Veterans Affairs: From World War I to Today


with Secretary Robert Wilkie of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs


Nov 09, 2018

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie joins Comcast Newsmakers for a historical discussion about World War I, his family’s history of military service, and his priorities for VA moving forward.

Hosted by: Sheila Hyland Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hyland: On November 11, 1918, America celebrated the end of the Great War -- World War I. As the U.S. entered that war, Congress established a new system of veterans´ benefits. These government programs continued to evolve, and in 1930, the Veterans Administration -- now the Department of Veterans Affairs -- was established. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Sheila Hyland. VA serves more than 9 million veterans each year. And joining me to discuss the milestone anniversary of the end of World War I, service in the U.S. Armed Forces, the priorities of the Veterans Affairs Department, and more, is VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. Secretary Wilkie, thank you so much for being with us today.

Wilkie: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Sheila.

Hyland: You have a long family history of service. Your great-grandfather served in World War I. Your grandfather served in World War II. Your father served and was gravely wounded in the Vietnam War.

Wilkie: Yeah.

Hyland: You were with the U.S. Navy Reserve. You are currently still in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. So, again, a long family history. Talk about the significance and the sacrifice of what your family has gone through and why World War I in particular holds a special place in your heart.

Wilkie: Well, thank you, Sheila. World War I, to me as somewhat of a military historian, is a forgotten conflict. It´s sandwiched in between the great catastrophe of the American Civil War, and then World War II. But World War I´s where America erupted onto the world stage. And on both sides of my family -- my wife´s family and mine -- young people were called upon out of ordinary lives, out of ordinary occupations, to go to Europe. 2 million Americans. My great-grandfather was a small-town lawyer in Mississippi, and within a few weeks of getting his notice, he was at Camp Gordon, Georgia, and with the Army assembling there. Another part of the Camp Gordon was a reluctant soldier, a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, who would become the greatest hero of that war -- Sgt. Alvin York. The Bible that I took my oath on in the Oval Office was carried into battle by my wife´s grandfather. He was a teenager. In those days, he´d never ventured much beyond two or three counties in North and South Carolina. But by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-Elysées into the Meuse-Argonne. On the back of that Bible, written in pencil, is an inscription -- "If found, please return to my mother. These words mean a great deal to me." I think that was the hope of all those young Americans who went over, including one who was not as great a warrior as some, but he was a nearsighted farmer from Jackson County, Missouri. He cheated to get into the field artillery ´cause he couldn´t bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war without him. And he would go on to be one of our greatest presidents, Harry Truman. So they came from all walks of life, and they sacrificed. And because of them, the American nation became the dominant presence on the globe, and it´s important that we remember them.

Hyland: You did mention that World War I is considered the forgotten war. Why? Why is it forgotten, and why should we remember? Why is it so important?

Wilkie: Well, it´s forgotten, as I said, because it sits between two enormous bellwethers in American history. That great cataclysm of the 19th century that ripped our nation apart, the Civil War. The scale of destruction in the country and to people has not been equaled in our history -- 600,000 gone. World War II, the United States becomes the arsenal of democracy. We´re fighting across the globe. 11 million Americans are under arms in that conflict. World War I, because we weren´t in it very long, sort of gets lost. But World War I is what all of us from the military refer to as the Soldier´s War. It was a war that really took its heart out of those who fought in it. The terrible conditions in the trenches, hundreds of days out in the middle of nowhere -- the soldiers bore the burden of that war in a way that they don´t usually, particularly in this day and time.

Hyland: Moving forward, now you are heading up VA, which is a daunting task, some would say. You have certain priorities that are different from your predecessors´. Let´s talk about some of those priorities, beginning with customer service -- but not in the way that most of us think about customer service.

Wilkie: Yeah. My first priority at VA was to calm the waters down. The first six months of this year created a great deal of turmoil. I´m not casting aspersions on anyone, but those are the facts. And my job was to calm the place down, to do what we say in the military -- "walk the post." In the last eight weeks, I´ve been in 13 states. I´ll be in two more this week. I´m going out to talk to the people who serve our veterans as employees of the VA. It´s very important that their morale be lifted, that they be reminded that they have probably the most noble mission in the federal government, and that is to serve those who have served us. So customer service, for me, starts within the organization, talking with each other instead of to each other and talking about what we all do, and also making sure that the voice of the organization is heard. Anybody who sits in the 10th-floor office that I occupy and starts directing missives across the country without actually feeling what goes on in our VA deserves to get another job. No one can know all of the answers, but you have to trust your people. But in so doing, you make sure that their voices are heard.

Hyland: Let´s talk about what does go on in the VA and what services are there for vets and their families, too, as well.

Wilkie: Right. It´s the second-largest healthcare organization in the country, after the Department of Defense. We have 170 hospitals, 1,400 clinics, 370,000 employees.

Hyland: A massive operation.

Wilkie: It is a massive operation, a massive task, but a noble one. Our priorities are not only to care for those who have borne the battle, but also to provide support for the families of those who have served. To give you an example, we´ve just been given the most transformative legislation since World War II by the Congress. The President has signed it -- the MISSION Act. What we do in MISSION Act is to finally recognize the family caregivers who provide support for veterans from the Vietnam era, from Korea, and World War II. So, for the first time, they will have access to financial resources. They will have access to training and medical resources that they´ve never had, because medicine is changing. We no longer have a health system that is centered on in-patient care in a hospital. The trends in American healthcare are to get people out of these hospitals, get them closer to home, get their families involved, and that needs to be recognized in VA. It´s a different world.

Hyland: You also -- It is a different world. You mentioned earlier to me that this is the youngest VA population since the end of the Vietnam War, and more than half of the VA´s population is now under the age of 65. You now have more women in your ranks.

Wilkie: Yes.

Hyland: How is that changing the scope of what you´re doing and the services that you´re offering?

Wilkie: Well, it goes back to what you said about customer service. You have to know your audience. You have to know your clients. The younger veteran is not used to a hospital setting. She´s used to having quick answers. She´s computer-savvy. She wants service. She doesn´t want to sit around in a big brick room, and we have to adjust to that. In addition, part of that adjustment is making sure we have medical services to meet the needs of the population. This is not my father´s VA. When he was commissioned two months before Kennedy was inaugurated, less than 0.5% of the force was female. When I was Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel, 17% of the force that I was privileged to oversee was female. It will hit 20%. What does that mean for the VA? It means 10% of our veterans in the system are now women. We need women´s healthcare clinics throughout our VA. But also, in response to the changing medical situation in the country, we have to put a premium on primary care and internists, but also mental health. That is where VA has to concentrate to meet the needs of the population as it exists, and that means breaking a model of care that really has been in existence since Omar Bradley had the chair that I now occupy, in 1945.

Hyland: All right. Very briefly, what do you want people to know about VA and where we are moving forward?

Wilkie: Well, what I want people to know about VA is what I have described as our mission. And it´s probably strange for somebody with my background to say that I constantly contemplate what it means to serve and what the meaning of a veteran is. I think Eisenhower had it about right when he said that, first of all, you never put your uniform away. You are here to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night. And if that is the standard, it is our duty to make sure that those veterans who remind their fellow citizens why they are safe are taken care of. It is our obligation for those who have borne the battle. In our history, 41 million Americans have served in uniform. That is a staggering number, and that is the population we serve. We can never repay that debt, but we can meet the obligation of making sure that their lives and their services are honored, that they exist to remind their fellow citizens what it means to serve America.

Hyland: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Wilkie: Thank you, Sheila.

Hyland: And thank you for joining us as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Sheila Hyland.

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