WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s pick to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs downplayed his management inexperience in his first public interview since his nomination, saying his time in the military has honed his leadership skills.

Dr. Ronny Jackson, who has served as White House physician since 2006, told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal of Texas, his hometown newspaper, that he has heard the criticism concerning his ability to take over the nearly $200 billion department with 385,000-plus employees.

But he remains undeterred.

“I’ve been in leadership school for 23 years now ... and I’ve been able to rise to the level of an admiral, a flag officer in the Navy,” he said. “I didn’t just stumble into that. So I’ve gotten a lot of leadership background, I’ve got a lot of leadership experience as a Navy officer, and I’ve got a lot of day-to-day leadership experience

“You know, I’m not just an officer in the Navy; I’m an emergency medicine physician in the military. I’ve been confronted on a day-to-day basis with life and death decisions.”

Jackson was a surprise pick as the next VA secretary, following the dismissal of David Shulkin from the role last month.

He is an Iraq war veteran who deployed as an emergency medicine physician with the Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon in Taqaddum, Iraq, in 2005. He served as the White House doctor for Trump and also former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directing health care for not only the commander in chief but their senior staff and Cabinet officials.

Jackson told the Avalanche-Journal he had planned to retire from the military after Obama’s presidency ended, but Trump convinced him to stay on staff. Now, he’s poised to make the move from leading a small medical staff at the White House to a Cabinet secretary post.

He acknowledged it’s a promotion he never expected.

“I really haven’t planned my life out real meticulously,” he told the paper. “I’ve just kind of tried to enjoy what I’m doing and do a good job, and one thing has led to another.”

Jackson still has not retired from the military, but White House officials said he intends to do so as his confirmation process progresses. Active duty military officers cannot serve in Cabinet roles.

Although not a veteran yet himself, Jackson said he is familiar with the needs of his fellow service members and is focused on delivering “the absolute best care” to them.

“I’ve been overseas, and I’ve been deployed in combat zones with Marines and soldiers and airmen and sailors, and I’ve seen first-hand what they go through, the injuries and the things they come home with,” he said.

“I’ve seen how that happens, and how devastating it is to them and their families. I just want to make sure that we do our part as a country, and we let them know that we appreciate that and we take care of them.”

No timetable has been set for Jackson’s confirmation hearings.

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.

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