The son of a Vietnam combat veteran seriously injured in his second tour, Robert Wilkie faced little opposition from the Senate committee charged with vetting his nomination to be the next secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Wilkie, 55, a longtime government official who has been through two previous confirmation hearings, earned praise this time from Democrats on the committee and deflected any controversy stemming from past work for former Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Trent Lott of Mississippi or allegations of hostility toward women or minorities.
"I will stand on my record," Wilkie said to pointed questions about his past from Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat.
Wilkie noted that the FBI has investigated him nearly a dozen times as part of background checks for various government jobs and he worked under three defense secretaries — Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates and James Mattis — as well as Condoleezza Rice when she was national security adviser.
A Washington Post report, referenced repeatedly in the hearing, outlined past decisions from Wilkie, including participation in Confederate celebrations and advocating for keeping transgender people out of the military.
Wilkie said he attended the Confederate events at a time when they were sanctioned by the Department of Defense and Congress. At one, he introduced a "Gettysburg" filmmaker.
"I stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue became divisive," Wilkie said. But he defended celebrating Confederate veterans, citing words from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.
The allegations attracted attention from outside groups.
"Someone who has defended treason against the United States, pines for the days of slavery and advocated for banning our brave transgender troops from serving is not fit to lead the VA," Chelsea Clinton tweeted during the hearing.
A liberal veterans' group, VoteVets, called on Wilkie to declare the Confederacy fought on the wrong side of the Civil War and guarantee protection for all veterans.
"Wilkie has been described as the architect of the president’s ban of transgender service personnel. How can he guarantee that he’ll lead a VA that’s able and willing to provide benefits to all veterans who’ve earned them?” said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran and the director of government relations for VoteVets.
Wilkie said during the hearing he supported a congressional measure to provide same-sex spouses in the Defense Department with Social Security and veterans' benefits.
Wilkie, who grew up in Fayetteville, was introduced by his former boss, Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican. Tillis said he knew from the time he hired Wilkie that he was "destined to serve the nation at a higher level."
Wilkie, who served in the Navy Reserves and now serves in the Air Force Reserves, was nominated to an undersecretary position in the Defense Department last year by President Donald Trump, and was confirmed by the Senate. He had previously been confirmed for a Pentagon position under President George W. Bush.
Trump tabbed Wilkie to serve as acting secretary of the VA earlier this year, then — in a surprise announcement — announced he was picking Wilkie to serve as secretary after the failed pick of Ronny Jackson.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate committee, helped tank Jackson's nomination when he raised concerns about Jackson's leadership. Tester, however, has expressed no such qualms about Wilkie, whom he has called "a straight shooter" on several occasions.
"You've gotten pretty good at this. You ain’t a rookie. You not only answer questions, but you anticipated questions as good as anyone I’ve ever seen in front of a Senate Committee," Tester said. "I would just say that I, as others, believe you’re going to be confirmed. ... You will be held accountable."
The committee did not vote on Wednesday.
The VA has been strongly criticized in recent years for its failure to reduce wait times for veterans and its lack of progress on opioid abuse and suicide prevention among the growing veteran population. The agency faces challenges associated with an aging population of Vietnam-era veterans and an influx of younger veterans from wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terrorism.
Wilkie noted that half of veterans are under the age of 65 and, thanks to medical improvements that save lives, some are dealing with more severe injuries. He outlined four areas of improvement for the agency: including offering world-class customer service, improving access to care, reducing the backlog of claims and payments and reforming the human resources system.
"The prime directive is customer service," Wilkie said.
He said the the VA should be an "industry leader" in opioid intervention and suicide prevention.
And he repeatedly stated his opposition to privatization of the VA, whose budget has quadrupled in the last 20 years and stands at more than $188 billion, making it the second-largest agency in the government behind only the Department of Defense.
Democrats pressed him on privatization, which some Republicans and Trump have promoted. Trump's first VA secretary, David Shulkin, said he was fired in part because of his resistance to privatization efforts.
"I will oppose efforts to privatize," Wilkie said.
The VA is moving toward allowing more access to private doctors as part of the just-passed MISSION Act. And Wilkie said the VA must be "agile and adaptive" in meeting veterans' health care needs.
In a prepared opening statement, Wilkie detailed how the serious injuries suffered by his father changed his life.
"I watched the agonizing recovery," Wilkie said.
Robert Leon Wilkie Sr. died in May of 2017.
Wilkie recounted visiting a Civil War battlefield with his great-grandfather, himself a World War I veteran.
"In the short time that I was privileged to know him, he impressed upon me the cost paid by ordinary Americans caught up in the incommunicable experience of war," Wilkie said.
"That is why the VA must succeed. It is to remind Americans every day that freedom is not free," Wilkie said.