My Journey at the VA: Thoughts on Secretary Wilkie

I wanted to take a moment to comment on what happened at the VA last week.

For those of you who aren’t tracking… Last September, a House staff member named Andrea Goldstein reported being sexually assaulted at the VA.  A man slammed his body up against hers while she was in line for coffee and said “you look like you could use a good time.” The VA inspector general (IG) did a full investigation, and just released the outcome this week.  The VA IG did not recommend going forward with charges.  Secretary of the VA Robert Wilkie then sent a letter to the House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano saying that the “unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”  In a move I’ve never seen before, the IG then quickly wrote a letter to the Chairman saying that her allegation was not “unsubstantiated” (basically calling out the Secretary).  This New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer has a good summation of what happened (and a killer photo of Andrea).

If that was hard to follow… here’s the basic gist:

  • Woman veteran goes to VA for care. Gets assaulted.  Reports it.
  • VA investigates.
  • Secretary of the VA calls her a liar, even though the investigation does not suggest she was lying. He also implies that she is to blame for women veterans being deterred from coming to the VA out of concern about sexual harassment or assault.
  • Investigators call out the Secretary.
  • Women veterans shake their heads in disbelief…

I just heard the Secretary of the VA say that he prefers to call a woman who reported being sexually assaulted at the VA a liar, because that would make more women feel comfortable coming to the VA for care.  Huh?  I know Andrea. She is a tireless and passionate advocate for women veterans.  I’m so sorry this is happening to her.  If there’s a silver lining to all of this, I’m grateful that we are having an actual conversation about the climate at the VA for women veterans.

To me, this was a loud-and-clear signal to any women veterans who are teetering on the edge of feeling like the VA is a place for them: VA leadership does not care.  That does not mean that you won’t get great health care there.  You probably will.  There are many very well-meaning and hard-working VA employees who do their best every day to ensure that women veterans are getting the respect they earned and that they deserve.  HOWEVER, when the leadership shows their true colors in this way, it is hard not to look at the institution and think “that place is not for me.”

At IAVA, this is why we support the Deborah Sampson Act (DSA).  DSA already passed in the House (!!!), and it is bill S. 514 in the Senate.  This bill provides a lot of resources to the VA to take better care of women.  We need it, and we need this bill to pass, to show women veterans that they will be taken care of, at least as well as their male counterparts.  To support this bill, take action now!

This is also why we support changing the motto of the VA.  I know this is controversial.  The current motto comes from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and it reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan.”  I don’t know about you, but when I read those words, I think “here’s an archaic institution that is more interested in tradition than in taking care of today’s veterans.”  That’s not how I feel about the VA or President Lincoln, but it is what the motto invokes in me.   I love President Lincoln like all other Americans, but President Lincoln did not have today’s VA in mind when he said this.  He stood for equality and doing what’s right, and I have to think he’d be confused about why the VA insists on clinging to these words, when they alienate so many veterans.




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