Robert Wilkie is officially the United States secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He took the oath of office during a swearing-in ceremony with President Donald Trump at the White House.
Wilkie is a former military officer and Pentagon official. He serves in the Air Force Reserve. Wilkie grew up in Fayetteville and to date is the highest-ranking native son to serve in the federal government. He was joined in the Oval Office by his wife, Julie, and son, Adam, as well as former bosses Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“I’m humbled by the prospect of serving those who have borne the battle, those American men and women who have sacrificed so much,” Wilkie, 55, said in remarks before the ceremony.
Wilkie is now in charge of the second-largest federal government agency. The VA has more than 360,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $200 billion. The department is tasked with providing health care, monetary assistance and other benefits to millions of veterans.
“I know you’ll work night and day to fulfill our sacred duty to protect those who protect us,” Trump said. “It’s a tough job, but a beautiful job. Congratulations.”
Wilkie is taking over at a time of significant change at the VA. He is charged with leading an overhaul of the VA’s private-sector care programs and overseeing a multibillion-dollar project to create a new electronic health record system, as well as implementing recently approved changes to the VA claims appeals process, caregiver benefits and GI Bill, among other things.
Lawmakers and veterans’ organizations are hopeful that Wilkie can stabilize the department after months of uncertainty about its leadership.
“We congratulate him on becoming secretary, and we look forward to him bringing stable leadership to the department and strong advocacy for America’s veterans,” Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander B.J. Lawrence said.
The VA has been without a permanent secretary since David Shulkin was fired in March as the result of a power struggle with political appointees assigned to the VA. Wilkie has already purged some Trump loyalists and others who he said represented part of the VA’s operations problem. He did so with the president’s knowledge and consent.
Following Shulkin’s dismissal, Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman retired, and a handful of other leaders left the agency. VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said in a statement in April that the officials who left were “wedded to the status quo” and “not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change.”
The Washington Post reported that once Wilkie was VA secretary, he intended to form his own leadership team and reassign political appointees who were behind the staff departures. The Post said Cashour is searching for another job in the Trump administration. Camilo Sandoval, acting VA chief information officer, is expected to leave altogether, and John Ullyot, the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, will likely be reassigned to another job within the VA.
However, in a statement, Cashour denied the report and said he had no plans to leave the department. Additionally, Cashour said Ullyot and Sandoval will remain in their positions.