Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

VA Central Office Town Hall
Washington, DC
August 3, 2018

A recording of the event is available here.

On August 3, 2018, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert L. Wilkie held a Town Hall meeting at VA Central Office. The Town Hall was broadcasted to VA employees nationwide. After opening remarks, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs John Ullyot posed some questions for the Secretary.

John Ullyot

Good afternoon, everyone. I’m John Ullyot, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. It gives me great pleasure today to introduce the 10th Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Honorable Robert Wilkie, and to welcome him back to the department. Secretary Wilkie was sworn-in on Monday, and it’s a strong demonstration of his connection to VA employees that he made it a priority to do a Town Hall meeting with us on his fourth day on the job here at the VA.

Most of you are already familiar with Secretary Wilkie, after his earlier serving as Active Secretary for eight weeks with us earlier this spring. During that time, he brought two key presidential priorities for VA over the finish line after many months of delay. Number one was finalizing and signing the Electronic Health Care Record contract, providing what will be seamless interaction with the Department of Defense, working on the same system as theirs. The second was reaching an agreement with Congress on passage of the MISSION Act that will allow our nation's Veterans to get their care either in VA or in the community, whichever suits them best.

Secretary Wilkie has had a long and distinguished career in public service. He was, just until recently, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, overseeing the personnel and readiness system for 700,000 employees. So, not quite twice the size of VA, but pretty close. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs for two Secretaries of Defense in a previous administration, and he was a senior director on the National Security Council working directly for Condoleezza Rice. Before that – and, actually, after that, since he went back to the Senate – he was a long-time senior senate staff member, including working as a trusted adviser to the Senate majority leader at the time.

VA and its mission have a special place in Mr. Wilkie’s heart. He’s the son of a Veteran who was gravely wounded in Vietnam and the grandson of a Veteran, among others in his family. He, himself, is an officer in the United States Air Force Reserve, and he previously served in the Navy Reserve.

Secretary Wilkie is also a storyteller, and a very good one at that, and deeply grounded in the love of history, so we’ll benefit from that going forward with his service.

So, for today, Secretary Wilkie is going to give opening remarks, and then he’ll respond to a number of questions from VA employees that were submitted in advance of today’s town hall.

So, Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the VA, congratulations, and the floor is yours.

Secretary Wilkie

Thank you all. I’m going to give my age right away. I’m actually used to doing the Phil Donahue thing – that shows you how old I am by how many laughs I got with Phil Donahue – which is walking around, particularly with a group like this.

I will hope that there is no descendant of the architect who designed this [auditorium] in the audience. I have never been in a Sherlock Holmes-like operating theater, but I hope you all can see and hear.

They told me I couldn’t walk around because, then, the screen would go blank. And then you would wonder why you came.

So, I want to thank you. Thank you, John, for that kind introduction. I tend to speak off the cuff, and, hopefully, from the heart. I do have prepared remarks today, and I’ll get to some of those later.

But, I do want to tell you that it is an honor for me to be back here. I said at my confirmation hearing, having grown up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, my wife and I went to a high school . . . for those of you who know the Fort Bragg area, Reid Ross High School is on the same street as our Veterans hospital, which opened in 1930. On the entrance, the grand entrance to that hospital, is a sign that says that “the price of freedom is visible here.” Now, my wife and I, as youngsters, would go by that sign every day. That sign, at different times in my life, has been made manifest by not only members of my family who have been gravely wounded in the service of our country, but by the thousands of Veterans from my part of the world that I grew up with who have used VA, who loved the VA, and their only prayer is that it continues to thrive and it continues to serve, as Mr. Lincoln said, those who’ve “borne the battle.” And in my lifetime, that means a changing population. That means all of those who “have borne the battle.”

