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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie On Burn Pits, Suicide & More Issues Affecting Vermont Veterans

U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie - pictured here on Feb. 26 providing testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee
Jose Luis Magana
Associated Press
U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie - pictured here on Feb. 26 providing testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee - talked to VPR this week about a number of issues facing Vermont veterans.

Robert Wilkie, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, visited the VA hospital in White River Junction on Friday. Wilkie spoke to VPR by phone about a number of issues affecting the state's veteran population.

Listen to Wilkie's conversation with VPR's Henry Epp above. Find some excerpts from the conversation below.

Veterans Choice

The Veterans Choice program allows veterans to be referred to private care providers and have that care paid for by the VA, and a new measure called the Mission Act will extend that option. But according to Wilkie, most veterans have chosen to keep their care within the VA.

"With the original choice program, less than 1% of those veterans eligible for choice decided to use choice," Wilkie told VPR. "They want to go where people speak the language and understand the culture."

Wilkie said staffing specialists is a challenge for VA hospitals, as they hire from the same pools as private institutions. The secretary said the Mission Act should help in this regard, but he would also like to offer more incentives — for example, debt reimbursement in exchange for a certain tenure of work — that could encourage more medical professionals to work at VA hospitals.

Burn pits

The Burlington Free Press reported earlier this year that about 10,000 veterans from Vermont were exposed to smoke from pits where hazardous materials were burned while they were deployed overseas. The Free Press quoted 33-year-old Vermont National Guard veteran Wesley Black as saying he had to “raise hell” to get the VA to acknowledge a connection between his colon cancer and burn pits.

Wilkie said he disagrees that the VA has been slow to recognize some veterans' illnesses as being linked to burn pit exposure.

"I think VA is actually on the cutting edge," Wilkie said, "and my commitment is that we're not going to go through what my father's generation went through when it came to Agent Orange."

The secretary said that the VA has been working with other areas of government to address issues traced to burn pits.

"With burn pits, the Department of Defense is putting together the registry and the database; we are working with DOD to determine the effects of that on our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines," Wilkie said. "I've been working very closely with the Congress and you know, my pledge is that we will — we are — hitting this head on. We are helping veterans who have conditions that could be linked to burn pits."

As far as issuing compensation to veterans with illnesses that are found to be linked to burn pits, Wilkie said that would be something partly contingent on the Department of Defense. But in the mean time the VA is "providing medical services to those who have those illnesses that are, would be, on a list for burn pits," he said.

The exterior of the VA Hospital in White River Junction, with a blue sky background.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR File
VPR File
U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie visited the VA hospital in White River Junction this week.

Electronic health records

One VA medical provider in Vermont told VPR that they are frustrated over the VA’s electronic health records — essentially that they haven’t been updated in years, aren’t compatible with other systems, and can be a barrier to providing good care.

Wilkie said, for him, updating those electronic health records is "the prime directive" and the department is testing new health records systems in some regions of the country.

"We are working hand-in-hand with the Department of Defense to create that inter-operative electronic health record so we no longer have the spectacle of American veterans carting around the one record of their service," Wilkie said, "and I'm very happy that we're moving in that direction."

Veteran suicide

Between 2011 and 2017, 123 people who were in the U.S. armed forces at some time in their life died by suicide in Vermont from a gunshot wound.

Providing "same-day mental health services across the country," Wilkie said, is one thing the VA is doing to try and decrease the number of veteran suicides.

"The second thing is that I'm now the head of the president's national task force on suicide prevention," Wilkie continued. "And that is a task force that brings together the Department of Defense, HUD, HHS and the National Institutes of Health to create not only a whole-health approach to veteran suicide, but also will empower the states and localties to help us find those veterans who are outside of our system."

And Wilkie said that there are ongoing efforts from the VA to secure financial support for mental health.

"I presented a budget to the Congress a few weeks ago — it's $220 billion. It is the largest budget in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and $9.5 billion of that is dedicated solely to mental health services," he said.

With guns in particular, Wilkie said it isn't the VA's role to legislate firearms access to further suicide prevention efforts. Instead, Wilkie said, it's about continuing to provide mental health services.

"It does not matter to me how a veteran takes his life — it's why a veteran takes his life. And that is one the great tragedies in our country at this time," Wilkie said.

Here are some resources, if you or someone you know is considering suicide:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
  • Crisis Text Line: 741-741
  • Vermont Suicide Prevention Center:
  • In emergency situations, call 911.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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