is what led to passage of the VA Mission Act.
‘A proven leader’
Even though he has had little direct experience working with Robert Wilkie, Selnick’s history with four previous VA secretaries gave him a greater understanding of what skillsets are needed for the job.
“We’ve been able to watch Mr. Wilkie for two months work the VA, that’s a unique situation. You don’t usually get the chance to evaluate someone for two months to see if they have done a good job, and he has done an outstanding job. If you talk to the team that works underneath him, they love him. The people at DOD love him. So, he has a very long track record—besides of being in the military—as someone who’s a team player, as someone who’s well-respected, as someone who’s knowledgeable. He does his work quietly and he gets the job done,” Selnick explained. “That’s what you need. You can hire these ex-CEOs and ex-generals, but it’s not about what you did in the past and star quality, it’s about do you have the person with the right temperament who can lead and manage the team and adapt their style to what the VA is. And that’s what I’ve seen with Wilkie.”
Wilkie’s connection to military community
Prior to serving in the Air Force Reserve, Wilkie was a Navy Reservist with the Joint Forces Intelligence Command, Naval Special Warfare Group Two and the Office of Naval Intelligence. He also spoke on several occasions about growing up as a military dependent at Fort Bragg, NC when his father was an Army artillery commander.
“I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles; as a dependent; as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier; as an officer with a family in the military health care system and as a senior leader in the White House and the Pentagon,” Wilkie stated during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He went on to explain the evolution he has seen within the military community since the days of his father’s service during Vietnam—including the growing number of women serving and the increase of married service personnel.
Overall, Selnick believes Robert Wilkie will be confirmed as the next VA Secretary, even though “nothing is a done deal until the vote happens”. He says it’s time to get the job filled so the department can move forward.
“We’ve found a very modest guy who, over a 30-year career, has developed all these skillsets and during a two month trial period showed he has what it takes to move things forward. He’s going to make sure the job gets done on time and on budget,” he added.
To learn more about the nominee for VA Secretary, go to Robert Wilkie.