I’ll just go off tangentially for a minute for a Forest Gump moment, since I was accused by several senators of being in that vein when it comes to facts and figures. I grew up in really the last vestiges of the formal United States Army, where the guys on the gates wore silver helmets. They had polished boots. And there was a lot of formality. When my father was commissioned, less than one half of one percent of the force was female. Today, the active duty force is 17 percent composed of America's fighting women. That means there's a change coming here for our VA. That all goes to show you that I've been around a while, and I've been privileged to see a lot that has happened.

John made the comment that I'm happy to return to you. I was fortunate and blessed to have been given the honor of serving with you for eight weeks. In that time, I got to see a department that doesn't resemble anything that you read in the press. I got to see a department that was dedicated to probably, I would say definitely, the most noble mission that anyone in the United States government has. And that is serving those who protect the American way of life and who have protected the American way of life.

So, in that vein, I want to say something special to everyone. I am one of those granted the opportunity, granted the chance to serve with you for a short time. I am a temporary custodian of the flame that all of you who have decided to make a career of VA hold, and they hold that special flame. I will say, and I will say it in public again and again, there will be no distance between those of us who are those temporary custodians and those of you who have dedicated a lifetime to serving America's warriors.

So, where do we start?

John mentioned my background. And that background was colored, as I said, by talking and walking with soldiers both inside my family and without. But it was really colored that day when I was six years old, and we were finally told by the Army about an event that had happened several months before we got notice – that my father had been very badly wounded in the invasion of Cambodia.

That's a traumatic event for a six-year-old. He went to Vietnam about six-two, 240. When he came back after a year in Army hospitals, he was still six-two, but he weighed about 115 pounds. That was the event that was on my mind when the president of the United States asked me to come to VA. It was that experience that informed my decision when I told the president, yes. And it is experience that many of you have seen, that you've worked with, but it is something that is a guiding light for someone like me. And it is part of the honor of public service.

I also want to say something about the experiences that I had in the eight weeks here. Some of you saw my swearing-in, noted that I mentioned serving with you for eight weeks. And I was amazed by the time that the president of the United States spent with me in those eight weeks. For some of you who have experienced the fury of being trained by the Jesuit fathers, we are taught that, there used to be a category called limbo. Well, being an acting secretary of anything is like being in Jesuitical limbo — you are, but you're not.

But the point of that is that the president of the United States spent more than eight hours with me on the phone, in person, talking about this institution and giving us the tools that we need to continue to improve this wonderful department. I can tell you that it is rare that the president of the United States spends that time on any subject, given the incredible schedule that he has. But I say that as a way of telling you that this department has the full support of the president and the White House.

So, let me go through a couple of points as to, that I made in my confirmation hearing. So, what are the goals?

The goals for me stem from one notion. And that is the notion of customer service. And I first mentioned customer service not in the traditional sense. Not in the sense that you would hear about customer service from folks at Wal-Mart or Amazon or something like that. What I mean is customer service for each other. I mean talking with each other and not at each other. I mean talking across traditional barriers that have sometimes separated us. We want VHA and BVA to talk. And the reason is not just to be friendly, but it is to share ideas. It is to see how every part of this organization works with the other part. Too many times in any large organization all of us tend to compartmentalize. Well, when it comes to the range of services we provide those who “have borne the battle,” compartmentalization doesn't help anybody. So, that part of customer service is what we will drive forward.

And that leads to something that I want you to all, want you all to know how I feel. This department provides world class medical services. And it is stunning to me that that story has not been told to the American people by leadership, by all of us. My only concern there, and I said it in public, is that we have to concentrate on getting our Veterans to that service. And in that regard, I will be working with the Office of Personnel Management, various HR offices both in this building and without, to make sure that those folks who are on the front line, those folks who are the first encounter that our Veterans have, are compensated well, they are trained well, and that we keep them there, so that the world class experience they get when they get inside the door is what they also receive before they get inside in the door.

You've all heard me talk about Appeals Modernization. We'll work on that.

