Sworn in as Department of Veterans Affairs secretary less than a month ago, Robert Wilkie addressed The American Legion as a public body for the first time during the organization’s 100th Annual National Convention Aug. 29 in Minneapolis.
And in that 20-minute address, Wilkie stressed that VA is the best option for care for veterans, with the potential to be a “patient-centered health-care system providing maximum choice of quality health-care options.”
An essential option, Wilkie said, is “the availability of care who specialize in treating veterans in the language of veterans. These people need to know what each of you have been through, what your special needs are, and who can meet those needs efficiently and effectively.
“This is not an option that the private sector can provide. The private sector cannot replicate VA’s expertise in things like spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, audiology, services for the blind and suicide prevention.”
Wilkie said he stressed that philosophy during his confirmation hearing. “I will say to you what I said to those senators in July: There is one unspoken fact of VA life that can never be replaced,” he said. “It can never be replicated. It can never be privatized. That is the community nature of the VA experience. For your service to America, you deserve to come to and be treated by those who know what you and your families have gone through.”
Wilkie said the VA is about serving veterans. “It is our responsibility to serve you well and honorably, and showing you the same kind of dignity and devotion that you gave to America,” he said. “So my prime directive is customer service.
“When a veteran comes to VA, it is not up to him to employ a cauldron of lawyers to get VA to say ‘yes’. It is up to the VA to say ‘yes.' That is customer service.”
Wilkie praised The American Legion for its 100 years of keeping veterans issues a focus of the U.S. government.
“You were powerful advocates for the establishment of the Veterans Bureau in 1921,” he said. “In 1924, you told the president of the United States to expand access to include non-service-connected illnesses – legislation that changed what it fundamentally means to care for all of those who have won the uniform.
“In 1988, it was you who sat with Ronald Reagan and led him to say that your seat at the table means that our veterans will never be forgotten in the national affairs of the United States of America.”
Wilkie pledged to continue to include The American Legion as an ally. “This is a bottom-up organization,” he said. “The Legion has the seat at the table. That you have that open door to the 10th floor of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Wilkie also took time to honor Vietnam veterans, which he called “a special generation and a generation, and a generation history has already begun to vindicate their sacrifices. And we should never forget them.”