Tom Carper: Thank you for your service

Crisis. Scandal. Investigations. That’s what makes the front page of newspapers across the country regarding the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system.

Stories of the dedicated public servants who work hard every day to deliver high-quality health care to our nation’s veterans too often go untold. That’s simply unfair. Those men and women, many of them veterans themselves, wake up every single morning to make the VA’s mission a reality, and as a 23-year veteran of the Navy and as a United States Senator, I am deeply grateful for their service.

Today, I want to personally thank one individual for her service to our nation’s veterans: Robin Aube-Warren. Robin is leaving the VA after 25 years, including the last two and a half years as the Director of the Wilmington VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Elsmere, and the two Community-Based Health Clinics in Dover and Georgetown. Her commitment to veterans is exceptional and part of the reason is that it’s in her DNA.

Robin’s father, Robert Aube, joined the merchant marines at 16. He served in World War II in North Africa, Europe, and Asia. He also served in Germany during the Korean War, and he joined the Connecticut National Guard later in life. He and his wife had four daughters, and three joined the military.

One of those daughters, Robin, joined the Army through ROTC and served more than three years active-duty at Fort Bragg, N.C. She was an Army Military Police Paratrooper. She deployed three times, twice to Panama and once for a humanitarian mission to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo. Robin retired from the Army Reserves in 2006 with the rank of Major.

While she was serving our country, Robin also began a career with the VA. In 1992, she first became a VA Police Officer and later worked as a VA Police Chief for 15 years. In March 2014, she was appointed Director of the Wilmington VAMC just as the scandal at the Phoenix VA Medical System was roiling the nation. The situation in Arizona exposed systemic problems across the VA healthcare system. Excessive wait times, secret lists, and incompetent management led to serious problems in Phoenix and imperiled the health of veterans. Many wondered if something like that could be happening in Delaware.

Thanks to Robin’s leadership we found out. One of the first things Robin did was call the VA Inspector General and ask for an in-depth review of scheduling practices at all Delaware VA healthcare facilities. She could have taken the easy way out, handling the issue quietly and internally, away from the scrutiny that comes with requesting an investigation. But that’s not who Robin is. She held herself and her staff to a higher standard, and she wanted the public to know that the VA didn’t always get things right and they needed to move forward by improving their work for our veterans.

Robin also found that the Wilmington VA lacked the appropriate personnel to perform certain surgeries at the Wilmington facility. Again, she didn’t do the easy thing; she did the right thing. Robin ceased “intermediate complexity” surgeries until the national VA provided the resources to ensure that our veterans were getting the highest quality care. Those resources have yet to arrive, but our Congressional Delegation will continue to call on the national VA to allocate them.

Unfortunately, a lot of the coverage around the Wilmington VAMC and Robin’s leadership has unfairly and inaccurately portrayed these decisions, casting them in a negative light. I know the opposite to be true. We want leaders to be open, honest and forthright. Robin has been all of these things, and, above all else, she has always put our veterans first. Since I became a Congressman in 1983, I’ve worked with every Wilmington VAMC director, and in my judgement she is one of the two finest directors we’ve had. Her departure leaves many questions for Delaware veterans — notably, who will fill her shoes? We don’t yet know the answer to that question in the long term, but I hope it will be someone with the same values as Robin and someone just as committed to our veterans. The new interim director may prove to be that person.

As the Wilmington VAMC prepares to transition leadership, I can’t help but recall when I first visited the facility in 1973 as a young veteran, recently returning from Southeast Asia, who sought to take advantage of VA healthcare for the first time. Back then, the hospital could best be described as a post-WWII relic with 16-bed wards and a reputation for providing less-than-ideal care to Delaware’s veterans. Thanks to decades of work by the VA medical center staff and the support of our congressional delegation and others, great strides have been made to improve the quality of care for Delaware’s veterans in all three counties.

Today, the Wilmington VAMC, including its community-based outpatient clinics in Dover and Georgetown, is a very good facility compared to the one I first visited over 33 years ago, fresh out of the Navy. To be clear, plenty of challenges remain, including the need to further improve access to timely care to all patients. However, as I think about all of the improvements since 1973, I am deeply grateful to all the men and women in the First State who have worked to make good on our sacred promise to care for our veterans.

I am particularly grateful for Robin Aube-Warren’s work during this time of uncertainty for our country’s VA system. Robin has always led with integrity. In the recent words of VA Undersecretary Dr. David Shulkin, “Robin’s contributions to Veteran healthcare have made a real difference in Delaware.” I couldn’t agree more.

Robin, on behalf of Delaware’s veterans, thank you.

U.S. Senator Tom Carper is the Senior Senator from Delaware.

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