WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on Wednesday held a hearing to consider the qualifications of Robert Wilkie to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
In his opening remarks, Isakson highlighted the need for a responsive VA, citing the tragic example of 58 year-old John Michael Watts who burned himself in front of the Georgia State Capitol Building in Isakson’s hometown of Atlanta on June 26 and who remains hospitalized with serious burns.
“Yesterday in Atlanta, Ga., a sad occasion and a tragedy took place, when a veteran of the United States military set himself on fire and was severely injured near the state capitol,” said Isakson. “Being my home state, my home city, my country, my capital and a veteran, I immediately called home to find out about the circumstances of the situation. … We want to confront every tragedy when it happens and do everything we can to put every resource behind it and see to it that it never happens again.”
Isakson noted the need for permanent leadership at the VA and said he looked forward to moving Wilkie’s nomination as quickly as possible to oversee the implementation of a number of critical pieces of legislation to reform the VA.
“We have a respected, talented nominee …for secretary,” said Isakson. “We hope if everything goes smoothly, we’ll have a secretary in the near future sitting in the president’s cabinet for the VA who will begin building forward on the legislation this committee has passed in the last two years to make caregivers possible, accountability possible, better health care for our veterans possible, [and who will see to it that we have accessibility] for veterans who live in rural, sparsely populated areas [and that they] are cared for.
During 2017 and 2018, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs passed several major pieces of veterans legislation – 16 of which have been signed into law – that aim to strengthen veterans’ health care, benefits and support. Isakson emphasized to Wilkie that the committee has given the next secretary the tools to fix the problems at the VA and that, if confirmed, his most important task would be to oversee the implementation of these reforms at the department to ensure veterans are being well served.
“You are getting an agency that’s had its problems, an agency that represents the promises we’ve made to those who’ve served for our country, an agency that’s in need of help, an agency that we are all proud of and want to become more proud of,” said Isakson. “Mr. Wilkie, there are no excuses anymore. Failure is not an option. We know what the problems are, and we know what we need to do to take them.”
In his testimony, Wilkie agreed that the future is up to the department and stated “if confirmed, I pledge to help build on your work and see to it that the VA succeeds in better serving veterans.”
Isakson urged Wilkie, if confirmed as secretary, to commit to reducing wait times and ensuring veterans truly have choice when it comes to the ability to choose when and where to seek care to best fit his or her needs.
“Will you work as hard as you can to see to it that choice is a reality and that timing is good and that we end the problems we’ve had of veterans not being able to reach the services they deserve and they earned?” Isakson asked, receiving an affirmative response from Wilkie.
A committee vote on Wilkie’s nomination will be held in the coming weeks.
Wilkie served as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs from March 28 until Trump formally announced his intent to nominate Wilkie to lead the department permanently. He is currently serving as the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the armed services as well as more than 750,000 veterans.