VA secretary slams union comments on government shutdown as politicizing veterans’ suicide

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday accused union officials of politicizing veterans mental health care by saying the ongoing government shutdown could cost some veterans their lives.

In a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees leadership, Wilkie demanded an apology for the “reckless comments” and asked for officials to “outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our nation’s heroes.”

The move is the latest chapter in ongoing friction between federal workers’ unions and President Donald Trump’s administration, and the VA leadership specifically. In a response statement, AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. called the Trump administration “one of the worst on record for our country’s heroes” and pushed back on Wilkie’s accusations.

“Federal government employed veterans are hurting right now,” he said. “Regardless of their continued service to our country the President and his cabinet have left them out in the cold, forcing them to work without pay or subjecting veterans and their families to the uncertainty of not knowing when or where their next paycheck will come from.”

At the heart of the dispute is the decision of congressional Democrats and other Trump critics to invoke the impact of the ongoing government shutdown on veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is fully funded for the year, meaning VA employees and veterans support programs are not affected by the ongoing partial shutdown. But about 800,000 employees from other departments — including more than 125,000 veterans — have been furloughed or forced to work without pay because of the ongoing budget dispute.

In a news interview last week, AFGE Local President Edward Canales said that if the shutdown doesn’t stop soon, “we are going to have fatalities, we’re going to have suicides.”

Wilkie took exception to the remarks, saying they played into stereotypes that veterans are “so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm.” He said the “disgraceful” comment requires public correction.

“As leader of the largest union representing VA employees, many of whom are veterans, you should know how harmful this stereotype is to veterans, especially those attempting to enter the civilian workforce following their service,” Wilkie wrote.

“I was surprised and disappointed to see (Canales) pushing the "Veteran as victim" myth and going so far as to exploit the real tragedy of veteran suicide to make political arguments.”

VA officials delivered the letter to AFGE officials on Monday morning and posted the full text online on their news release site early Monday afternoon. Union officials dismissed the message as itself a political act.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has hit a historic low. (Clifford Davis/Navy)
Vet unemployment hit an all-time low in 2018. Mission accomplished?

Eight years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, unemployment rates for the latest generation of veterans had spiked to crisis levels. Leaders across federal and state governments, some of America’s most well-known companies and veterans service organizations sprang into action.

“Financial pressures experienced by working people are apparently not something this administration either understands or cares about,” Cox said. “AFGE will continue to work to alleviate those kinds of pressure on veterans and all other working and middle class Americans.”

VA and union leaders have sparred in recent months over a host of issues, including administration plans to expand outside health care options for veterans. VA officials have said the effort will dramatically expand health care options for veterans. Union leaders insist the move will drain much-needed resources from VA in an attempt to privatize the department.

Wilkie’s staff has also moved to limit how much union business certain VA employees can perform during official work hours, a plan decried by union leaders as an attempt to erode workers' rights instead of improving workplace efficiency.

The government shutdown, the result of a budget fight between Trump and congressional Democrats over his demand for more than $5 billion in funding for his controversial border wall, has lasted for 23 days, the longest in U.S. history.

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