Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, met with PNC Norman Rosenshein at JWV Headquarters on Friday, June 14, and spoke about his views on serving veterans. Secretary Wilkie and PNC Rosenshein were joined by National Executive Director Herb Rosenbleeth and Veterans Treatment Court judge, Halee Weinstein. Judge Weinstein is a long-time friend of Secretary Wilkie and joined him on a tour of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

Secretary Wilkie’s grandfather and father were combat veterans, his father being an Army Lieutenant Colonel. The Secretary himself is an Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. He is a graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, the Air Command and Staff College, the United States War College, and the Joint Forces Staff College. Secretary Wilkie’s extensive military background and experience make him uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Secretary Wilkie is committed to changing the culture within the VA to make it more accountable and responsive to the needs of veterans. In the past, some senior leaders have exhibited a pattern of mismanagement and lack of integrity. Issues such as falsified waiting time reports, dirty and missing medical equipment and supplies, and other problems that compromised patient safety are now being addressed.

Secretary Wilkie has brought many military people to the VA. His Chief of Staff is a former Air Force Colonel. He appointed a Senior Enlisted Advisor, which the VA has not had since the days of Omar Bradley. These military personnel will help fix the culture at the VA. Leadership will improve.

The newly passed VA Mission Act was the next issue to be discussed. The Mission Act improves the ability of the VA to provide the healthcare veterans need, when and where they need it. It gives veterans the option to seek care in their communities. “It will also put veterans at the center of their care, and offer options, including expanded tele-help and urgent care, so they can find the balance in the system that’s right for them,” said Secretary Wilkie. The Secretary pointed out that there has been a decline in the number of veterans asking to go outside of the VA for their treatment.

Secretary Wilkie is committed to establishing an electronic medical record for all veterans. He sees the creation of a combined DoD/VA medical records as one of his major goals. This record would be available at all physicians appointments.
The Secretary said the greatest problem affecting veterans are mental health issues. Poor mental health is attributable to suicide and addiction. Vietnam veterans are the largest contingent of those needing mental health care. We need a real deep national conversation on mental health.

Right now, veteran suicides occur at the rate of over 20 deaths a day. Secretary Wilkie said his approach is to take the stigma away from getting needed care for mental health issues. Military personnel are often reluctant to seek this type of care for fear that doing so will negatively impact their military career.

Another issue that affects military and veterans is loneliness. Technology and social media give people the illusion of social connectivity, but many people report feelings of isolation. People today often view other people as text messages, not as people. Military personnel lack sufficient contact with others, often because they have become used to texting. Face to face communication, or at least speaking directly to someone would ease some of the feelings of loneliness.

Secretary Wilkie said, “We have lost the ability to be civil.” In the past, opposing politicians would meet informally with each other and have a civil, even friendly conversation, about a divisive issue. Genuine friendships existed between those on opposite sides of an issue. Politicians could talk with each other, but not today.
“I just presented to the Congress a $220 billion budget,” said the Secretary. That is the largest budget in the history of the Department. It will enable the VA to provide many of the services that veterans need.

JWV appreciates that Secretary Wilkie demonstrate the leadership skills needed to accomplish the VA’s important agenda. We enjoyed his visit to our headquarters and we look forward to working with the Secretary and his staff.

Volume 73. Number 2. 2019