The Electronic Health Record – the Electronic Health Record has the potential to change the way our Veterans are treated, but also change the way we do business, to make the delivery of our services more efficient, make it more timely. And in an age when we are, as a nation, trying to grapple with the terrible effects of things like opioid addiction and mental health problems, this is a system that will give the VA central control and a way to look into the medical life of our people to tell us if there is a problem – if there is a problem for potential opioid abuse, if there is a mental health problem, if there is something as simple as a dietary problem.

But what it will do – and this will dovetail into my observations about the privatization argument – it keeps VA at the center of the Veteran's life. It keeps this department on course with the mission that Mr. Lincoln laid out, that it be the focal point for care for Veterans in America. That doesn't mean that we will not expand a Veteran's option – his option that if we can't provide that care at that particular moment we will give him the benefit to go out and seek it.

And since John mentioned that I am an historian, I am blessed to have the desk of Omar Bradley in my office. By the way, I'll tell you how the press works. So, my first day as the acting secretary, I saw that one of the newspapers said that I had moved the furniture and was presuming confirmation. Well, what they saw was a guard's desk around the corner with furniture piled up that I'd ordered moved. I did make one change in the office. I did put up a picture of the most famous leader of this organization, General of the Army Omar Bradley. I sent a message to that newspaper telling them that fact, and I said, I will send you a second email if you want me to tell you who Omar Bradley was.

But, in his day, as he received 13 million Veterans into the system as we stood down from World War II, about 30 percent of our care went to those private doctors who could provide care that our overwhelmed hospitals could not. So, for those of you who have heard the charges leveled on the privatization issue, we have always had a symbiotic relationship with our private sector partners, with our university hospital partners. I hope we can expand our cooperation with the Department of Defense and use their facilities when we need them. But, we've always had that relationship, and as long as I'm here, we will have that mix. But VA will be central to the entire program.

In terms of moving forward, I said at my hearing and was charged at my hearing with saying that there are no more excuses. There are certainly no more excuses from the leadership. We have been given what very few, well, I can say only one other department of the federal government has been given, and that is the complete confidence of the United States Congress, in spite of bad press, to do what we need to do to continue to move forward. We have a $200 billion budget. We have an Accountability Act. We have the efforts that this department has already undertaken to make sure that those 100 or 200 bad actors that any large organization will encounter are in a position where they can no longer create chaos for you or create problems for our Veterans in our system. It is my pledge to you to use all of those tools available to move forward.

So, I'm going to just finish with one story that I'm fond of using, that you've heard me use many times, but it is indicative of the way I feel. I will tell you that there is, again, there is no more noble calling than the one that you all have taken an oath to undertake. And there is no more noble mission in the federal government. So, I will stand accused of being an historian, and I will use a story from General Eisenhower.

In 1953, when the president was inaugurated, he decided he was going to turn the presidential yacht at Williamsburg into kindling, because he didn't believe that a democracy at war should allow its elected leader to have such an extravagance. Well, it turned out that Mrs. Eisenhower didn't agree with that. She thought that there was a profitable use of the presidential yacht, Williamsburg, and she told her husband – in fact, gave the former General of the Army orders, as she was wont to do. She said, you will take it out, but you will only take it out with Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines on it. Eisenhower saluted.

Five months after his inauguration, he took the yacht out. There were about 40 Korean War Veterans on that ship. Some of them were horribly disfigured. Others had lost limbs. Now, you know about the Secret Service. So, as soon as the president pulled up to the Navy-yard pier, the Secret Service immediately ran out and started separating the president from his troops. Well, Eisenhower, in a voice that only a man of his stature could employ, yelled, “Halt! I know these men.” And the Secret Service retreated.

And the president walked up on the deck and asked to address them at attention, and those who did stood at attention. And he said that the United States of America could never compensate you for what you have given to us. But my orders to you are that you are always on duty. You never put your uniform away. You are here to remind all Americans of the price of freedom. You are here to remind all Americans that they sleep well at night because of people like you.

That is the message that I have for the men and women who come to VA with those uniforms on. That is the message that I have for you who serve them and serve America because you, too, remind our fellow citizens every day that the price of freedom is never free.

