VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said union is going too far in arguing the shutdown will lead to veteran suicides.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said union is going too far in arguing the shutdown will lead to veteran suicides. Cliff Owen/AP

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Cabinet Secretary Blasts Federal Union for Using Veterans as Shutdown 'Pawns'

Discussing veteran suicides in relation to the shutdown is "nothing short of disgraceful," department head says.

A Cabinet member condemned a federal employee union for using veterans as “pawns” in the partial government shutdown, saying the group was propagating a harmful myth about former military personnel in order to highlight the consequences of the ongoing budget impasse.

The American Federation of Government Employees, and specifically one of its local presidents, Bureau of Prisons employee Edward Canales, stepped too far in insinuating veterans now working as civil servants who are not receiving pay due to the shutdown are at risk of suicide, Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a letter to AFGE President J. David Cox. Canales made the comments in an article published by ABC News.

"If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities,” Canales is quoted as saying. “We're going to have suicides.”

Federal employee groups like AFGE, congressional Democrats and veterans groups have repeatedly highlighted that veterans disproportionately work for the federal government and are therefore particularly affected by the shutdown. By invoking suicide, however, Wilkie said AFGE crossed a line and “exploited the real tragedy of veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial government shutdown.”

“The notion that most veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why veterans and veteran advocates are continuously fighting this shopworn canard,” Wilkie wrote.

Wilkie called veterans “models of civic engagement” that are employed at a higher rate than the American public writ large. The secretary asked Cox to apologize for his colleague’s “reckless comments” and to outline steps he would take to ensure AFGE representatives show “proper respect” to veterans going forward.

“AFGE Local President Canales' attempt to use veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful,” Wilkie said.

Cox said the Trump administration has a terrible record on veterans issues and is failing to recognize how often they transition from military service to civil service. 

"Federal government-employed veterans are hurting right now," Cox said. "Regardless of their continued service to our country, the president and his Cabinet have left them out in the cold, forcing them to work without pay and subjecting veterans and their families to the uncertainty of not knowing when or where their next paycheck will come from. Financial pressures experienced by working people are apparently not something this administration either understands or cares about."

The secretary on Monday also celebrated VA's progress in fighting veteran suicides, issuing a statement detailing the steps the department has taken to help save lives. He pointed to an executive order President Trump signed to help veterans transitioning to civilian life, a boost of staffing and resources for suicide prevention programs and the work of the department’s crisis hotline.

VA under the Trump administration has often clashed with AFGE, which represents more than 250,000 department employees. The department has attempted to upend the union’s collective bargaining agreement and has faced pushback over its implementation of a law signed by President Trump to give the secretary more authority to quickly fire employees.

Canales did not immediately respond to requests for comment.