Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie brings a personal and family history of military service to his high-profile job—characteristics that have helped him lead a government agency responsible for providing care for approximately 9.5 million of America’s veterans. Wilkie is the son of an Army artillery commander who grew up at Fort Bragg. Today, he is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and has more than 20 years of public service in the various national security and defense roles in government. The Daily Signal spoke to him about the issues confronting America’s veterans and his leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs. A lightly edited transcript is below along with the full audio podcast.
Rob Bluey: Tell us about the mission of Veterans Affairs and what your priorities are as secretary for the department.
Robert Wilkie: The mission is very simple, but it’s also sublime. I’m sitting underneath the quote from the father of what was first the Veterans Bureau and now Veterans Affairs. That’s Mr. Abraham Lincoln.
In his second inaugural, he said that the mission of government was to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan. One of the last acts of his life before he went to the theater was to sign the charters for three soldiers’ homes in Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin. And our mission as a result of Mr. Lincoln’s mandate is to do just that.
We take care of about nine and a half million of America’s veterans. We provide educational benefits and home loans. And we are the other end of the national security continuum. We take care of those who have already borne the battle, and I have always argued that this is probably the noblest mission in government.
Bluey: Thank you for the work that you do. I’ve heard you talk about two big challenges confronting our nation’s veterans. One of them is the opioid epidemic and the other is suicide, unfortunately. Let’s start with opioids. How are you addressing that?
Wilkie: We’ve had to change the culture. We are not immune from things that happen in greater America. Suicide is one. It’s a problem that is devastating large swaths of our population. Opioids is another. We all know the stories of how opioid use and abuse spread throughout the Midwest and then to the coasts, but we had to change the culture. We decided to treat the actual source of pain rather than treating the brain.
So what does that mean? We found in our research that combinations of over-the-counter medicines like aspirin and acetaminophen or aspirin and ibuprofen are just as valuable to the treatment of a malady than an opioid. But in order to enhance those effects, we have introduced veterans across the country to alternative therapies, things like Tai Chi and yoga and art and music.
Why is that important? I come from the military world. I was born into it. My father was a very decorated combat soldier from Vietnam and a senior officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. I’m still a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Our society, our culture, does not change rapidly, but we’ve had to reeducate those that there are other ways of … making themselves feel better, and that’s what we’re doing with opioids. We’ve reduced the prescription numbers by about 51%. I hope we go even lower than that.
The second thing that you asked about is suicide, and this I tie into mental health, although not all suicides have anything to do with mental illness, but we have never had a national conversation about suicide in life or about mental health.
[I’ll] tell you how long this has impacted the Army of the United States. The Army started taking statistics on military suicides in the 1890s. It’s been steady ever since. There were a couple of spikes right before World War II and spikes right after Vietnam, but it has been steady.
Twenty a day take their lives. Of those 20, we don’t see 14. Those are primarily my father’s era, Vietnam, people who were tossed aside for the most part when they came back from Southeast Asia.
[I’ll] give you a family example. After my father recovered from his wounds in Cambodia, three years after his recovery was completed, he returned to Fort Bragg, to the All American Division, and even in southern North Carolina, he could not wear his uniform on post.
So we’re dealing with people who have those memories of a government that turned them away. We have to find them and we have to bring them into the fold and this is where the free enterprise and the notion that government only works when it’s closest to those it’s supposed to serve comes in.
So as the head of the president’s task force, I am trying to open the aperture so that we can partner with charities, localities, nongovernment organizations to help us find those veterans. We don’t see those veterans who have had bad experiences with government.
Last thing I will say, no matter what we do, human life is not linear. We’re not going to be able to fully eradicate this problem. People take their lives for a number of reasons. Many of those reasons have nothing to do with their military service, but what we can do is make sure that VA is integrated into all levels of society so that we can find those that we don’t see.
Bluey: I was shocked to hear that number of 20 a day. It is truly, truly sad. For those listeners of ours who might have a veteran in their life or know somebody who’s struggling with mental illness, what advice do you have for them? What can they do to help those individuals?
Wilkie: The first thing I ask anyone who is in distress is to call our crisis line—that’s (800) 273-8255 or you can text 838255. We get about 1,700 calls a day. We physically act on 200 to 300 of those calls. That line is open to families as well as to veterans.
The other thing that we provide, all of our facilities provide same-day mental health services. If there is a problem, come see us and we will move to help. It goes without saying, we can’t help if we don’t know and we want families and friends to help us help their family members and their friends by getting in touch with us.
Bluey: Thank you for your leadership on that and sharing those resources with our listeners. We’ll make sure that they are aware of them. And again, we pray for those who are in need and hope that they will reach out for help.
Mr. Secretary, as you mentioned, you come from a background of service to our country, both as a member of the Air Force Reserve and also through the various positions you’ve held in public service and government. So tell our listeners, what led you down this path?
Wilkie: I grew up around it. I come from a long line of soldiers and service was part of our family heritage. I was privileged as a child to see and shake hands with people like Audie Murphy or Creighton Abrams, Matthew Ridgway, and James Gavin. Those were my heroes. Those were certainly my father’s heroes. And I always wanted to be a part of that world.
And Vietnam cast a large shadow across my life, and I’ll give you an example, other than the one that I mentioned about my father being terribly wounded and then not allowed to wear his uniform outside of Fort Bragg.
