VA's Wilkie pays homage to Nixon during stop at presidential library

By THERESA WALKER | The Orange County Register | Published: October 11, 2019

YORBA LINDA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — During his visit this week to Southern California, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday, Oct. 10, swung by Yorba Linda to deliver a talk at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, a fitting venue for a man who said his parents “jumped ship” in 1968 to vote for Nixon.

“I am a child of the Age of Nixon,” said Wilkie, 57, a lifelong Republican with a long career in government service and someone who has served in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force reserves. Wilkie joined the Trump Administration in July 2017 as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and became VA secretary a year later.

Wilkie spoke to about 130 people – many of them military veterans – who gathered in a Nixon Library replica of the East Room of the White House.

Wilkie mostly talked about his admiration for Nixon, who served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II but never fought in combat.

Wilkie’s late father, Robert Leon Wilkie Sr., retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel after a long military career that included suffering severe wounds during the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, an expansion of the Vietnam War that ironically took place under Nixon.

In his remarks, which lasted about a half-hour and included a few questions submitted by members of the audience, Wilkie praised the nation’s 37th commander in chief as “the man who probably did more for veterans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”

In 1972, Nixon signed legislation to expand veterans’ benefits under the GI Bill and increase funding for health training programs operated by the VA. And he honored about 500 prisoners of war who returned from Vietnam and their family members at a dinner on the White House lawn that, in Wilkie’s view, began the decades-long effort to afford respect to those who served in the unpopular Vietnam War.

Nixon, Wilkie said, “openly dared the American press to criticize him.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates 1,255 health care facilities – including 170 VA medical centers – that provide services to more than 9 million veterans enrolled in its vast system.

In recent years, the VA has been heavily criticized over such problems as long waits (and drives) to see a doctor, poor conditions at its medical facilities, including covering up a 2017 outbreak of Legionella bacteria at the VA hospital in Loma Linda, and falsifying records.

In discussing efforts being taken to address those issues, Wilkie’s remarks echoed those he made on Wednesday in an interview with the Southern California News Group as he toured VA medical facilities in Redlands and Loma Linda, along with Riverside National Cemetery. The VA hopes to tackle the troubling rate of military veterans who take their lives – 1.5 times that of the general population – with stepped-up mental health services and coordination with other state, local and nonprofit agencies that work with veterans.

Wilkie said there needs to be “a deep, national conversation” about mental health.

Wilkie drew applause at mention of changes the Trump administration has championed that allow veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system to also access care, under certain circumstances, at privately run medical clinics and urgent care facilities closer to where they live, measures intended to resolve the obstacles many veterans face in traveling to VA facilities or getting timely appointments.

Gil Soto, an Army veteran who fought in Vietnam and vice commander of the American Legion’s Area 4 in the Los Angeles area, was among those in the audience pleased with letting veterans get care outside of the VA. He downplayed concerns over privatization.

“I don’t see where the privatization is going to come in and take over,” said Soto, 73, who lives in Whittier. “It’s the same way Medicare works. You get the private providers that provide the service.”

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