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VA’s acting secretary takes over: ‘I don’t think he has any idea what he’s gotten himself into’

Veterans Affairs acting secretary Robert Wilkie addressed his department in a video message on April 4, saying "This is a noble calling." (Video: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
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Amid reports of slumping morale following last week’s ousting of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, the agency’s new acting head told employees Wednesday that he intends to refocus an organization beset by internal division.

Robert Wilkie has been walking the halls of VA’s Washington headquarters, holding meetings with small groups of employees and inquiring about their duties, said a senior VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak with the media. In a three-minute video distributed to employees Wednesday, Wilkie, 55, emphasized the agency’s sacred mission of caring for those who have fought the nation’s wars.

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President Trump named Wilkie VA’s acting secretary last week, pending Senate confirmation of Ronny L. Jackson, a Navy admiral and White House physician. Wilkie could be in the job for months, as lawmakers and veterans advocates, citing questions about Jackson’s qualifications to run the federal government’s second-largest agency, predict a contentious confirmation process.

The Senate has yet to set a date for Jackson’s confirmation hearing, although he has spoken briefly with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Wilkie told employees Wednesday that he was eager to start working and had begun moving furniture into Shulkin’s former office, the senior VA official said. “He came in and said, ‘Look, guys, I wasn’t planning on being here, but I want to make a difference while I’m here,’ ” the official added. “It was very positive. But I don’t think he has any idea what he’s gotten himself into. This job is going to take 300 percent of his time.”

The official noted, too, that VA has two other key vacancies: undersecretary of benefits and undersecretary of health, which are considered vital positions responsible for approving claims and ensuring that patients are provided with timely care.

“There’s no human being on Earth who’s ready for this,” the senior VA official said.

Wilkie addressed that in his video, saying, “Anyone who sits in this chair and tells you he has the answers is in the wrong business.”

Wilkie moves into the role from the Defense Department, where he was undersecretary for personnel and readiness. In his video, Wilkie implored VA’s 360,000 employees to improve internal communication — “not talking at each other, but with each other” — so the agency is best positioned to address the needs of its clientele.

Trump fired Shulkin in a tweet last week after months of turmoil and a blistering inspector general report criticizing Shulkin’s travel portrayed the secretary in a negative light. Shulkin said he had become a target of other political appointees within the administration who accused him of slow-rolling an initiative to expand a program through which veterans are allowed to seek medical care, at taxpayer expense, outside of the VA system.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety at the water cooler about what’s going to happen,” said the senior VA official. “But it’s a nice distraction to actually keep your head down and help your subordinates work rather than going into meetings where all the talk is politics.”

On Tuesday, officials from one of the nation’s largest veterans groups called on Trump to remove Wilkie and instead give control of VA to Thomas Bowman, the department’s deputy secretary whom the White House passed over for the job of acting secretary.

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In a letter to the White House, AMVETS National Commander Marion Polk said that Bowman could ease the concerns of veterans and VA employees who are worried about the agency’s long-term stability.

Administration officials sought to remove Bowman earlier this year, and his future at the agency remains in question, according to people familiar with the dynamic at VA. Bowman is said to be at odds with Trump’s plan to significantly expand health care access for veterans through private providers.

In his video, Wilkie noted that he is the son of an Army artillery commander who was wounded in combat. He served as an intelligence officer in the Navy before joining the Air Force Reserve and has worked as a senior leader at the Pentagon under former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“Being with you today,” Wilkie said, “is the culmination of a lifetime of watching those who have borne the battle.”