It is my great honor to be part of this wonderful team, to be part of your organization. And the door is open. And I look forward to meeting as many of you as I can.

Thank you.

John Ullyot

Thanks very much, sir. And now we're going to turn to some previously submitted questions that reflect a lot of what's on employees' minds at the moment. And, once again, this is your first town hall. You're going to be doing a lot more of these, as you mentioned.

Secretary Wilkie

Can I do the Phil Donahue in the next one?

John Ullyot

Right. In the next one? Might as well. Absolutely.

First question that came in said that we hear a lot about VA's challenges, sir. But what do you actually think VA does well that we want to get out publicly as a message?

Secretary Wilkie

Well, first of all, VA is staffed by patriots. I do believe it is my responsibility to take those stories to the Congress and to the public. Not in a saccharine way, and not in a cheerleading way, but to tell the truth. For every story that crops up that is not good, there are probably a thousand other stories that are good.

In terms of the things that this department does well, I mentioned world class health service – the dedication of this department to see that a Veteran is cared for from the minute that he enters VA to the day that he or she leaves our earth. I'm saying this with [Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs] Randy Reeves standing there. There's no other organization in the world that does those things.

In terms of . . . let's just talk for a minute about the more mundane government efficiencies. It was this department that got ahead of the curve and created its own Whistle Blower Protection Office. You won't find that in any other department of the federal government. And what does that mean? It means that the men and women of this organization have dedicated themselves to when they see something that is wrong – when they see something that might hurt a Veteran or hurt a fellow employee – they use avenues to correct that. Those are some of the things that I say that VA does so well.

Let me talk for a second, John, about a matter that I raised in my confirmation hearing. Obviously, I got a lot of questions about privatization. And somebody asked me, well, what is it about VA that leads you to be so certain that it could never be privatized. Well, first I gave them the lawyer's answer: If we're going about privatizing VA, we're not doing a very good job. 2009, the budget was about $90 billion dollars. Today, it's close to $200 [billion]. 2009, had about 250,000 employees, now have 370,000. So, those are the bare facts.

But the unwritten fact is that VA provides what I call a communal service that cannot be replicated in the private sector or anywhere else. That means that when a Veteran comes into our hospitals, our centers, wherever — and I've seen this in my own family — they sit down with people who understand the language of military service. They sit down with people who have had the same experiences, unique experiences in their lives that those individuals have.

Now, one of the things we discussed is in playing on my communality efforts, we will bring in folks who have not been part of the military life in their careers, through no fault of their own. But we're going to make sure that we provide training [for] doctors, nurses, anyone else on the spectrum, to just impress upon them that this is a clientele like no other. They speak differently because they've experienced differently. And as long as everybody knows that, we will continue to have people who want to come into the VA.

John Ullyot

Thank you, sir. I think you also answered the second question that came in, which is on privatization. I think we've already covered that one, but that's a very powerful argument. A lot of questions . . . many people are concerned about vacancies across the department. Can you address something on the vacancies issue?

Secretary Wilkie

I spent a lot of time looking at this in my eight weeks and a lot of time talking about it. VA has already started down the road to filling a lot of those vacancies. But let me put this in context, and I think sometimes when this department is criticized, the second part of the answer is never, criticized compared to what? This is a massive organization: 370,000 people. Today, we have 33,000 vacancies — 33,000 vacancies in an organization of 370,000 comes up to be about 9 percent. Even though I'm a recovering lawyer, I can do the math on that one.

If you look at civilian medical systems, the vacancies on a daily basis, the major ones run 15 to 18 to 20 percent. So, we are better off. However, in the short time that I will be permitted to work with you, I will have my hair turned white if I tell you I'm going to try to fill 33,000 vacancies. I think with any enterprise you have to prioritize what you need. I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks that the world has turned over since my father was first commissioned in 1960. With an active-duty population of women, 17 percent, and now 10 percent in the VA, the VA today can't look like it did when my father was commissioned. We need specialists in women's services.

