By Scott Robertson
The United States Secretary for Veterans’ Affairs, Robert Wilkie visited the James H. Quillen VA Healthcare System and National Cemetery at Mountain Home last week, accompanied by U.S. Congressman Dr. Phil Roe of Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District. Roe, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the current term, is currently the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The two were at Mountain Home, Wilkie said, to salute the staff of both the medical system and the national cemetery for going above and beyond the call of duty during the COVID crisis.
“In terms of the COVID response, it’s been probably one of the best stories in the country,” Wilkie said of the Quillen team. “They were one of the first to implement emergency procedures, to triage veterans before they even entered the facility. That’s a way to protect veterans but also to protect the staff. They had to make some very hard decisions because they had to keep veterans’ families out of the hospital. But, by so doing, their infection rates were amongst the lowest in the United States. So, they responded magnificently.
“They have done so without complaint. They have done so with an eye toward making sure the warriors of east Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia are taken care of.
“I’m really here to thank them, not only at Quillen, but at the cemetery, because very few people took leave during this crisis,” Wilkie said. “They stayed on post. So, this is my way of saying thank you to them for everything that they do.”
Wilkie said he was also at Mountain Home to tell the staff directly that this region will be playing a larger role in the Veterans Administration’s plans moving forward, if for no other reason than demand. “It’s uplifting to be in a place where you don’t have to explain military service to anyone. People here are proud of the flag. They’re proud of the military. Everybody’s connected to the armed forces,” Wilkie said. “That’s what you see, and that’s why they set records at Quillen for the number of appointments, and it’s only going to get bigger. The states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia – we’re going, over the next few years, to see the movement of resources and people into places like Quillen to meet the growing demand of veterans.”
When asked about a grassroots campaign to have the newly opened Veterans Administration Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Johnson County, Tenn., named for Roe, Wilkie made no commitments, but said, “I am in that process, and I’m not supposed to prejudge, but I could not think of a finer outcome. That’s particularly the case in a place like east Tennessee where there are so many heroes.”
Wilkie, who called Roe, “the perfect combination of patriot and public servant,” went on to praise the congressman for his understanding of veterans and appreciation for their service, something Wilkie said is not always present in Washington. “I’m going to miss him because there are still very few people in Congress who have put on the uniform, which means they’re not as familiar with the culture and the language of military service. It’s a unique culture and Dr. Roe understands it.
“He’s been very helpful to me in the two years I have been at the VA. We talk a lot. His service will be missed, particularly by me, but really by veterans across the country, because he traveled up and down the country talking to veterans and going to VA hospitals. You don’t meet too many people in Congress who have done that. So, without prejudging the process, I couldn’t think of a finer tribute.”