WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s shake-up at the Department of Veterans Affairs will also have a significant effect on the Pentagon’s personnel office, just as military officials head into the heart of Capitol Hill budget planning work for next year.
When Trump last week fired VA Secretary David Shulkin, he named White House physician Ronny Jackson as his nominee to take over the top department spot permanently and Defense Department Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie as the acting head of the VA. The move upset some veterans advocates, who said the top VA deputy should have gotten the promotion.
But the shift also means another leadership change for the military personnel office, where Wilkie has served as the permanent leader only since November.
Much like the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has now seen six different secretaries or acting officials in charge since 2014, the personnel and readiness office is now on its sixth different leader since March 2015. Wilkie’s senior adviser — Stephanie Barna — was the latest to assume the role when he moved to VA last week.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Dave Eastburn said no additional personnel are being brought in to the office to make up for Wilkie’s absence, and department officials are not anticipating any interruptions in the agency’s work because of the change.
“Several currently serving personnel will temporarily serve in the front office here at the Pentagon,” he said.
Wilkie is slated to return to the role once Jackson is confirmed.
But the timetable for that process is uncertain. In a message to the VA workforce on Wednesday, Wilkie acknowledged that “I do not know how long I’ll be privileged to serve as the acting secretary.” Senate officials have not yet received Jackson’s nomination paperwork, so no meetings or confirmation hearings have been scheduled.
Meanwhile, officials from the House and Senate Armed Services Committee this month are planning numerous hearings on the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill, which helps not only set spending levels for the upcoming year but also features a host of personnel policy issues.
Under the budget proposal outlined by the White House in February, service members will receive a 2.6 percent pay raise next year, and the military services will add more than 24,000 troops to their ranks. Justifying those levels to lawmakers will be among the personnel office’s top priorities in coming weeks.
The office also oversees the sprawling Defense Health Program, military commissaries and exchanges, and Defense Department education programs. All of those issues will be affected by the budget legislation and will involve significant behind-the-scenes negotiations between Pentagon and Hill staffers.
In addition to overseeing those priorities, Wilkie in recent months has been leading the Pentagon’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force, charged with reviewing personnel policies, service training methods, available technology and defense management to insure better combat preparedness for troops. It’s unclear how his new VA assignment will affect that work.
Wilkie is well respected on Capitol Hill and was easily confirmed last November by the Senate. Several senators praised his appointment as acting VA secretary, saying he’ll help bring stability and order to the embattled department.
Pentagon officials are hoping that his absence from his other job won’t cause the opposite while he’s working across the Potomac River.
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.