WASHINGTON – The CEO of the Jacksonville-based Wounded Warrior Project witnessed President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Friday that will make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees if they endanger veterans.
The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is being called a major victory for all military veterans.
"Our veterans have fulfilled their duty to our nation and now we must fulfill our duty to them," Trump said during a White House ceremony. "To every veteran who is here with us today, I just want to say two very simple words: Thank you."
Trump repeatedly promised during the election campaign to dismiss VA workers "who let our veterans down," and he cast Friday's bill signing as the fulfillment of that promise.
"What happened was a national disgrace and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls," Trump said. "Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today, we are finally changing those laws."
Wounded Warrior Project CEO Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington was there for the signing. He was joined by several Wounded Warrior Project veterans.
Back in Jacksonville, veterans said that this was welcome and, perhaps, long overdue.
"This is so important. VA has a sacred mission of caring for injured veterans, for people who paid their dues on the battlefield. And we have an obligation to get it right for them when they return home," said Lauren Mehta, police and advocacy director for Wounded Warrior Project.
Mehta told News4Jax that Friday was a very big day for veterans, calling it a big step toward improving care for millions of people who have served the country.
"We think it’s really going to improve the service experience for veterans. What the law does is allow VA to address underperforming and misconduct among it’s very large workforce," Mehta said.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and received bipartisan support that included Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida). It gives VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin the ability to recoup bonuses awarded to employees who are found to have engaged in misconduct, and reduce the pensions of VA employees found guilty of felonies related to their employment at VA.
The measure ensures that VA employees who are terminated will not remain on the VA payroll while appealing their terminations. It will also increase protections for whistleblowers to help make certain that they are not retaliated against for speaking up about wrongdoings at the department.
"It also protects whistleblowers who may raise issues. As a result, we think it’s really going to clean up some of the issues the VA has had and improve the veteran experience," Mehta said.
The VA is the second-largest department in the U.S. government, with more than 350,000 employees, and it is charged with providing health care and other services to military veterans.
The new law will lower the burden of proof to fire employees, allowing for dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker's favor.
The bill also turns another of Trump's campaign pledges into law by creating a permanent VA accountability office, which Trump established by executive order in April.
"General Linnington was very pleased to be a part of today’s bill signing," Mehta said. "He’s happy to be working with Secretary Shulkin to make the VA the best agency that it can possibly be. This is really about the veteran experience. So anything we can do to improve that veteran experience -- through changes at Wounded Warrior Project or through the VA -- that’s what we want to do."