On Sept. 11, 2001, Robert Wilkie was working as legal counsel for Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., heading into the Capitol for a full day of meetings with the then-Senate majority leader when the first aircraft struck the World Trade Center's north tower.
Like many, Wilkie initially thought a Cessna had gone off course or a pilot had experienced some type of medical crisis in the sky. But when the second plane hit, he -- as with all Americans that day -- felt the wave of nausea, horror and dreaded understanding of a world turned upside down.
But also as with many, Wilkie, a former naval reservist who continues to serve in the Air Force Reserve, felt a renewed sense of resolve and commitment to his country.
Nineteen years later, Wilkie leads the country's second largest federal agency, providing benefits to more than 2.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans, as well as the caregivers of the most severely wounded.
Since taking office two years ago as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has led the transition from the VA Choice program to the Mission Act community care system, supported development of the electronic health records system, expanded the VA's program for caregivers and steered through the nation's second largest crisis since 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic.
From his office on Sept. 11, 2020, he reflected on what it means to serve post-9/11 veterans as well as veterans from other eras, saying the differences in caring for the populations are practical, not emotional, with 9/11 veterans having expectations and demands distinct from their predecessors.
For Wilkie, it means ensuring that post-9/11 veterans have access to care and benefits information faster than previously possible.
"[Post-9/11 veterans] come from a faster-moving society. They are technically savvy. They don't come from a culture where people were very happy to sit in a big room and talk to other folks and not be rushed because that was their way of doing business. These folks want answers fast. And they want care faster, and that's as much psychological as it is as it is practical," he said.
To meet their needs, the VA has worked toward introducing its electronic health record, intended to improve medical care and tracking; provide faster service for scheduling appointments and filling prescriptions; and allow for coordination between a veteran's medical team, including the VA, Defense Department and private-sector physicians.
The VA also has expanded telehealth options, conducting more than 900,000 virtual appointments in June alone -- 22 times the number per month before the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it has broadened access to benefits and services via smartphone platforms and other forms of electronic communication, Wilkie said.
Telemedicine, at least for mental health appointments, is likely here to stay, he said, a venue that "veterans from this current generation and even a generation before are very happy to have."
Wilkie said that the tremendous responsibility he and the department have to care for all veterans can be found in its motto, which includes a line from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, given just four weeks before Lincoln was assassinated.
While there have been calls to alter the motto, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” for it to be gender neutral to apply to all veterans, including more than two million women, Wilkie said the entire speech needs to be considered in context.
"We are here because of that address. It's the most righteous address ever delivered by a president. ... It calls for a just society and peace among nations. ... What's the purpose of serving? Is there a higher calling? I think [it] puts it into a very clear perspective," he said.
Since 9/11, 7,068 U.S. military personnel have died as a result of combat and 53,539 were wounded, including some of the 413,858 personnel with traumatic brain injuries recorded as a result of military operations, training and accidents.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 2,977 people died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The son of an Army artillery officer injured in the Vietnam War and a mother who raised the family and served as caregiver for her wounded husband, Wilkie said his thoughts on serving veterans of all eras, regardless of conflict, also date to seeing Bob Hope on a television talk show in the 1970s. The host, Phil Donahue, was "trying to get Bob Hope to say that somehow, soldiers from Vietnam were different. … They were broken souls tormented by the cost of conflict."
Hope, who traveled the globe to entertain troops in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, said the assessment was simply not true, that the "boys" he had seen in Hue and Danang were the same he'd seen at Kwajalein and Saipan.
"My mother, from the kitchen, said, 'God bless you, Bob,'" Wilkie said. "So, I don't see any difference between someone who's been in combat in Fallujah, or somebody like my father who was wounded in Cambodia."
Wilkie said he is proud to lead a department with the "highest approval ratings in history," serving more veterans than at "any time in our history." The VA has been caring for caregivers of the post-9/11 era and will expand it to include caregivers of the Vietnam era and earlier in October.
It will continue, Wilkie pledged, to provide benefits to eligible veterans and care to all, not "turning anyone away," regardless of era, type of discharge or need.
"Are there going to be hiccups? Yes, we have nine and a half million patients and 400,000 employees. But the systemic problems that existed? You don't hear anything about those anymore," he said.