With an extensive career in both the public and private sectors, Maura Sullivan has dedicated her life to public service. Sullivan served as a US Marine Corps Officer and is an Iraq War veteran. She has also served in President Obama’s administration as assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, and senior advisor to the secretary of the navy. Sullivan previously worked as an executive for PepsiCo and held leadership positions at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School. An expert on the US military, defense strategy, and veterans affairs, Sullivan sat down with the Gate’s Riddhi Sangam for a conversation about the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Trump administration.
The Gate: During his campaign, Donald Trump described the US Department of Veterans Affairs as “the most corrupt agency in the United States.” Trump says he aims to enact “common-sense solutions such as protections for VA whistle-blowers, accountability for bad employees and providing veterans with more health care options.” As detailed in his ten-point plan, Trump is looking to privatize the VA. How do you see the execution of this plan panning out? Do you believe in the feasibility of Trump’s ten-point plan?
Maura Sullivan: I think a lot remains to be seen about the future of the department. For example, a secretary hasn't been named yet. So I think it's a little early to speculate what that could look like. The VA is the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States, with 151 VA hospitals around the country, and it provides healthcare to over nine million veterans in one of the largest agencies in the federal government. A lot of veterans depend on it for care, so it's critically important that the new administration is set up for success to best serve all those veterans. What I'm encouraged to see is—and this extends from the time that I was there—that the members of the committees, which are bipartisan, like the House and Senate veterans affairs committees, will hold the new administration accountable, just as they did in the Obama administration. And they will make sure that they are doing the best that they can every day to do two things: (1) serve veterans to the best of their ability, and (2) be good stewards of taxpayer resources.
Gate: The Obama administration was criticized for moving too slowly to make changes at the VA. Do you foresee any major differences in the way the VA will operate under the Trump administration as compared to how it operated under the Obama administration?
Sullivan: Again, I think it's too early to tell. I think we'll know more when the cabinet secretary is named, and when he or she lays out his or her vision for the department. What I do think they need to focus on is continuing the day-to-day quality care for the nine million veterans that they provide healthcare for: continuing choice-card access; continuing to focus on mental health care, which they've had a significant emphasis on over the last few years. And then doing what we did a lot of work on toward the end of the Obama administration, which is continuing to partner with the outstanding nonprofit organizations that have emerged in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that focus on veterans transitioning, that focus on veterans finding employment, that focus on veterans finding community together around the country, that focus on veterans continuing to serve in some ways—great organizations like Team Red, White, and Blue; Team Rubicon; Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans' Association; The Mission Continues; and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. And the VA cannot solve these issues alone. But very, very strong partnerships—really, at the grassroots and local level—between the business community, the nonprofit sector, local VA and vet centers and communities, and the Department of Defense, is ultimately how we make sure that we do everything we can to set our veterans up for success as they transition.
Gate: In his ten-point plan, Trump writes that he wants to improve the VA so as “to better [meet] the needs of our female veterans.” At the same time, Trump has been accused of being a misogynist. As a former Marine Corps captain and Iraq War veteran, what do you think are the most pressing needs for female veterans, and do you think that a Trump administration will be able to fulfill these needs?
Sullivan: Female veterans are the fastest-growing population of veterans. They are on track to be twenty percent of veterans in the next ten years. There's a lot of work that was started under the Obama administration, in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that needs to be continued. I was proud to work on some of those initiatives. For example, making sure we have lactation rooms in our VA medical centers that are equipped according to the Affordable Care Act, so that we are properly servicing our women veterans. A lot of our VA medical centers have women veterans' clinics. Women veterans have told us that they aren't always comfortable being in close quarters when they're being examined around mostly other men. The women's clinic in Washington, DC is one of the nicest in the country; I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go down and take a tour when they are in town. So we need to make sure women veterans have a place that they feel comfortable accessing care. We're looking into fertility issues and in-vitro fertilization and what that means for women veterans. And then also the VA working alongside, again, nonprofit organizations on how we make sure that veterans can go and access their appointments and have childcare. Some things the government can't do alone, but again, needs to work with outside organizations to achieve. How the Trump administration will handle this? Look, my hope is that the president-elect is a leader of all Americans. It's up to the members of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees to hold him accountable to do that—and if he doesn’t, to oppose him vigorously.
Gate: Mental health care for veterans is regarded as extremely necessary. Most Americans, however, see conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide as a military-specific issue, not as a national issue. In Trump’s ten-point plan, he says that he will “increase the number of mental health care professionals, and allow veterans to be able to seek mental health care outside of the VA.” Do you believe that these plans will help destigmatize veterans’ mental health issues and increase the conversation around mental health? How do you see the privatization of healthcare under the Trump administration affecting veterans?
