Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie called on a federal union Monday to apologize for a chapter president's suggestion that veterans affected by the partial government shutdown might resort to suicide.
"The notion that most veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous," Wilkie said in his letter to J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
"One of the most insulting and misleading stereotypes about veterans today is that of the 'veteran as victim,' which is why veterans and veteran advocates are continuously fighting this shopworn canard."
The letter to Cox singled out Edward Canales, a federal Bureau of Prisons employee in California, a 100 percent disabled Army veteran and president of AFGE Local 3584. Wilkie said Canales told ABC News 2 last week, "If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides."
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Wilkie charged that Canales "exploited the real tragedy of veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial government shutdown."
"I ask you to apologize publicly for your AFGE colleague's reckless comments and to outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our nation's heroes," he said in the letter to Cox.
In a statement in response, Cox did not directly comment on Wilkie's charges about suicides, but said that veterans in the federal workforce are under stress from the shutdown.
Cox said the Trump administration is "one of the worst on record for our country's heroes. Federal government-employed veterans are hurting right now."
"Regardless of their continued service to our country, the president and his Cabinet have left them out in the cold," Cox said, "forcing them to work without pay or subjecting veterans and their families to the uncertainty of not knowing when or where their next paycheck will come from."
Will Attig, executive director of the Union Veterans Council of the AFL-CIO, told Mililtary.com that Wilkie is ignoring the financial insecurity that studies have shown could put veterans at risk.
Wilkie's statements show that he is "completely out of touch with the reality that federal workers face every single day," Attig charged. "We believe this letter [from Wilkie] is an attempt to whitewash the issue."
He added, "We're hearing it from hundreds of veterans every day. We're all hearing the same thing -- the stress from the financial insecurity."
Separately Monday, Wilkie issued a lengthy statement outlining the VA's efforts to curb veteran suicides, which now average about 20 daily.
He said the VA is "making great strides in our top clinical priority -- suicide prevention -- and in improving mental health care for veterans, including through Telehealth and same-day mental health services."
Dr. Keita Franklin, the VA's new director of suicide prevention, "has added more than 20 staff to her team, worked to improve the office's organizational structure and brought clear lines of responsibility and accountability to VA's suicide prevention efforts," Wilkie said.
"We also ramped up our spending on suicide prevention outreach in a big way," he added. "During fiscal year 2019, our total budget for suicide prevention is approximately $47.5 million, and we plan to spend $20 million of that budget on outreach."
However, a report by the Government Accountability Office last month charged that the VA in the previous fiscal year spent only a fraction of allocated funding for suicide prevention outreach and media support -- about $57,000, or one percent, of what was in the budget.
At a sometimes testy joint Senate-House hearing Dec. 20, Wilkie blamed the failure to spend the money on disorganization but said the issues were being addressed and the funds were now flowing under new leadership at the suicide prevention office.
The VA is fully funded for 2019 and is not among the nine government departments and several smaller agencies affected by the partial government shutdown, which is now in its 24th day -- the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
About 800,000 federal workers have either been furloughed or are working without pay during the shutdown, and government figures show that veterans comprise about 31 percent of the federal workforce.
The major issue blocking a compromise resolution to the shutdown has been the dispute between the White House and congressional Democrats over funding for extending existing portions of the southern border wall.
President Donald Trump has demanded $5.7 billion for the wall while Democrats have offered $1.6 billion for border security enhancements, not including the wall.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.