When I was a child, there was always a chance when one of my classmates in kindergarten or elementary school was called to the principal’s office that child wasn’t going up there for a doctor’s appointment. There was bad news from Vietnam and in 1975 we got bad news in our school.
One of my classmates’ fathers was a Air Force medic. He volunteered to help the evacuation of all of the orphanages in Saigon prior to the arrival of the North Vietnamese army. The C-5 he was on crashed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. He was one of 11 airmen killed and well over a hundred children killed. His daughter Denise was my classmate. I remember when she was called to the principal’s office.
Just this April, 44 years after that crash, I took the niece to the Vietnam wall and her father’s name was there, one of the last to fall in that conflict and she saw it, Section 1W, and that’s the kind of thing that animates me, that kind of service, because it is that world that I was raised in and those are the people that I was raised to admire.
Bluey: Thank you for sharing that story. You do get to spend a lot of time with veterans in your capacity and I know President [Donald] Trump always seems to enjoy spending time with our troops and veterans as well, but what is it like working with him on some of these issues that you’re confronted with?
Wilkie: It’s been wonderful because I’m a pretty good historian and I will tell you no president—and you can look this up—ever made veterans the centerpiece of, first, his campaign, and then of his administration.
He has allowed me to expand what you at [The Heritage Foundation] and what I believe to be the key to a free society and that is expand choices that our citizens have.
So what does that mean? We now provide the veteran with the option of going into the private sector, going to a doctor or a clinic closer to that veteran’s home, not automatically defaulting to the government.
When we kicked off the Mission Act, which is designed to integrate VA into the wider American health care system, we’ve been able to send well over a million and a half just since June 6 into the private sector.
Now, the other side of that is that we’ve had 3 million more appointments at VA this year than we had last year. So veterans are voting with their feet both ways. Many are staying with us because they know we speak the language, we understand the culture, but we’re also giving those veterans who want to be closer to home the opportunity to stay closer to home, not having to travel, in some cases out West, 500, 600, 700 miles round trip. So it is a new day for us.
The other thing that we’re doing, we’re certainly modernizing our supply chain. We are creating the first electronic health record that follows an American from the time that American walks into the military entrance processing station, at the time that veteran is handed to us. So people like my father do not have to carry around an 800-page paper record for the rest of their post-military lives.
Bluey: It’s so good to hear you talk about those initiatives. It wasn’t much long ago prior to your arrival that we constantly seem to be hearing about the VA in terms of the scandals that might be happening at the department …
Wilkie: Well, you just hit it, it’s “used to.” And the problem—I’ve got it sitting in this perch—is that most of the stories you read, you have to go all the way down to the bottom of those stories.
There was just one in The Wall Street Journal about things that happened in the last administration. And I think there’s an element in the national media that will never be satisfied if there are no scandals at VA. If there are no systemic problems.
In an organization this large, they’re going to be bad apples. No question. But what has amazed me is that how many people, particularly in the press and certainly some on Capitol Hill, who were invested in the failure of this department. And I think the president has rejected that mindset, I certainly have, and those things that we saw many years ago, we certainly don’t see them now.
Bluey: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you a two-part question: One is, how have you changed the culture there at VA, and what are some of the measures that you’ve put in place to ensure that you are having success and meeting the needs of veterans?
Wilkie: I will tell you, the first thing is our customer satisfaction rate. It’s sitting at 90%. There’s no other health care system in the country with that. And our veterans are voting with their feet.
This president has given me the opportunity to bring people into this structure who have an investment in the armed forces in the United States. Everyone around me has significant military experience. That’s vital. It doesn’t matter that much if in a private hospital setting, but for us if you don’t understand the culture and you don’t speak the language, you have no credibility with veterans.
The other thing that we are doing is that we are walking the post, we are out there talking. I’ve been in just the last year in 43 states and all the territory and you would be amazed how many places I go, big cities in this country, massive cities. … I walk in and they say, “You are the first secretary we’ve ever seen.”
So getting out of this town and getting out and talking to the people who have served that we have to serve has been key to the change. And just in the last year we’ve gone from 17 out of 17 in terms of best places to work in government to No. 6 and I think next year will be higher than that.
Bluey: Showing up can make all the difference. And my final question for you has to do with as you look ahead to the coming year, what is it in 2020 that you hope to achieve? What are some of the top goals on your mind?
Wilkie: We want to continue the upward trajectory to make sure veterans know that they now have options when it comes to their own care. We want to continue modernizing, we want to continue, we are going to be fielding the electronic health record; we’ll modernize the supply chain. We will make sure that better ones are educated where they want to be educated.
And I will tell you, that’s what Heritage has been preaching for a long time. I’ve said, and of course there are opponents on the Hill who go after me, I want a veteran to take advantage of the educational option he or she wants, which means [if] that veteran wants to be a mechanic, a master mechanic, or a plumber or electrician, I am not going to force that veteran into a four-year track that leads to an anthropology or sociology degree just because some public university is out there promoting it through its mouthpieces on the Hill.
So choice is the key for our veterans, both on the medical front and on the education front. So I thank you very much for having me.
Bluey: Thank you, Secretary Robert Wilkie. We appreciate your leadership. Thanks for joining The Daily Signal.
Wilkie: Thanks a lot, Rob.