'We Call Him Forrest Gump:' What Robert Wilkie Would Bring to the VA

Acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers a brief statement during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on May 17, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers a brief statement during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on May 17, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump's choice for VA secretary, has already given the Senate a primer on his views on health care for troops and veterans, citing his experience as the son of a thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran and referencing his work managing personnel matters for the Pentagon.

He was tapped for the position after Trump's previous nominee, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, withdrew amid allegations of drinking on the job and other improper conduct.

Wilkie was acting VA secretary until Wednesday when the White House said he was stepping down from the post to get around a section of the U.S. Code barring an acting secretary from taking the permanent job.

Wilkie has maintained a relatively low profile amid the chaos. But his statements to lawmakers at a confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee last November offer clues to his background and priorities.

"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," he told the committee.

Wilkie made the remarks in testimony and in written responses to questions at his confirmation hearing as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' pick to become the Pentagon's under secretary for personnel and readiness.

In that post, he had charge of the Pentagon's sprawling Defense Health Agency until he was moved to the Department of Veterans Affairs in March as acting secretary amid turmoil over the angry departure of VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.

Wilkie's most recent job on Capitol Hill was as a top aide to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina. In backing his nomination as under secretary, Tillis described Wilkie as a wonky workaholic devoted to the military's mission.

"He has a grasp of history that is unparalleled," Tillis said. "We play a game in my office called 'Stump Robert.' We haven't figured out how to do it yet.

"We also call him 'Forrest Gump,' " the senator said, a possible reference to Wilkie's ability to exceed expectations.

"There is not a single story he can't put in context with some experience he had in his working career or dating back to the Roman times," Tillis said, prompting laughter from the committee.

When Wilkie was nominated for the VA post, Tillis said, "Robert is one of the most honorable and decent human beings I've ever worked with, and anyone who knows him has seen his drive to serve his country and his passion for honoring our nation's veterans and service members, qualities that will be tremendous assets at the VA."

Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, formerly served as an intelligence officer in the Navy.

The 55-year-old lawyer received his bachelor's degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a law degree from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. He received Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

In both his oral and written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wilkie referred to his father, retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Leon Wilkie Sr., who died last year.

His father's awards included three Purple Hearts, four awards of the Bronze Star (one with Combat "V" device), four awards of the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the senior Parachutist Badge and the Ranger tab.

Wilkie also expressed views on accountability for personnel working in the military health system and options for private care that put him in line with the Trump administration's plans for the VA Mission Act, which passed the Senate last week.

In addition, Wilkie said the military's health system is too reliant on paper records. Earlier this month, as acting secretary, he awarded a 10-year, $10 billion contract to Cerner Corp. of Kansas City, Missouri, for electronic health records at the VA.

"For our families, the military health system has been slow to keep up with modern medical advances for conditions like autism and other behavioral disorders," Wilkie told the committee.

He also said he is determined to bring down the veteran suicide rate, which was Shulkin's top priority at the VA.

"We still have military families making their medical appointments on paper. And P&R [Personnel and Readiness], in accord with the direction of this committee, is consolidating our multiple military health care systems into one streamlined and efficient military health care administration," he said.

That effort appears to track with the VA Mission Act, which aims to consolidate seven community and private-care options under the existing Veterans Choice program at the VA into one program.

When asked for his opinion on the greatest threat to the sustainment of the military health system, Wilkie said it is "the inability to transform the military health system into a much leaner and more efficient organization that still meets the warfighters' and beneficiaries' needs."

He added that he is looking for "increased efficiencies that result in substantially enhanced care for service members and their families, as well as the more effective allocation of resources."

"I believe we need to look at all options to managing the cost of DoD health care," including more reliance on the private sector, Wilkie told the committee.

"The potential for greater efficiency and effectiveness is substantial," he said. "It also includes looking at how the department buys health care from the civilian sector to emphasize outcomes and promoting healthy lifestyles among our beneficiaries to reduce the demand for health services."

As opposed to Shulkin, who was the only Obama administration holdover in Trump's Cabinet, Wilkie was a long-time Republican aide on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

He briefly came under scrutiny at the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump in 2016 over allegations that he worked with two other Republican aides to keep a mention of Russian aggression against Ukraine out of the Republican platform

The allegations were never proven, and there has been no evidence that Wilkie has been targeted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

"I come from a family with military service going back over 175 years," Wilkie told the Senate Armed Services Committee last November, adding that he was raised at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

As a young aide, Wilkie said he learned from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, a bedrock conservative known as "Senator 'No,' " that "to truly represent North Carolina, one must understand Highway 24," which runs between the Marine base at Camp Lejeune and the Army's Fort Bragg.

"That is the road that connects 45 percent of the entire Marine Corps in the eastern part of our state to the place [Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island] calls the 'hub of the universe' -- Fort Bragg," he said.

Wilkie previously served in the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs in former President George W. Bush's administration. He began serving as under secretary for personnel and readiness last Nov. 30.

Wilkie's nomination to head the government's second-largest department after the Pentagon drew accolades in his home state.

"Robert truly has a heart for veterans," his friend, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina, whose district includes Fayetteville next to Fort Bragg, told the Fayetteville Observer. "That, coupled with his deep understanding of what management and policy changes need to be made to clean up the VA, is what we need to keep our promises to veterans."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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