Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie worked to downplay concerns about leadership turmoil in his department during his “state of the VA” speech on Wednesday, insisting that his firing of a top administrator earlier this week was simply a matter of team chemistry.
“There are times in any company, in the military and even in Congress when some people in the organization just don’t gel with the team,” Wilke said of his abrupt dismissal of Deputy Secretary James Byrne, the department’s second-highest official, two days earlier.
“I wish Jim Byrne well. He is a man of great distinction, in terms of his service to the country. I will say this is a simple business decision.”
VA leaders announced Byrne’s dismissal on Monday with a two-sentence statement that said the move was made “due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties.” Wilkie did not elaborate on that in his Wednesday speech, and said he is not worried that the move disrupts progress the department has made in a host of areas in recent months.
Byrne, a Naval Academy graduate who deployed overseas as a Marine infantry officer and later joined the Department of Justice as an international narcotics prosecutor, served as the acting deputy secretary for almost 13 months before his confirmation last September.
Numerous lawmakers and VA officials were shocked by the announcement, citing Byrne’s work on key issues like electronic health records and department suicide prevention initatives.
Wilkie did not give any specific incident or action that prompted the firing, but he did state the decision had no connection to department leadership’s controversial response to a sexual assault allegation at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center last month.
Byrne was among several top officials who briefed Wilkie on the inspector general’s investigation into the case, which involved a staffer from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee saying she was groped and accosted by a man during a routine health visit there.
Investigators declined to bring charges, saying they had insufficient evidence to confirm or refute the report. In a letter to committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Wilkie implied that the staffer fabricated the event. Veterans advocates have condemned the response as insensitive and potentially harmful to women wary of seeking VA care.
Wilkie said he is “not satisfied” with the outcome of the investigation, and has met with IG representatives to discuss steps forward on the issue.
But he said Byrne’s role in that was not a factor. Instead, he said the firing was in the best interest of bettering VA operations.
“It has been my mission to ensure that everyone who works for (VA) is performing to the utmost,” he said.
“A few years ago, we were accused, when it came to accountability, of only holding those at the lowest end of our workforce to account. If people don’t live up to the standards our veterans expect, I have taken action.”
The move leaves VA without two of its top leadership posts. The department’s Under Secretary for Health role has been vacant since President Donald Trump took office.
Wilkie said he expects to have an announcement on the open deputy secretary post soon.
Despite the leadership shake-up, Wilkie said reforms instituted during the Trump administration have put VA “in a (positive) position that we have not been in for many years.” He lauded progress on new electronic medical records for veterans, new technology advancements in health care, and overhauled community care rules allowing veterans to receive care from private physicians more easily.
“VA is very different from what it was just a few years ago,” he said. “Our veterans are satisfied in numbers we haven’t seen.”
Trump made only a quick reference to veterans policy issues in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, noting that veterans unemployment has reached historically low levels during his term in office.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.