WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said his department “needs to be more welcoming to women veterans” and promised improvements at the bureaucracy in months to come.
“We are on the cusp of a great change,” Wilkie told veterans attending the inaugural meeting of the Military Women’s Coalition in Georgia on Friday. “This is not my father’s or my grandfather’s VA. It is now your VA. We have to change how we do business, and that means making the institution more welcoming.”
Wilkie did not offer specifics on policies or programs to “make sure the needs of our fighting women are taken care of,” but he did acknowledge that women veterans are the fastest growing demographic group under the department’s watch.
About 10 percent of the veterans population in America today are women, and that number is expected to rise above 17 percent in the next decade. Wilkie, who previously served as the Pentagon’s top personnel official, said more than 250,000 women service members are stationed throughout the world today.
“And the VA has to change to respond to America’s changes,” he said.
The coalition, which includes more than 40 separate service women’s advocacy groups, held the event to discuss “continued structural and cultural barriers women face during and after their service.”
That included discussion of a inspector general report released earlier this month that VA officials may have improperly denied benefits to thousands of military sexual assault victims in recent years, due to paperwork and procedural mistakes.
The department has come under criticism in recent years for its slow response to complaints about a lack of exam space and health expertise for female patients, as well as administration officials’ refusal to reconsider changing the VA motto of “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan" to less gender-specific language.
Wilkie, confirmed to the top VA post in late July, said he recognizes more work needs to be done and promised that “the department will be walking with you into the rest of the 21st century.”
He also noted that several new leadership officials at the department are female veterans, including Chief of Staff Pamela Powers, whose 30-year Air Force career included a deployment to Kuwait as Chief of Staff to the 9th Air Expeditionary Task Force.
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.