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Quil Lawrence

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

Lawrence started his career in radio by interviewing con men in Tangier, Morocco. He then moved to Bogota, Colombia, and covered Latin America for NPR, the BBC, and The LA Times.

In the Spring of 2000, a Pew Fellowship sponsored his first trips to Iraq — that reporting experience eventually built the foundation for his first book, Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2009).

Lawrence has reported from throughout the Arab world and from Sudan, Cuba, Pakistan, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan for twelve years, serving as NPR's Bureau Chief in Baghdad and Kabul. He covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, as well as politics, culture, and war in both countries.

In 2012, Lawrence returned to the U.S. to cover the millions of men and women who have served at war, both recently and in past generations. NPR is possibly unique among major news organizations in dedicating a full-time correspondent to veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A native of Maine, Lawrence studied history at Brandeis University, with concentrations in the Middle East and Latin America. He is fluent in Spanish and conversant in Arabic.

Chris Kurtz is trying to keep his sense of humor. Even after the VA told him last summer that he no longer needs a caregiver.

"Apparently my legs grew back, I dunno," he says with a laugh, and sinks into his couch in Clarksville, Tenn. And then he mentions that he probably can't get out of the couch without help from his wife.

On a recent chilly day in Manhattan, a group of veterans marched a dozen miles up the island — from the historic Fraunces Tavern to the spot where the first woman pensioned by the United States Army fired her cannon at British redcoats.

Thirty years ago, more than half of the members of Congress were veterans — many from the World War II generation. Recently, that number has hovered around 20 percent — a decline that some observers link to a loss of civil discourse and bipartisan compromise. With only about 1 percent of Americans serving, there's also a gap of understanding between vets and civilians.

Which is what brings comedian Pete Davidson into this story.

In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said his department is on the mend after a tumultuous 2018.

"I do think it is better, because the turmoil of the first half of this year is behind us, the waters are calmer. We're not where we need to be, but we're heading in that direction," he said.

Early in Donald Trump's presidency, the VA was considered an island of stability in an unpredictable administration.

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Your kid can grow up, even join the Army and go to war, and you'll still do dad things when he comes back. David Toombs would make his son lunch.

"I always made him extra, just in case he got hungry or he wanted a snack or he was running low on money. So I made his lunch like a typical dad," says Toombs.

Toombs worked right next to his son, John, at a steel die shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

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Nico Walker is in jail for robbing banks.

He can use the pay phone for 15 minutes at a time, and then he has to wait a half-hour. It took a while to do an interview.

That's also sort of the way he wrote his debut novel, Cherry — on a typewriter, with a hundred-or-so other guys looking over his shoulder.

"It was something that I was doing when I was locked up," he says. "Something to pass the time. But I didn't — I wasn't planning to write a novel, you know, autobiographical or anything like that."

President Trump delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in Kansas City, Mo., offering many of his regular talking points about everything from tariffs to immigration to the new American Embassy in Jerusalem.

Trump was interrupted repeatedly by applause and shouts of support - notably when he mentioned his hopes that the remains of Korean War veterans would soon be repatriated, as agreed in his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

President Trump's second VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, was confirmed 86-9 by the Senate on Monday. He takes the helm of the second largest department in the U.S. government, with more than 350,000 employees, a nearly $200 billion budget and almost 20 million American veterans depending on it for care and benefits.

That may sound like a herculean task. Now add that the department has been in turmoil since Trump sacked his first VA secretary, David Shulkin, with dozens of senior staff, subject matter experts and career officials quitting or being pushed out.

Back in March, President Trump fired his first VA secretary, David Shulkin. His first nominee to fill the post, White House physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew after charges of professional misconduct.

His next pick Robert Wilkie was seen as uncontroversial, with decades of Washington experience. On Wednesday, Wilkie had a relatively smooth confirmation hearing.

The Army has long had shortages of health care workers and speakers of certain languages, and in 2009 it started doing what other industries, including the medical field have done: It looked to skilled immigrants.

A program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest or MAVNI, recruited thousands of foreigners already in this country who were seeking citizenship. But hundreds who signed up have been exposed to the risk of deportation — including Shu Luo, a Chinese recruit who was arrested in New Jersey last week.

One of the four key points agreed to by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is to help repatriate the remains of Americans killed in action during the Korean War.

"The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified," the statement reads.

It may not have been the focus of the summit, but Korean War vets and their families were hoping the issue would come up.

The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, stopped by a mosque outside Baltimore on Thursday evening for Iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the month of Ramadan, when practicing Muslims don't eat or drink during daylight hours.

"I don't consider coming to your mosque to be anything extraordinary," Neller said, in his brief remarks.

But such a visit wasn't ordinary, either.

A major Veterans Affairs reform has passed the Senate by 92-5 and is on its way to the White House. The $55 billion bill will change how the VA pays for private care, expand a VA caregiver program and start a review of the VA's aging infrastructure. President Trump has said he will sign it — and it's sure to be touted among his biggest legislative achievements.

In the early days of the Iraq War, troops were riding around in Humvees with almost no armor on them. There was a scandal about it, and within a few years the trucks got up-armored with thick steel plates, which solved one problem but created another.

"Some genius thought about up-armoring. Good! But they didn't do anything with the brake systems," says George Wilmot, who was riding an armored Humvee in 2009, leaving a hilltop base in Mosul.

"We took some small arms fire ... my driver took us off a cliff," says Wilmot.

Updated at 9:58 p.m. ET

The pick wasn't surprising, but the announcement was – President Trump will nominate Robert Wilkie, the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, to become the department's new secretary.

Trump was speaking at a meeting on prison reform at the White House when he veered off topic to introduce Wilkie to the room. Trump praised the job Wilkie has been doing since he stepped in at the VA from the Department of Defense in March, and then gave everyone a surprise, including Wilkie.

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The collapse of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson's nomination to lead the Veterans Affairs Department leaves the VA rudderless, and awaiting its fourth secretary in four years.

Jackson withdrew earlier this week under a cloud of allegations — which he denies — that he drank on duty, mishandled prescription medications and verbally abused his staff.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET

President Trump intends to replace Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with the White House physician, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, the president announced on Twitter on Wednesday.

"I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin's service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!" Trump wrote.

On March 16, 1968, chopper pilot Hugh Thompson was uncertain what was going on in the village below. American troops were shooting, but he couldn't see anyone returning fire.

He landed his bird when he saw a group of women and children pinned down in a ditch.

"So we then set down. Two guys I think it was came over to the aircraft," Thompson told NPR in a 2004 interview.

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At the end of a dark pitted street in the center of San Juan, the light from the flat screen beckons. Locals flock toward it like a lighthouse, following the siren song of a rattling diesel generator. Six weeks into the nationwide blackout after Hurricane Maria, the final game of the World Series is playing at a popular dive bar called Esquina Watusi.

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There's sort of a designated driver in Jason Stavely's circle of Iraq buddies, but he doesn't take away people's car keys. He takes the guns.

"Come toward September-October, if I get the feeling, I'm more than happy to give my guns back to my buddy again," said Stavely.

Stavely has bad memories from the war that get triggered every autumn. And last year, one of his Marine Corps friends died by suicide in October. So Stavely's therapist at the Veterans Affairs clinic suggested getting his guns out of the house.

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Before they get to work on reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Congress and the White House might want to take a closer look at the last time they tried it — a $16 billion fix called the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, designed to get veterans medical care more quickly.

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