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Veterans Groups Uncertain About Trump's VA Nominee

Bobbie O'Brien
WUSF Public Media
Army veteran Ellsworth "Tony" Williams and Air Force veteran G.W. "Bill" Hamblin standing in front of the mural outside American Legion Post 5 in Tampa.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs is not a veteran himself. And as the VA Undersecretary of Health, Dr. David Shulkin is, so far, the only holdover from the Obama Administration.

That means Shulkin is known to veterans groups like the American Legion.

Bill Hamblin, commander of American Legion Post 5 in Tampa, met Shulkin at the Legion’s annual convention in Cincinnati five months ago.

“He talked basic political rhetoric,” said Hamblin, a Vietnam veteran but he does not use the VA for health care.

Ellsworth “Tony" Williams also met Shulkin at the convention and has been emailing Shulkin’s aides ever since with suggested changes at the VA. Williams is a mental health counselor and founder of Veterans Counseling Veterans. He spent 24 years in the Army and is disappointed that Shulkin has never served in the military.

“It really takes a veteran to understand a veteran and have skin in the game.” Williams said.

But Williams is hopeful that Shulkin will be like President-elect Trump’s other cabinet selections citing retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis nominee for Secretary of Defense.

“Most of the people he has, they talk truth to power,” Williams said. “I’m hoping that President-elect Trump used the same criteria when he selected the Secretary of the VA. That this is somebody who is going to talk truth to power and not just be there shaking hands and doing the political expedient thing.”

If approved by the senate, Shulkin will assume control at the embattled department that has been under fire for years due to long waiting lines for benefits and health care.

“He’s apparently convinced Mr. Trump that he is sufficiently qualified medically, clinically, administratively, from a policy perspective and philosophically to take the VA where it needs to go. That’s going to be a huge task,” said Jay Wolfson, who served as associate director of the VA’s National Patient Safety Center of Inquiry and is associate vice president for health law, policy and safety at the University of South Florida.

Wolfson said it’s an advantage choosing an insider like Shulkin who already has a working knowledge of the VA’s complexities that can’t be learned from an organizational chart.

“It certainly requires knowledge from inside, otherwise, he’ll spend the next two years figuring out how the VA works,” Wolfson said.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called Shulkin’s selection “unprecedented” because he’s not a veteran. Yet, an IAVA statement said he was the ”best hope among candidates reported in the media.”

The media speculation centered on candidates like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) from the Panhandle.

The organization Concerned Veterans for America favored Miller and its former CEO, now Fox News commentator, Pete Hegseth. The CVA wants veterans to have more choice to see private doctors outside the VA and other major reforms.

But CVA deputy director Nate Anderson doesn’t disqualify Shulkin just because he comes from the Obama Administration.

“Overall, we want to leave that door open to working with him, while also acknowledging he’s been part of the serious cleaning up that needs to happen,” Anderson said.

And even though Shulkin is not a military veteran, he was born on an Army base in Illinois where his father served as a psychiatrist.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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