President Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie is a very qualified, conservative Washington insider, who has over three decades of experience navigating the minefields of D.C. politics. And he has a tough job to do manning one of the nation’s largest bureaucracies that is always under the microscope.
Wilkie is no stranger to polarizing people and issues. In fact, rather than run from them, he seems to relish and embrace them. As a young man, Wilkie was an aide to Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina who bashed Martin Luther King and called gays, “weak, morally sick wretches.” Wilkie described Helms who died in 2008 as a mentor and lists his accomplishments in U.S. defense as cornerstones of his own beliefs.
Wilkie also worked for Trent Lott, the conservative Senator from Mississippi who lost his Senate Majority post for defending the segregationist views of Strom Thurmond who unsuccessfully ran for the White House.
More recently, Wilkie worked in the Defense Department for Donald Rumsfeld and returned to the Pentagon recently in the Trump Administration working in military policy. He’s shown he’s never one to back down from a fight, even when the issues are quite polarizing. Now he’s tabbed to run the VA which it seems is always under fire.
Wilkie and his father were frequent visitors to Civil War battlefields and they have a heritage of family members who fought for the Confederacy. Wilkie was active in and participated in many events with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group which celebrates the birthdays of Confederate leaders and generals.
He has stated that he no longer attends those meetings or counts himself as an active member since the commemorations which were once a means to memorialize soldiers and family members but now have become “part of the politics that divide us.”
But on the flip side, he also brings a very experienced military background to the table. His grandfather served as an artillery officer in the 82nd Infantry Division, (now the 82nd Airborne Division) in World War I. His father was an artillery officer who was severely wounded in Vietnam. Wilkie served in both the Navy Reserve with the Joint Forces Intelligence Command, Naval Special Warfare Group Two and the Office of Naval Intelligence.and the Air Force and is currently an Air Force reserve officer.
He is a trusted member of Jim Mattis staff at the Department of Defense and has contacts going back several generations in Congress.
But while he can, and has gotten things done, he also took a stand on several particularly divisive issues including, in 1993, he publicly defended Helms’ choice to support an organization whose logo included the Confederate flag. In 1997, Wilkie fought against a Democratic proposal in 1997 to ensure equal pay for working women. And just this year, he took a stand for President Trump’s policy for justifying a ban on transgender troops serving in the military.
Wilkie will need to show a willingness and passion for fighting for and defending all veterans rights, whether he agrees with the cause or not, and not just blindly be following an agenda.
Wilkie got the strongest possible recommendation from Mattis who is a very respected Defense Secretary in an administration that has gotten a lot of criticism. He’s also gotten the recommendation of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. And he has already been approved by the Senate twice before for different posts so, the confirmation process wasn’t seen to be a major block.
Wilkie was surprised by his appointment by the President, who announced his nomination in May. Wilkie was happy working as Undersecretary for personnel and readiness under Mattis but agreed to take the position out of a sense of duty.
One big sticking point was erased when Wilkie announced that there won’t be privatization of veterans health care. And he’ll inherit a bloated agency beset with poor morale due to political infighting that is also beset with a myriad of problems.
The veterans of the country will be watching and they’ll expect changes, positive changes be made soon.