On paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA secretary, but his qualifications go further

On paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA secretary, but his qualifications go further
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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — once the bright spot of the Trump administration — has lost its momentum for change and is in danger of falling back into a state of decay. Since the firing of former Secretary Dr. David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVeterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA Mar-a-Lago insiders provided input on VA policy, personnel decisions: report Ahead of speech, Kansas City newspaper urges Trump to listen to veterans MORE, coupled with the rapid, and some say forced, retirement of Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, there has been a leadership void in the agency.

While Chief of Staff Peter O'Rourke stepped in as Acting Secretary, he quickly drew criticism from both left and right in his ongoing dispute with the Inspector General.

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The power to continue VA reform lies in the hands of the United States Senate. Currently pending is the nomination of Robert L. Wilkie as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Wilkie served briefly as interim Secretary after Shulkin's departure and during the Ronnie Jackson fiasco.

 

His appointment drew the ire of leftist groups and unions who filed suit to contest his appointment The issue became moot when President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE nominated him for the Secretary's position and he returned to his duties with the Department of Defense pending confirmation.

Robert Wilkie has been a Washington insider for many years. The 55-year-old North Carolina native was serving as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness when tapped for the VA Secretary's position. Prior to that he served on the staff of Senator Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up GOP leader criticizes Republican senators for not showing up to work Orrin Hatch: Partisanship over Kavanaugh nomination 'dumbass' MORE.

Previously he had worked for the late Jesse Helms and Trent Lott in various capacities. He also worked for Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley on the National Security Council staff. In the Bush Administration, he served a stint as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. He is the recipient of the Defense Department's Distinguished Public Service Medal. A graduate of Loyola University Law School with an LLM from Georgetown, Wilkie is at home in the executive branch and on the hill.

Wilkie is also a veteran having served in both the navy and the air force as an intelligence officer. His military education includes the Army War College and the College of Naval Command and Staff.  

On paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA Secretary, but his qualifications go further. I first met him in 2015 when he was a senior aide to Sen. Tillis (R-N.C.). He asked probing questions and quickly grasped both the scientific and legal evidence I presented to him. He exuded an air of quiet competence coupled with a quick and logical mind. He struck me as someone who was able to think "outside of the box" when necessary to solve perplexing issues,

I met Wilkie again at his confirmation hearing. He was impressive in his testimony and handled even the toughest questions with ease. He had obviously gained a thorough insight of the problems facing the VA during his six-week tenure as interim Secretary. More important, he demonstrated that he has the tools to solve them.

I have been an unabashed critic of the VA for years based on my experience as a veteran's law attorney, a veterans advocate and in my personal dealings with the agency as a veteran. I was also a strong defender of former Secretary Shulkin, and I still believe his firing was a mistake. I must admit, however, that President Trump may have found a Secretary who is even better than Shulkin.

On July 10, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted 13-1, with Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Health Care: Azar defends approach on drug rebates | Trump presses Senate to act quickly on opioid crisis | Kentucky governor's Medicaid lawsuit tossed Poll finds Libertarian Senate candidate running ahead of GOP in New Mexico Senate GOP targets musicians Ben Folds, Jason Isbell as 'unhinged left' ahead of rally for Dem candidate MORE (I-Vt.) the sole dissenter, to favorably report Wilkie’s nomination. It is now incumbent upon the full Senate to quickly confirm him without resorting to partisan politics.

The current VA is mired in bureaucracy more concerned about procedures than substance. The approach of this agency has historically been to emphasize methodology over results.

That needs to change. Secretary Shulkin tried to reform the culture but lost his job before he could do so. Unlike Shulkin, Wilkie has the bureaucratic knowledge and experience to whip the alligators while draining the swamp.  

The bottom line is that we need a strong, knowledgeable problem solver to make the VA great again. Robert Leon Wilkie is that man.  

John B. Wells is a retired Navy Commander. After retirement, he became an attorney practicing military and veterans law. He is executive director of the nonprofit Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc.