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Soldier of Fortune

The private wars of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie

During the George W. Bush administration, Robert Wilkie was a war whiz kid. In 2005, he became the youngest senior leader in Pentagon history when he was named Assistant Secretary of Defense. In this and other high-profile positions since, he has worked with a powerful flock of war hawks, including former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Dubya himself.

He’s thus played a pivotal if largely invisible role carrying out America’s War on Terror. Perhaps that’s why one of Wilkie’s former bosses, Republican Senator Thom Tillis, calls him “Forrest Gump.” Being witness to so much history, and influencing a lot of it, has surely been a thrill for Wilkie, who’s long been obsessed with the American story. In a 2018 interview, Tillis recalled that his staff developed a trivia game dubbed “Stump Robert,” which they never won.

Wilkie’s particular area of interest is conflicts past and present; he once envisioned his future at the helm of the Department of Defense (DoD). While he has sought a top position at the Pentagon as recently as 2019, Wilkie largely abandoned that career track out of a reported “sense of duty” in 2018 to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA). Rather than charting strategies for the possible battles of tomorrow, he now works as the nation’s top leader responsible for the damage left in the wake of war.

The VA post once commanded respect and was reserved for a competent military man during his twilight years. But today it’s one of the most thankless jobs in Washington, largely due to a series of events that occurred during 2014, when it was revealed that many patients at a VA hospital in Phoenix were waiting too long for care. (While some lawmakers contended veteran patients had died due to these delays, the VA’s Office of Inspector General could not corroborate these claims.) Overall, the VA has long outperformed the private sector on most key health care metrics (including wait-times). But the Phoenix scandal was quickly seized upon by politicians and the press, who have attacked the department ever since. In a matter of months, the VA morphed from one of the most popular agencies in government to one of the most reviled. This highly effective attack was orchestrated by right-wing politicians and the Kochs, who seemed to relish the opening they saw to oppose a federal agency charged with delivering free government health care and college to millions.

In a matter of months, the VA morphed from one of the most popular agencies in government to one of the most reviled.

Before the agency found itself immersed in these political machinations, many VA secretaries served long terms. This longevity brought benefits to the department, including stability and a clear sense of direction. No longer. In the six years since Phoenix, the agency has cycled quickly through several nominees, acting secretaries, and official secretaries, a number of whom have been marked by scandal. This massive agency still delivers health care well, but it’s under serious threat due to toxic leadership, a massive privatization push, and nearly fifty thousand staff vacancies.

His tenure so far suggests that Wilkie is most comfortable thinking about combat, not its reverberations. Despite his reported acumen as a government fixer, he hasn’t fixed what’s broken at the VA, and he doesn’t appear particularly interested in doing so. After less than a year on the job, he began lobbying behind the scenes for other administration posts, including Defense Secretary. He didn’t get any of them. And while he’s reportedly considering a second act in electoral politics, Wilkie’s page in the history books may very well peak with his leadership of the VA.

But like any good student of the past, Wilkie understands the importance of legacy, and he’s now working like hell to shape his own. He’s highly qualified for this work of selective remembering, thanks to skills learned in the Navy Reserves. According to the military news site Task & Purpose, Wilkie’s Navy work took him to Liberia, Albania, and the Middle East as a “psychological and information warfare officer.” He’s leveraged these strategies to help shine and shape the stories of the many skeevy officials he’s worked under, a list that includes those aforementioned war criminals, two segregationist senators, and President Donald Trump.

Now, as VA Secretary, he’s working overtime to concoct his own image as a transformative and caring leader. As Wilkie seems to see it, he’s a man in the mold of President Abraham Lincoln, whose dedication to veterans was unquestioned. He often muses on Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which he once described to Breitbart News as “the most spiritually righteous speech given by any president.” In it, Lincoln spoke about the dual poisons of conflict and slavery, suggesting that the self-inflicted death and destruction wrought by the Civil War represented a divine punishment for the country’s shameful abuse of black people. And he enshrined America’s commitment to veterans, pledging “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

These words became part of the VA motto, and they are etched on the agency’s central headquarters in Washington, D.C. In his Memorial Day message, Wilkie announced that the motto would soon be further enshrined in bronze at the department’s 140-plus veteran cemeteries across the country. For years, younger veteran advocates have urged the VA to tweak the motto to include women, who today make up more than ten percent of the veteran population. But Wilkie has defended his position, saying he wants to preserve, and not erase, history.

He articulated a similar argument during Congressional testimony in May, when he rebuffed bipartisan calls to use his authority to remove Nazi symbols and tributes to Adolf Hitler from the graves of German prisoners in VA cemeteries. “Erasing these headstones removes them from memory,” Wilkie told Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, who is Jewish. In response, Wasserman Schultz noted that the swastika is now prohibited from being displayed in Germany. “It is not seen as being a reminder to prevent the hatred that it spawns,” she said. “It is seen as something to be snuffed out.” Days after Wilkie refused to remove the headstones, the department buckled, and the headstones are now set to be scrapped.

These controversies are nothing new for Wilkie. As the DoD’s Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, he spearheaded efforts to defend and codify Trump’s discriminatory transgender ban. As an aide to Jesse Helms, he referred to gay people as “weak, morally sick wretches.” More recently, in his role as VA Secretary, he allegedly dug for dirt in order to sully the reputation of Andrea Goldstein, a fellow Navy veteran and staff member for the House veterans committee, who last year reported being sexually assaulted at the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., where she said a fellow veteran body slammed her below the waist and told her, “you look like you could use a good time.”

As Wilkie seems to see it, he’s a man in the mold of President Abraham Lincoln, whose dedication to veterans was unquestioned.

As a result of his efforts to impugn Goldstein, Wilkie is now being investigated by the VA’s Office of Inspector General. Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is gathering evidence in response to charges that Wilkie violated the Hatch Act by personally lobbying for a divisive suicide prevention bill. His VA is also facing an inquiry from the U.S. Labor Department following allegations that agency staff were exposed to Covid-19 due to lax safety standards and inadequate access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Perhaps the most damning charge is that Wilkie responded to Trump’s call for the use of the unproven malaria/lupus medicine hydroxychloroquine as a Covid treatment by fast-tracking it into VA hospitals, where 1,300 infected veterans received the drug experimentally. The outcomes were dismal, with a study showing “no benefit” and even “higher rates of death” among those who took the drug, per the Washington Post.

Even before the pandemic took hold, Wilkie had placed strategic chokeholds on the department’s information dissemination. He has since strengthened these limits, perhaps part of the effort to fortify or at least shield his public image in light of the turmoil swirling around him. Either way, his efforts to muzzle transparency are eerily reminiscent of a 2007 campaign he orchestrated as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. Three months after Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, Wilkie wrote a memo that imposed unprecedented restrictions on military officers’ ability to testify before Congress. This policy was seen by members of both parties as a “gag order” to prevent oversight into a war many feared was spiraling out of control. One long-time Republican aide described Wilkie’s memo to the Boston Globe as “embarrassing.”

As lawmakers sought to investigate conditions on the ground in Iraq, Wilkie’s legislative office declined to answer at least nine Congressional requests for information pertaining to the war. The office also provided incomplete details on the U.S.- led training of Iraqi security forces, despite the fact that many of these foreign soldiers were later found to have engaged in human rights abuses and violence towards civilians. Now, at the VA, this pattern has begun to repeat itself.

Despite Wilkie’s desire to align himself with the legacy of Lincoln—he invoked the president again last year on Veterans Day, and in recent remarks made in response to the murder of George Floyd—there’s one major character trait that puts him clearly at odds with his hero: his love of the Confederacy.

Another of Wilkie’s s favorite historical figures is Jefferson Davis. In a 1995 speech, Wilkie called Davis a “martyr to ‘The Lost Cause’” and an “exceptional man in an exceptional age.” It’s within this context that Wilkie’s career is more properly understood. His work suggests a wistfulness for the good old days, when the military and veteran populations were composed of strong, stoic, straight white men.

In a righteous polemic penned earlier this year, U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, labeled Wilkie a “traitor” for his love of the Confederacy and argued he was picked for the job to satisfy Trump’s radical base:

Many of these rabid, fundamentalist evangelicals are Confederate sympathizers at best and rabid racists at worse, or both. Trump also put Wilkie in place to effect his agenda to privatize veterans care, further bastardizing essential public functions and increasing the obscene profits of private interests bent on taking over as many government functions as possible, from prisons, to schools, to the waging of war.

Wilkie grew up in the former Confederate state of North Carolina, a major hub for the military industrial complex. The state claims a huge veteran population, a powerful cross-section of defense contractors, and Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world. Wilkie’s dad, a severely wounded, highly decorated Army artillery commander who fought in Vietnam, worked at Fort Bragg. On his walking route to school as a child, Wilkie passed a veterans hospital with a welcome sign that read: “The price of freedom is visible here.” In his 2018 VA Secretary confirmation hearing, Wilkie spoke poignantly of the struggles his father faced after returning home from Vietnam. “My own life changed when my father returned from his second combat tour,” he told lawmakers. “I watched [his] agonizing recovery and that experience was on my mind when I was asked to come to the VA.”

Wilkie airbrushed this history before lawmakers to the point of perjury.

Trump nominated Wilkie to run the VA after his first choice, White House Doctor Ronny Jackson, was revealed to be an alcoholic who also illegally handed out Ambien to fellow staffers. Wilkie carried no such baggage. He had also proven his loyalty to Trump by carrying out the military transgender ban, which was highly unpopular in the ranks and ignored by roughly a half-dozen National Guard units.

He was seen as a shoo-in for the VA job due to his impressive resume and accrued list of allies from his work on Capitol Hill. Wilkie was also considered a master of the nominating process, having recently assisted Mattis’s confirmation process to become Defense Secretary. He had similarly managed confirmation processes for former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, and he prepped General David Petraeus for congressional testimony related to the 2007 Iraqi troop surge.

So while it initially appeared that Wilkie would breeze into the VA, he encountered tough headwinds when a report in the Washington Post uncovered his prejudiced past. Most of the unearthed dirt concerned Wilkie’s work as an advisor for the segregationist Helms, a fellow North Carolinian who cast African Americans as crooks and rapists, in addition to his homophobic comments. Wilkie’s intense loyalty to Helms was witnessed during two close re-election campaigns Helms waged against a progressive black architect, Harvey Gantt. With Wilkie on board, the Helms campaign made repeated swipes at Gantt’s race. And as chair of the North Carolina Republican Party in 1996, Wilkie publicly castigated Gantt for “courting money from the homosexual community.” He later worked for another segregationist senator, Trent Lott from Mississippi, and was an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Wilkie airbrushed this history before lawmakers to the point of perjury. Per CNN, he falsely claimed he hadn’t spoken before neo-Confederate groups for “fifteen to twenty” years when, in fact, he had publicly gushed over the legacy of Robert E. Lee as recently as 2009. Despite concerns from some Democrats, Wilkie’s allies stood their ground. He was confirmed on a vote of eighty-six to nine, a substantial margin that nonetheless represented the first time any senator had voted against a nominee for the top VA job in American history.  

From his early days in the department, Wilkie’s VA has not responded to pressing inquiries from Congress, the media, and some veterans’ groups. His department’s opacity extends to major VA initiatives, from its multi-billion dollar electronic health record modernization contract to the implementation of the VA Mission Act, a massive privatizing law costing billions.

During the past year, VA officials have refused to testify before the Democratically-led House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on eight separate occasions. House staff have also been obstructed from overseeing and/or investigating activities inside VA hospitals. Such was the case last June, when Congressional aides visited five hospitals on implementation day of the Mission Act. At all five hospitals, staff were denied full access and prohibited from examining the agency’s new Decision Support Tool, a vital software program that is used by authorized staff members to determine a veteran’s eligibility for private sector care. (Instead, staff say they were given hallway tours and told to come back in ten days.)

Wilkie’s VA has also slowed down the processing of public records requests. In the years before he came to the VA, so-called “expedited requests” were generally processed within twenty to forty days. In Fiscal Year 2019, the first full year of Wilkie’s term, that number spiked to nearly 190 days. The department has also deactivated the email address for their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) mediation office and was called out last year by lawmakers for not properly providing FOIA information on its main website. Last year, Wilkie himself was sued for failing to preserve emails between his predecessor and a trio of  questionable Trump associates at Mar-a-Lago, who have enjoyed outsize influence over VA policymaking. And just last month, two House Democrats introduced legislation ordering the VA reduce its massive FOIA backlog, calling it “unacceptable” that veterans, advocates and the public “cannot access the information they need from the VA.”

During Wilkie’s tenure, lawmakers’ requests for more transparency have largely been ignored. Some were hopeful that, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the VA and Capitol Hill could come together in the service of veterans. But these hopes were quickly dashed. In recent months, the VA has further shrouded its work in secrecy. A troubling sign of this increasing impenetrability came in early February, when Wilkie suddenly and without explanation fired his popular top deputy, James Byrne, who was escorted out of his office by armed guards.

Later that same month, it became clear that the coronavirus would be especially devastating to veterans, many of whom are older and suffer from multiple comorbidities, including respiratory damage resulting from exposure to Agent Orange or airborne hazards and toxins from burn pits used during combat in the Middle East. But Wilkie deflected public concerns and, in late February, he assured lawmakers that the VA required no additional resources to fight the pandemic.

Over the following weeks, however, VA doctors and nurses warned of severe equipment shortages and serious staff vacancies. Some said they were not being properly included in developing Covid-19 care plans at their hospitals. For weeks, the department refused to publicly acknowledge these issues and didn’t share with Congress information on their PPE stockpiles. Department spokespeople attacked journalists, including this reporter, for peddling falsehoods and bringing VA equipment shortages to light.

It became clear that the coronavirus would be especially devastating to veterans, many of whom are older and suffer from multiple comorbidities.

Behind the scenes, though, the VA was pleading with New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu for 4.5 million protective masks and hurriedly attempting to obtain PPE from disreputable dealers, including Robert Stewart Jr., who let a ProPublica reporter accompany him on his private jet as he searched the country haphazardly to make good on a $34.5 million VA contract to obtain six million N-95 masks. (The VA canceled Stewart’s contract after ProPublica went to the agency with the story.)

Then, in March, on the same day that VA health care officials said it was “irresponsible” to prescribe Trump’s favored “miracle drug” hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19, agency leaders placed an emergency $200,000 order for the drug. While VA officials assured the public that the drug would be administered chiefly for its approved uses, the aforementioned study, released the following month, showed that the drug had been administered to hundreds of VA patients with Covid-19. Some veterans’ advocates and health professionals, including former VA Secretary David Shulkin, reacted with alarm to this widely disputed treatment, approval for which has now been officially withdrawn by the FDA. But Wilkie defended the decision, even as agency doctors largely stopped prescribing hydroxychloroquine after the drug’s dismal results were seen among dosed veterans. 

In early May, Wilkie attended a ceremony at Washington’s World War II memorial along with President Trump, Defense Secretary Esper, and a cadre of veterans from that conflict whose ages ranged from ninety-six to a hundred. Yet while the ceremony hailed the value of these elderly veterans, none of the leaders, including Wilkie, wore protective masks. “We need the president and his closest aides to immediately start modeling CDC guidelines and behavior that keeps veterans and elderly Americans safe, because what they’re doing right now is going to get people killed,” Kristofer Goldsmith, a respected veterans advocate, said to the Washington Post, which covered the event.

Recent troubling actions taken by Wilkie and his staff have not been confined to their pandemic response. The VA has essentially cut off communications with the House Women Veterans Task Force, revoked a long-standing policy that allowed accredited officers at the VFW and American Legion to review veterans’ disability claims before they were finalized, and repeatedly delayed the release of a highly anticipated veteran suicide prevention plan.

Wilkie may have hoped for a brief respite and some good press from his Memorial Day message, in which he once again made recourse to Lincoln, praising the president’s second inaugural, which professes “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” But just a few days later, he appeared at a Congressional hearing, wearing a red tie and a blue surgical mask. Before a panel of frustrated lawmakers, he defended the display of  Nazi symbology at veterans’ cemeteries, stood behind his agency’s use of hydroxychloroquine, and broadly dismissed as inaccurate reports of inadequate PPE in VA hospitals across the country—even though one of his top deputies, Dr. Richard Stone, had a month earlier acknowledged serious shortages. The VA has since admitted it doesn’t have enough PPE for a second Covid-19 wave.

Rep. Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat who chaired the hearing, had little patience for Wilkie’s assurances. Near the end, she castigated him for being combative with lawmakers, screening questions on calls with veterans’ advocates, and freezing out the press. Schultz noted that the DoD, the largest agency in government, regularly holds press briefings while the VA, the government’s second largest agency, does not. Wilkie rejected her claims by declaring that the VA doesn’t have a dedicated press corp. “I am doing what I can as much as I can to communicate,” he said.

Wilkie’s murkiness and hostility towards lawmakers and the press is dishonorable and anti-democratic, but it has largely achieved its goals.

His comments elicited frustration and contempt on Twitter from members of the small but focused VA press corps, which does indeed exist. Alex Horton of the Washington Post tweeted a GIF of a tumbleweed in a barren desert to illustrate the VA press shop’s frequent disregard of his press inquiries; Ben Kesling of the Wall Street Journal wrote that after he asked VA officials to set up routine press briefings, “they laughed.” After the Congressional hearing ended, Abbie Bennett, a reporter with Connecting Vets, attempted to get Wilkie’s attention, but he quickly left the room.

If observers hoped that Wilkie’s dressing-down before Congress would have any appreciable effect on his behavior, those hopes were quickly dashed. Hours later, he cancelled a planned call, for the second week in a row, with U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, the Democratic Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He also indicated that he wouldn’t attend an upcoming Congressional hearing at which he was supposed to testify.

Wilkie’s murkiness and hostility towards lawmakers and the press is dishonorable and anti-democratic, but it has largely achieved its goals. Even as scandalous stories have leaked from Wilkie’s VA, many more have been suppressed. The crackdown on leaks is largely run through Trump’s ironically named Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which has been weaponized to intimidate and punish those seeking to bring malfeasance to light. With all these lips zipped, misconduct on the level of Phoenix 2014 hasn’t emerged, much to Wilkie’s relief.

“This is not the scandal plagued VA of the Obama Administration and I certainly don’t mind saying that,” Wilkie recently boasted in an interview on a Fox News podcast. “I will shout that from the rooftops.” He sounded unusually calm and jovial in this rare news appearance, perhaps because he knew he’d face no negative or well-informed questions. The man who interviewed him, a conservative comedian named Jimmy Failla, has no real VA policy chops, and is best known for a prank video called “Snakes in a Cab.” Yet in Wilkie’s eyes, Failla appeared a paragon of honest journalism. “You know more about us and veterans’ issues than the vast majority of people who tell me they are experts,” Wilkie said.