WASHINGTON — Thomas Bowman said he has confidence in incoming leadership team at the Department of Veterans Affairs, even if he isn’t going to be part of it.
“The country and veterans need not be concerned that they’ll be appropriately taken care of,” Bowman, the VA deputy secretary, said at his last public appearance on Friday before his retirement later this month.
“VA is strong as an institution, and change in leadership is natural. It’s a way of moving forward. The VA of today is going to change, and the VA of five years from now is going to change.”
VA’s top ranks have undergone significant changes in the last three months, since President Donald Trump fired VA Secretary David Shulkin over Twitter following months of internal policy fights with White House political appointees.
That move should have made Bowman the department’s top acting official, the capstone of a long public service career focused on veterans policy. Bowman has served as VA chief of staff twice before and as majority staff director of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
But similar to Shulkin, Bowman was seen by political rivals within the administration as an opponent to their policy goals, and Trump opted to bypass him to appoint Robert Wilkie as acting secretary instead.
The move irritated veterans groups and prompted a lawsuit from advocates who insist it violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
After Wilkie was named as the next permanent secretary nominee and VA Chief of Staff Peter O’Rourke was elevated to acting secretary over Bowman, the 71-year-old Marine Corps veteran announced his retirement.
At Friday’s event — the annual conference for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans — Bowman acknowledged his departure but declined to give specifics of the behind-the-scenes infighting at VA.
When pressed after the speech, Bowman said only that “now is the right time for me to retire. That’s my answer.”
But he also used his final official appearance to reassure veterans advocates that the department is still focused on bettering veterans lives and to dispute the public narrative of a dysfunctional federal agency.
“VA is not broken,” he told the crowd of homeless advocates. “It is changing. And like any large system, it has problems.”
He said he hopes that Wilkie is confirmed quickly and pledged that the new leadership will remain focused on helping homeless veterans, despite proposed policy changes that concerned the community last year.
“There is no doubt this administration is still committed to helping veterans,” he said.
Earlier this week, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley released a statement praising Bowman for work “integral to President Trump’s efforts to reform the VA and to the substantial legislative accomplishments over the past year.”
When Bowman leaves his post in two weeks, his departure will leave four of the department’s six top posts without a permanent appointee.
No timetable has been announced for when Wilkie’s confirmation hearing may take place, although Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has pledge to move quickly on the issue.
No replacement nominee has been announced for Bowman or for the open under secretary for health post, which has been without a permanent appointee since Shulkin was promoted in February 2017.
Meanwhile, Bowman promised to stay active in the veterans community in years to come, although likely not in another official capacity. He said he is looking forward to volunteer work to help veterans charities “and to live out there under those policies I helped pass.”
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.