Sullivan: Mental health is a huge issue. And stigma, as you mentioned, is one of the most significant components of the issue. Forty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are thought to experience some form of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, or other type of similar ailment. And over fifty percent, according to an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America study, do not seek treatment because of stigma. The only way that we can have more veterans seek mental health treatment—and more members in active duty—is to eradicate the stigma. And there are a number of ways to do that. One responsibility lies with the Department of Defense, to do training upfront. Mental health should be a priority from the first day a young man or woman raises their right hand to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Mental health is as important as your physical health. And it should be mandatory for everyone in the department to go and see someone, and that way, there is no stigma because that's just what you go do, the same way that every soldier, every Marine, every sailor, every airman, has to go to the dentist before they can deploy. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks about a concept of total military readiness, and he calls it “total force fitness.” The ultimate state of military readiness, for him, as a commander, is when mental health has achieved parity with physical health.
Gate: Throughout your career, you have held a variety of different positions, including roles in the Marine Corps, at PepsiCo, and at the VA. Can you tell us about your current position?
Sullivan: Yes. So I recently departed the administration [as assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs] and was proud to volunteer on the coordinated Democratic campaign in New Hampshire.
Gate: When you were in college, you went through the Marine Corps ROTC program. Why did you decide to join the ROTC program?
Sullivan: I was in navy ROTC at Northwestern, and the summer between my freshman and sophomore year they sent all midshipmen to a summer program where you get exposure to every major community in the navy. So you go spend a week in submarines, a week in aviation, a week in service warfare, and a week in the Marine Corps. And those different specialties have different people and cultures, and you quickly figure out where you fit in. I think I was about forty-five minutes into Marine Corps week, and I had a very strong sense that that's where I belonged. And it was really meeting young, mostly enlisted marines, and just feeling their passion, their enthusiasm, their pride, and witnessing the camaraderie between them and the commitment that the marines had to a mission greater than themselves and the commitment they had to one another. I couldn't wait to be a part of it. And becoming a marine officer was the best decision I ever made.
Gate: Do you see training programs changing under the new presidency?
Sullivan: We made a lot of significant changes in the Department of Defense over the last few years. One of them was integrating women into all ground combat positions. A lot of work was put into that and the notion that a military standard is a standard, so it doesn't matter what gender you are, color of your skin, religion, who you happen to love—if you can meet a standard, you should be able to compete and have the opportunity to serve. I was with the current secretary of the navy when he spoke to marines at Quantico not that long ago and he was asked the question, "Well, what if no woman makes it through [the] infantry officer course in the next five years?" And he said, "Well then no woman makes it through. But we're not going to lower the standards." A standard is a standard, and I deeply hope that the next administration will uphold the policies initiated by former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Martin Dempsey and former secretary of defense Leon Panetta, and then finalized by secretary of defense Ash Carter last December.
Gate: In addition to serving in the public sphere, you also have notable experience in the private sector, such as your role as the Zone Director at Frito-Lay North America for PepsiCo. How do your various public service roles—as a Marine Corps captain and as an Iraq war veteran—inform your private sector experience?
Sullivan: Through the leadership in the Marine Corps, I had the opportunity and the privilege of leading very large, diverse teams toward a common goal. That's a skill set I was able to bring to try to enact change over time, and that was a skill set I was able to utilize at PepsiCo, and then lead a large team at the VA and at the Pentagon. The common thread is having the opportunity to work with really, really great people, and people you admire, and people you respect, and then ultimately, people in leadership who you want to serve. In the Marine Corps, you want people who you want to work with to get the mission accomplished and make sure your marines get home alive. At Frito-Lay, I had about 150 members of the team, a lot of front-line blue-collar drivers making sure we had the best front-line program so that they got to bring a little bit more money home to their families. I was really proud of that, what we accomplished together. And in government, you have really good people who work very, very hard—and they could be doing a lot of other things with their lives—and you get to try to take some of their ideas and their hopes and their dreams and try to impact policy changes that will touch the lives of thousands of people that you will never even meet.
Gate: What message do you have for young women who are interested in joining the military?
Sullivan: I would say: Just do it. Becoming a marine officer was the best decision I made in my life. It was a transformational experience. Simply put, I would not be the person I am today if I had not done it. I can look back already and say that the greatest honor of my life—and the greatest honor that will be in my life, regardless of what I do for the rest of my life—will be serving as a marine officer and leading marines in Iraq. There's nothing more humbling than a group of young marines and sailors calling you "Lieutenant." It's simply the greatest honor and privilege that I can imagine.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
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Riddhi Sangam is a fourth-year majoring in Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. This past summer, she worked in investment banking at BNP Paribas in New York. On campus, Riddhi is also involved with the Women in Public Service Program. In her spare time, Riddhi enjoys reading, writing, and researching restaurant menus as a form of procrastination.