'It Is Your VA:' Amid Skepticism, Wilkie Pledges New Commitment to Female Vets

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In a first major address to women's military and veterans organizations Friday, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that the department would be making changes to accommodate their needs but declined to give specifics.

"My pledge to you is the VA will become a welcoming home for all those who have worn the uniform," Wilkie said at the inaugural meeting in Atlanta of the Military Women's Coalition, a new umbrella group of existing service organizations.

Wilkie said he was not ready to give the "ABCs" on new initiatives, but stressed that the Department of Veterans Affairs was "on the cusp of great change" in terms of addressing services for women that were ignored in the past.

He suggested that improvements in mental health and primary care for women would be on the agenda.

"In order to meet that change, we have to change the way of doing business," he said.

To that end, Wilkie said he was committed to installing more diverse leadership at the VA. He noted that last month retired Air Force Col. Pamela Powers became his chief of staff. Powers held a similar post under Wilkie in his previous job as under secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Powers replaced Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, who had been serving as acting chief of staff and now has been named acting assistant for Human Resources and Administration.

"It is your VA," Wilkie said, citing statistics that made meeting the needs of women a priority.

Women now make up about 13 percent of active duty forces, and Wilkie said he expected that number could rise to about 20 percent in coming years.

"This is your Veterans Affairs department.The doors are open we will be making changes to make sure that the needs of our fighting women are taken care of," Wilkie said.

As he left the stage, Lydia Watts, chief executive officer of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), said the group look forward "to seeing those changes implemented."

Wilkie's address was met with skepticism by some in the audience.

Retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, a West Point graduate and 30-year veteran who now serves as director of research for SWAN, told Military.com before Wilkie spoke that she was looking for specific updates that would make the VA more welcoming.

"We want to know how change will happen on his watch," she said.

Haring also said Wilkie appears to want to steer clear of "controversial issues" including a possible change to the motto of the VA to make it more gender-neutral.

The current motto taken from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural address reads: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) began advocating for a change earlier this year.

One possible replacement motto reads: "To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors."

The VA has thus far rejected a change.

In her own address to the coalition meeting following Wilkie's, Haring said a survey showed that military women and veterans had three top priorities: mental health care, action on sexual harassment, and culture change.

She said the first action of the new coalition would be a letter campaign demanding that Congress hold hearings on the report last month from the VA's Office of Inspector General, stating that about 1,300 claims of sexual trauma may have been wrongly denied by the VA.

Women's service organizations, including SWAN, Women in Military Service to America, and the Women Veterans United Committee, Inc. announced the formation of the Military Women's Coalition in July.

In a statement, the groups said that the goal was to "elevate the voices of the 2.2 million current service women and women veterans to bring about policy and culture change within the military and the veteran communities."

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

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