American Legion National Commander impressed by new VA secretary, but will 'hold his feet to the fire'

“We will hold his feet to the fire,” promised American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt at a National Press Club Newsmaker news conference Wednesday, Feb. 22, speaking of the Trump administration's new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. David J. Shulkin.

So far, however, Schmidt said he has been impressed the newly confirmed secretary, the first non-veteran to hold the VA post.

Adding other optimistic comment toward Shulkin at the Newsmaker was Verna Jones, head of the Indianapolis-based Legion's Washington office. She said that the Legion has worked well with Shulkin since 2015 when he resigned from a private sector position to work in the VA as Under Secretary for Health.

The Legion took unprecedented action when it called for the resignation of the-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May 2014 after the department failed to reduce long waiting times for veterans seeking medical care.

Although conditions have improved, Schmidt said the nation's largest veteran's organization, with 2.2 million members, will closely monitor ongoing efforts to make further improvements.

"Our top concern for VA health care is access," Schmidt, a retired career Air Force officer, said as he prepares to testify on Capitol Hill next week before committees overseeing veterans issues. He called on Congress to pass legislation to reform what he called an "antiquated" benefits appeals process that has thousands of veterans waiting months for appeal decisions.

The Legion will also oppose any effort to privatize the VA health care system, Schmidt said, although he added that VA contracting with local health care providers makes sense in remote rural areas.

Other legislative positions the Legion will advocate before Congress and the administration, Schmidt said, are expanding treatment eligibility for veterans who may have been affected by the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange and by radiation from atomic tests; exploring the medical use of marijuana; crediting Reservists and National Guard members with education and retirement credits for active duty service; boosting spending on military readiness; supporting strong border controls to deter terrorists; and approving legislation to make it unlawful to desecrate the U.S. flag.

Citing the need for increased military spending, Schmidt said only half of the Marine Corps' aircraft are flyable and that the average age of aircraft is 27 years. In the early 1990s the United States had "a larger force in a safer world" than it has today, Schmidt said.

Following his Newsmaker appearance, Schmidt joined the NPC American Legion Post 20 for a luncheon meeting after and said he was being "100% nonpartisan" when he said he knew journalists in Post 20 "are not enemies of America," a reference to President Trump's criticism of the media.

Schmdit noted that the Legion has had "a long a productive relationship with the media" and that the 98-year-old organization supports "a free and robust media." He cited annual awards for print, broadcast land on-line journalists awarded by the Legion at its national conventions."

Schmidt recalled that it was American Legion Commander Harry Colmery who hand-wrote the landmark GI Bill of 1944 while cloistered in the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue and that his cause was championed by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.

The Legion awarded Hearst its Distinguished Service Medal for helping win passage of the bill that that provided education, housing and a range of other benefits for returning World War II veterans.