Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Over the past week, the most influential veterans’ organizations (and even The New York Times) have called for the firing of Robert Wilkie, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This united fronts comes after shocking revelations over how Wilkie handled a complaint from a female Navy veteran who said she was sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C VA Medical Center.
On September 20, 2019, Andrea Goldstein, the Navy veteran and a senior policy advisor to Mark Takano, the Democratic Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, issued a complaint to the VA reporting that she was sexually assaulted by a man who “bumped his entire body against mine and told me I looked like I needed a smile and a good time.” Instead of responding assertively to the complaint, Wilkie and other VA officials attacked the credibility of Goldstein. The VA's Office of the Inspector General conducted an investigation into this behavior and released a report about their findings on December 10.
It found, among other things, that Wilkie and other senior VA privately impugned the integrity and credibility of Goldstein and refused to cooperate with the OIG investigation. They also attempted to discredit Goldstein in the press. At one point, Wilkie crassly referred to her in an e-mail as “the Takano staffer whose glamor shot was in The New York Times.” (This came after the paper of record broke the news of Goldstein’s assault.)
The OIG report concluded that “the evidence is replete with examples of VA senior leaders undertaking defensive actions and engaging in confrontational messaging while failing to
recognize the need to take corrective action to address known problems.” It also noted that “Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for senior officials to put out information to national reporters to question the credibility and background of the veteran who filed the sexual assault complaint.”
As a result of the report, the nation’s six largest veterans service organizations – Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America – sent a letter to President Donald J. Trump asking him to “take swift action to hold VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and other senior VA leaders accountable.”
Although it is highly unlikely that Trump will take any action, VHPI agrees that Secretary Wilkie should be fired. VHPI Advisory Board member and physician Edward Machtinger, who is the Director of the Center to Advance Trauma-Informed Health Care at the University of California San Francisco, explains that “the worst possible response to a report of sexual assault is to reflexively disparage the credibility of the victim."
"It further traumatizes the victim, which is the last thing that he or she needs or deserves," Machtinger added. "Even more insidiously, this response discourages others from coming forward.”
We believe that Wilkie's poor record of protecting veterans and serving their needs merited dismissal many months ago. He has an abysmal record, not only for female veterans but for all who served.
As VHPI documented in our report on the VA Vacancy Crisis, the Trump administration pushed out Iraq war veteran Kayla Williams, who successfully directed the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, just as she was making great strides in making the VA more welcoming to female vets.
Wilkie has further failed to fill his statutory mandate of adequately staffing the VA. He has done nothing to address the almost 50,000 VHA vacancies that every single day jeopardize the ability of female veterans to get timely access to care.
One of the most alarming aspects of the OIG report into Wilkie was its documentation of the pitfalls of hiring contractors to do work that should be done by VA employees. The person who assaulted Goldstein was not an in-house employee, but rather a private contractor who had a criminal record and had been convicted of “armed robbery and various armed and unarmed drug offenses.” He had also been the subject of a sexual assault complaint four months before the September incident. “How did he even get a PIV (Personal Identity Verification) badge?” VA police wondered.
VHPI believes this recent report – as well as others which have highlighted the problems with outside contractors – should lead to more scrutiny of VA’s increasing reliance on outside contractors to do work that would be more appropriately done by in-house staff over which VA has more control.
Prior to this incident, for example, the OIG revealed that a contracted physician inside the D.C. VA Medical Center was accused of seriously inappropriate behavior in dealing with a struggling veteran who later died by suicide.
We hope the Biden administration will be far more responsive to the needs of women veterans, in particular, as well as to all those who have served our nation.