Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday wouldn't commit to removing three headstones containing swastikas and messages honoring Adolf Hitler from the graves of German prisoners of war, frustrating House lawmakers.
Wilkie said he wanted to work with members of Congress to put such anti-Semitic and racist imagery in the proper "historical context."
"I happen to think that making sure that when people visit our cemeteries they are educated and informed of the horror is an incredibly important thing to do," Wilkie said during testimony before the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations subcommittee. "Erasing these headstones removes them from memory and as we continue to study the Holocaust, the last thing any Holocaust scholar wants to do is erase that memory."
Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was not satisfied with Wilkie's answer. She said the presence of such imagery in cemeteries that are home to World War II veterans, who died fighting Nazis and the ideology they represented, is unacceptable.
"The Nazi swastika is prohibited in Germany from being displayed because it is not seen as a reminder to prevent the hatred that it spawned; it is seen as something to be snuffed out," she said. Wasserman-Schultz was referencing a German law that prevents public displays of "symbols of unconstitutional organizations" such as the Nazi salute and swastikas, although some images are allowed in video games.
The VA cemeteries in question -- Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas, and Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah -- contain the remains of the German soldiers and the Nazi inscriptions.
According to the National Cemetery Administration, which is housed within the VA, the two cemeteries were under the U.S. Army's jurisdiction in the 1940s when the remains were buried and grave markers erected. Fort Sam Houston was transferred to the VA in 1973, with Fort Douglas Post following in 2019.
"Headstones of enemy prisoners of war stand only in cemeteries where enemy POWs are buried, and we have no plans to change the posture of previous administrations by disturbing those gravesites," National Cemetery Administration official Tim Nosal said in an emailed statement.
Wasserman Schultz, who is about to write the VA's funding bill for the upcoming fiscal year, told Wilkie that "this is going to be dealt with one way or another."
She urged him to begin a process laid out in the National Preservation Act of 1966 during which the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation would determine whether the gravestones removal would create an adverse effect.
Wilkie appeared opposed to beginning that multistep review, saying he would "have to engage in a very long process right now in order to erase" the anti-Semitic symbols. He did say he believed he and the panel could work out a solution.
"I don’t think we’re that far off, because I do think that putting those in context in the cemeteries is the way forward," he said.
Wilkie was also questioned during the hearing about VA's response to the COVID-19 outbreak, including problems securing enough personal protective equipment for employees and veterans.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., criticized the agency's preparedness for and response to the crisis, saying its lack of urgency "likely contributed to additional sickness and death."
"At a time when veterans most need the VA to be ahead of the curve, it is falling behind. We need to understand what went wrong," she said.
The VA has diagnosed 11,500 veterans with COVID-19. More than 9,000, or 76 percent have recovered, while 700 have died according to Wilkie. Roughly 1,500 remain hospitalized throughout the VA system, he said.
Wilkie also defended how the administration rationed personal protective equipment when supplies ran short at the height of the national emergency and said the VA takes protecting its employees seriously.
He said the infection rate among VA staff was 0.5 percent or lower and noted that there are currently 500 employees with COVID-19 out of 330,000. So far, 31 staff members have died from the virus, he said.
"Our infection rate among VA staff, I can argue is among the lowest of any health care system in the country," he said.
If there was any "silver lining" from the pandemic, Wilkie said, it's the way VA has quickly transitioned to telehealth services, increasing from an average of 40,000 virtual medical appointments in a month to roughly 900,000.
"We are reaching areas of the country that we never thought we would reach particularly in tribal and rural America," he said. "This is a game changer particularly when it comes to mental health."