We have a younger VA population for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war. More than half of VA's population is now under the age of 65. So, what do they need? They need internists. They need primary care physicians.

And then there is one of the great problems vexing America that we have to address here because it is of particular importance to the men and women that this department serves, and that is getting a handle on mental health.

In the eight weeks I was here, in some of my discussions with the president, and also with Secretary Mattis, it's going to be a priority for me to create that symbiotic relationship with the Department of Defense, so that we have access to their resources and they have access to mine, ours.

I'll mention my hometown, so, it's sort of a crucible for this idea. Fort Bragg, well, Fayetteville sits in between Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point. So, you’ve got 40 percent of the Marine Corps, plus the world’s largest – at least the free world’s largest – military installation at Fort Bragg. It sits under the University of North Carolina, Duke University, two large VA hospitals in Fayetteville. There's a heck of a lot of talent around there. The VA population in Fayetteville, my hometown, is growing at the rate of 2,000 a month.

Sometime in the near future, we're going to be, the capacity of our hospitals will not be able to handle our VA population. That's why we have to open up DoD. We have to get our doctors certified so that they can practice in the large civilian medical centers. We have to have those kinds of exchanges with them. Most of our VA centers, the ones attached to Universities, have a really good relationship. I want to make that stronger. For those, I'll give you . . . there are probably many former corpsmen listening to me, former Army medics. I want to make it easier for those young people who are coming out of Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune to use those incredible skills that they have honed, not only in the classroom and on the ranges, but after 16 years of combat, to serve those that they have served with.

There are a lot of ways we can look to expand our population of servers in order to address those issues involving vacancies. But we have to be — this is coming, again, from a recovering lawyer; I shouldn't use words like this – we have to be clinical. We have to target where our greatest need is. And we have to target it in a way that addresses the population of the Veteran's Affairs Department as it is, not as it was, to meet the realities of today. So, that's the best I can give you on the vacancies issue.

John Ullyot

Great. Thank you, sir. Another question that came in goes to what you mentioned in your opening remarks. You said that you put a lot of focus on customer service. Can you dive a little bit deeper for us about why that's so important, both to you in your career and also what your vision is for customer service at VA?

Secretary Wilkie

I mentioned what I think customer service should be: Customer service not only in the way that we talk to each other, but customer service in the way that we present ourselves to the outside world.

I was asked a question about walking the post. Now, that's an interesting comment coming at an airman. Because sometimes we have trouble getting out of the nice restaurants we have on Air Force bases. But, walking the post is part of customer service, not only for me, but for all of you. That means taking the temperature of those who work around you. For me, in the eight weeks I was here, it meant visiting five hospitals across the country in those eight weeks; going someplace like the Maryland Veteran's Treatment Court in Baltimore, which is actually run by a high school classmate of mine whose father was a general, and she was an intelligence officer; getting out and taking the pulse as to what not only each other happens to need, but what our customers need.

The other side of customer service, I mentioned a little earlier. And I apologize for repeating it, but I do think it is worth mentioning again – that is giving our Veterans the best possible experience the minute that they encounter VA. With our schedulers. With our greeters. [VA’s Chief Veterans Experience Officer] Lynda Davis has got an incredibly advanced program that deals with everything from volunteers to the people who schedule. And it has to be an effort in depth. That means from the time you greet someone to getting that expert at the second and third tier of the inquiry, so that someone who has told us that he has or she has a complex medical problem, they're not greeted by someone who has no idea what he's talking about or has no idea how to answer that.

We need to give those people the resources to get that Veteran in touch with someone who can immediately respond and get that person pointed in the right direction. I will say in my . . . I left politics for a while and came back a few years to work in the United States Senate for my home state senator. I've seen a lot of advances. I've seen a lot of advances just in my home area, but I think it's indicative of what's been going on here. It is, in most places, a much more welcoming place than it has been in the past. And what I hope to do is build on the progress that you all have been making in the last few years. But, we do have to be a little more creative, and we do have to compensate those on the front line. Those who are there for the first encounter.

