VA Chief Nominee Readies for Hearing 04/23 06:15
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson was tending to grievously injured
military personnel in Iraq when he was summoned to Washington to interview for
a job he barely knew existed. He didn't see a way to get there.
"I thought this was it --- this is where the road stops," he told the
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal this month.
Instead, Jackson managed to catch a ride on a transport plane that steered
the Levelland, Texas, native toward some of the loftiest corridors of power.
Jackson's journey has wound through the White House and across the globe,
treating the blisters, stomach ailments and more of the past three presidents
and their retinues. This coming week, Jackson is back on the interview circuit
and heading toward the Senate for a hearing Wednesday on his nomination to be
President Donald Trump's next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"This will be the challenge of his life," said Robert Darling, a former
White House physician who still dines occasionally with Jackson at the Army
Navy Country Club.
Now it's time for Washington to examine Jackson, universally described as a
reassuring presence in the most pressurized of atmospheres. But the 50-year-old
apolitical Navy man has no experience leading a massive bureaucracy.
"He's got a great bedside manner you feel comfortable with," Sen. Sherrod
Brown, D-Ohio, told The Associated Press. "But it doesn't mean he will be a
good leader of the VA."
Some White House veterans privately say they're mystified at why Jackson is
willing to move from practicing medicine to the insult-laden world of Trump-era
politics at the head of scandal-plagued agency. Jackson did not respond to
requests for comment from the AP.
But, in an interview with the Lubbock newspaper, Jackson defended his
qualifications for the VA job. "I've been in leadership school for 23 years
now. ... I've been confronted on a day-to-day basis with life and death
Trump abruptly named him to succeed David Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover
fired under an ethical cloud and something of a staff rebellion. The president
was delighted with Jackson's comprehensive and buoyant --- some said fawning
--- briefing to reporters in January on Trump's "excellent" health and mental
Jackson has been an unknown on policy and it's not even clear he voted in
the 2016 presidential election. The Hockley County Board of Elections in Texas
shows he voted in 2015.
The only inkling of where he stands came when a few of the Democratic
senators who met Jackson this past week reported that the nominee is promising
not to privatize the VA. Shulkin's resistance to partial privatization, through
expansion of a program letting veterans choose private care at public expense,
compounded his lapses in travel spending and may have been the driving force in
his dismissal. Where Jackson stands on enlarging the VA Choice program has yet
to be teased out.
His path to this point is a winding one that did not start off pointing to
medical school, emergency surgery or service to presidents.
In fact, in high school, Jackson went through "an ornery stage" that
featured him cutting classes and ending up in the assistant principal's office
at the business end of a wooden paddle.
"He got quite a few swats from me," recalls former Levelland High School
assistant principal Kelly Baggett, a longtime family friend who now counts
himself one of Jackson's biggest fans. "He took it like a man and shook my hand
when it was over," Baggett said in a telephone interview. "Just a great kid,
the kind you always want to visit with."
Jackson at first wanted to be a marine biologist, not a doctor. His
direction changed after he took a job at the University of Texas Medical School
as an autopsy assistant and found it interesting, according to an interview in
the Lubbock newspaper. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in
marine biology in 1991.
He didn't plan on entering the Navy, either. But Jackson needed money for
medical school, and he learned of a program in which he could be a Navy diver
and a doctor, according to that published account.
Jackson got his medical degree in 1995 from the University of Texas and
began active duty naval service that year at the Portsmouth Naval Medical
Center in Virginia, his Navy biography says. Jackson graduated from the Navy's
Undersea Medical Officer Program in Groton, Connecticut. He completed his
residency back in Portsmouth and deployed as the emergency medicine physician
in charge of resuscitative medicine for a forward deployed Surgical Shock
Trauma Platoon in Taqaddum, Iraq.
The White House was another unplanned destination.
Jackson said he "got an email out of nowhere" saying he'd been nominated for
a job at the White House. He then sped to Washington. Since President George W.
Bush hired him in 2006, Jackson has cut a widely admired path among some of the
nation's fiercest partisans --- on intimate terms. Everyone who's recently
worked in a president's inner circle, it seems, has a Ronny Jackson story.
Somewhere along the Pacific Rim in 2015, he treated the severely blistered
toe of Obama's National Security Council spokesman, recalled the patient, Ned
"Treatment consisted of bandages and tape, and it worked like a charm," said
Price, who said he had been suffering from wearing new shoes for 20 hours
straight. He like others described Jackson as a cool-headed and pleasant
presence, "the guy you always want to be around."
"At no point was he down or stressed out," said Jen Psaki, who was Obama's
communications director. She recalled Jackson reassuring her when she was
pregnant that "if anything happens, we're good" whether on medically equipped
Air Force One or in back in Washington. "I remember telling my husband that
there's no safer place I could be than the White House."
It was Obama who elevated Jackson to director of the White House medical
team and made him his physician.
Liz Allen, who served as Obama's deputy communications chief, said Jackson
monitored her blood pressure for years and routinely would ask, even in
passing, how she was doing.
"He is just so genuine," she said. "He treated people well. He always made
you feel like you were the priority even when there were competing priorities."
Jackson is known for maintaining relationships. His connection to fellow
Texan Bush, for example, survived the Bush presidency. In photos, the former
president wears a reddish cap on a 2013 trip to Zambia, emblazoned with the
name of Jackson's hometown, Levelland. Freddy Ford, a Bush family spokesman,
said the hat had been given to Bush by Jackson's father, Waymon.