WASHINGTON — Veterans groups had their first major White House meeting of the new administration on Tuesday, covering a host of priorities in what they called a positive exchange of ideas.
But most wished President Trump had been there.
The meeting included Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and several senior White House staffers, but not the president himself. Members of several of the most well-known veterans service organization have been lobbying for a one-on-one with the new commander in chief for months, but so far have not gotten onto his schedule.
"This was a great meeting today, and we're ready for a meeting with the president now, too," said Verna Jones, executive director at the American Legion. "It's time for that."
Officials from the Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans have testified before Congress in recent weeks that their requests for a sit-down with the president have gone unanswered.
Last month, Trump met with health care officials and Shulkin to discuss possible improvements to department offerings, but no veterans groups were included.
White House officials have countered that veterans issues are a priority for the new president, who has been in office less than two months. During his speech to Congress last month, Trump promised an increase in the VA budget and to "deliver" for veterans by improving VA operations.
Jones said that she is encouraged by that message, but also thinks a direct conversation with veterans groups is needed for the president to better understand the scope of the challenges ahead.
"President Trump ran a campaign on helping veterans," she said. "When you look at who he has met with since winning, he has to make sure to make veterans a priority still."
Veterans groups involved in the meeting left the White House with praise for the administration’s focus on improving healthcare access, handling accountability issues within the department and looking for ways to help veterans beyond federal programs.
The meeting included representatives from Student Veterans of America, the Travis Manion Foundation, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Military Officers Association of America, Got Your 6, Concerned Veterans for America and Wounded Warrior Project along with the "big six" veterans groups — The Legion, VFW, DAV, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America and AMVETS.
Bill Rausch, executive director at Got Your 6, said White House staffers discussed challenges and goals with each of the advocates and reassured the group that they’re working closely with Shulkin on VA reforms.
He also said White House staffers promised regular meetings with the group to gauge progress on both department improvements and larger engagement with community veterans issues.
Dan Caldwell, director of policy for CVA, said he was pleased with the response. His group, with ties to conservative funders, was largely shut out of such conversations during President Obama’s time in the White House.
"It doesn’t matter how much face time you get with the president," he said. "What matters is the policy the White House is going to implement. We want to meet directly with the people writing the policy, and that’s what we got to do." Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.