John Ullyot

Thank you, sir. I think we have time for a couple more questions. One that is on a lot of employees' minds is the idea of accountability. We had an accountability Whistle Blower Protection bill passed last year, had an executive order right before that. So, the issue is, you talked a little bit about it in your opening remarks, but some employees are concerned that accountability can go too far and that you can hold lower-level employees accountable, sometimes in an unfair manner. What do you see as the good aspects of that bill, and where do you focus when it comes to accountability and making sure that we're targeting the right employees who need to be held accountable and also protecting the others who don’t?

Secretary Wilkie

Well, let's start by admitting two things. The first thing to admit is that 99 percent of the coverage about this department has been unfair. Let's admit that. But we also have to admit that we have a very unique mission. And it is unlike any other. And I was asked this by several United States senators, and those senators said that their read is that we're going after custodial staff more than we're going after higher paid executives. That certainly should not be the case. I don't think it is. And it certainly won't be with me.

However, this goes back to the part of the customer service paradigm. It is one thing to be lax . . . and the Whistle Blower Act doesn't deal with folks there. It is supposed to deal with those at the top end of the chain, and they should be dealt with swiftly. But we're not the Department of Labor. We're not the Department of Energy. If someone who is doing the noble mission of keeping our buildings clean or our hospitals clean doesn't do his job, then guess what? Somebody could get sick. And somebody could die. That doesn't happen in any other federal department.

But the point is – and then, what will be the directive from me is – that all of us, including yours truly, will be held to the same standards we expect of those who do those jobs, those who work at that level to serve us and to serve Veterans. The interesting thing about the Accountability Act is that it's really only one part of a troika, a triumvirate, a three-pronged system of making sure that we're all doing the right thing. We have our Inspector General, we have our general counsels all over the system, and, now, we have the Whistle Blower Act.

So, we'll do it fairly. But, we'll do it in a way that makes sure that we always keep right in sight that we are here not to preserve our own equities or our own sense of value. We are here to serve those who have served. As long as we keep that in sight, I think everything will be done . . . will be well.

And I will leave you with one pledge from me. I do pledge to be your advocate. I do pledge to tell the good stories, will admit when some things go wrong. But I can tell you as the son of a combat soldier who was taken care of at the end of 30 years of military service – when he came to VA with bad knees, bad hips, the effects of the wounds from three Purple Hearts – that I'm going to make sure that we tell that story, too. And how we take care of those, like my father, like my wife's grandfather.

Actually, I'll tell you . . . I'll finish with a little story as to how small the world is.

My father, as a senior leader in the 82nd was charged with hosting an event in the 1970s for the World War I Veterans of Cumberland County, North Carolina. And he was engaged in a conversation with a sergeant who was then in his 70s. So, this is 1979. So, he was in his late 70s. And my father said, “Well, Sergeant, what is it . . .” — these were all Veterans of the 82nd infantry division — “Sergeant, what is it that your division can do for you, because you have given so much?”

And that sergeant sort of clapped his heels together and said, “Sir, I just want you to make sure the VA works for me.”

Now, it turns out that that was my future wife's grandfather. And I say that as illustrative, as an illustration of the effect the VA has had on both sides of my family.

And I will leave you with that. I will leave you with a thank you for being here, taking time out of your day. I look forward to meeting as many of you as I can. And the next time, I hope when I do it, I won’t be stuck behind a podium. But I hope you have a great weekend. I look forward to this time together. And I thank you very much for everything you do for America.

John Ullyot

Thank you very much, sir. Just wanted to say we know you’re going to be out on the road a number of times this month, and I believe a number of places now that Congress is out and you have a little bit of space where you can go out and visit people in the field. So, this is your first town hall, only four days in. We really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us. And I know that you’re going to be trying to do a lot more town halls as you’re going out to the field. So, thanks again. Thanks everyone.

Secretary Wilkie

Thank you all, very much. Thank you.