U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie visited campus on Friday to attend the University of Mississippi’s inaugural Veterans Alumni Gala hosted by the Ole Miss Veterans Association.
Wilkie said the department of VA is striving to offer veterans as many paths for their futures as possible when they are transitioning out of active service, whether that be four-year college, community college or trade school.
“I was here to tell (student veterans) that VA is some place for them as they move on in life, that it is something that is more than just a hospital or a clinic,” Wilkie said. “We provide educational services. We ensure, in most cases, that young veterans have the funds to go to school.”
Wilkie said he also wants to empower young veterans to start their own businesses by working with the Small Business Administration, a federal organization designed to aid and counsel small business owners.
“What we’re pushing is choice. The choice to widen the aperture that a veteran has when it comes time for him to decide what to do,” Wilkie said. “Congress believes in it, General Mattis believes in it and the President does as well.”
According to Wilkie, Secretary of Defense General James Mattis often works closely with him on issues involving educating currently enlisted members of the U.S. Armed Forces about the benefits they are owed as veterans. An issue they often observe in student veterans is that they are not as educated on the topic as they could be.
“That’s both on the Department of Defense and on us to make sure that they are able to navigate their choices,” Wilkie said. “We are the ones who have to help them navigate that because the law is complex.”
For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more than half of the veterans population in the U.S. is under the age of 65, Wilkie said. He said that this changing population of veterans leads to a change in health needs, as well as expectations of the VA.
“They want quick service. They are computer savvy. They don’t come from a generation that likes to stand in lines, and the organization has to move to meet those needs,” Wilkie said.
Earlier this year, several high level departures within the agency led the VA into a reported state of disarray, but Wilkie said he now has a fully staffed leadership team with military experience in place.
“The state of VA is better. I didn’t say good, great or excellent. I said better,” Wilkie said. “The turmoil of the first half of this year is behind us.”
Since the Senate confirmed Wilkie in July to lead the federal department, he said he has tried to push decision making down to the local level as much as possible.
“One size does not fit all in an organization this big,” Wilkie said. “The needs of veterans in West Los Angeles are a heck of a lot different from the needs of veterans in North Mississippi.”