New VA Secretary Wilkie Gives Pep Talk to Much-Criticized Workforce

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie speaks during a meeting with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie speaks during a meeting with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

New Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie used his first day on the job Tuesday to remind the much-criticized workforce of more than 360,000 of their "noble calling" and pledged to work with them rather than over them in improving services to nine million veterans annually.

"I'm Robert Wilkie, and it is an overwhelming honor to serve alongside you," he said in a video message to staff nationwide.

He did not point fingers at the political infighting among top managers who preceded him, but said he would bring a new leadership style to facing challenges in expanding private health care options, speeding up the appeals claims process, putting in place new electronic records systems, and cutting wait times for appointments.

Wilkie said he is not a top-down, crack-the-whip-style manager. Repeating a theme he stressed at his Senate confirmation hearing, he said, "We must have a bottom-up organization. The energy must flow from you who are closest to those we are sworn to serve."

His first priority is customer service, Wilkie said, and that must start with all VA employees "not talking at each other but with each other across all office barriers and across all compartments."

"If we don't listen to each other, we won't be able to listen to our veterans and their families," he said, and "we won't be able to provide the world-class customer service they deserve."

The main message to the workforce on his first day, Wilkie said, was one of thanks, "whether you are at a health care facility, on the benefits team, serving at our cemeteries, or here as part of our staff at the headquarters."

"You may not hear enough, but I want you to hear it from me. Thank you for your tireless work and devotion to our veterans," he said.

Wilkie, 55, of North Carolina, came to the VA from the Pentagon, where he served as undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

He was sworn in Monday by Vice President Mike Pence as the fifth VA secretary in the last five years, succeeding Dr. David Shulkin, who was fired in March by President Donald Trump.

The Washington Post has reported that Wilkie is intent on weeding out Trump administration political appointees who allegedly were cracking down on staffers seen as "disloyal" to Trump, but a VA spokesman said Monday there are no personnel changes anticipated "at this time."

"I'm deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to serve for him and for America's veterans," Wilkie said in his message.

The major veterans service organizations have been supportive of Wilkie, while remaining wary of private health care options being expanded too rapidly and possibly threatening the "privatization" of VA health care.

"We congratulate him on becoming secretary, and we look forward to him bringing stable leadership to the department and strong advocacy for America's veterans," Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement.

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

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