With the help of President Donald Trump and Congress, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is about to undergo the greatest change in the agency’s history, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said Wednesday.

“I do think that we are on the cusp for a great transformative period,” he said. “I will add to that answer by saying my philosophy is that government is best when it’s closest to those whom it’s supposed to serve, which means the days of massive directives coming out of the 10th floor of the Veterans headquarters in Washington are over.

“There is no way anyone sitting up there can offer a one size fits all for veterans’ needs across the country.”

Wilkie spoke about the VA’s efforts to reach more veterans and the future of the agency during a tribal nations town hall meeting Wednesday morning at the Chickasaw Nation Community Center in Ada. Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel and leaders from Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations also attended the event.

Native American veterans from across the region flocked to the Community Center, where they listened as Wilkie thanked them for serving their country and vowed to improve the VA’s services.

The Mission Act

Wilkie told the audience about the VA Mission Act of 2018, a measure designed to improve veterans’ access to the VA health care system. The bill also revamps the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program, which provides monthly stipends to caregivers of eligible veterans, to expand eligibility for veterans with medical problems related to their military service.

“The Mission Act finally does what we have not done in my lifetime,” Wilkie said. “It recognizes family caregivers — something that is vital to the foundational legacy of all the Indian nations of this country, but we recognize it for the entire country, Those caregivers who take care of our warriors will be supported and honored.”

He said the Mission Act will also ensure that America’s veterans are not treated as badly as veterans were during the Vietnam War.

Wilkie also said President Trump will soon announce the creation of a task force that will study ways to reduce the suicide rate among veterans. Wilkie will serve as chairman of the task force, which he described as the VA’s version of the federal war on poverty.

“I expect that the experiences that you have on the Plains will be a central part of our effort, as we try to finally eliminate that great scourge,” he said.

After delivering his prepared remarks, Wilkie fielded questions from the audience on a variety of issues facing veterans.

Following the meeting, Stonewall resident Edward Allen said he was glad that Wilkie had decided to visit Ada.

“I believe that Secretary Wilkie is really dedicated to his job,” said Allen, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who served in Vietnam. “He sees the needs of what we’re facing.”

Another veteran, Liberty resident Clinton Little, had a different take on Wilkie’s remarks.

Little said he has spent several years trying to get the help he needs from the VA and other government agencies, but with little success. He said he was extremely skeptical that Wilkie would deliver on his promises to veterans.

“He seems very enthusiastic and determined about it,” Little said. “But I’ve had years of no results, so it’s hard for me to get that excited when nobody’s helping me.”

Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.