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He’s one of them — a disabled veteran who lost part of his right foot to a mine in Vietnam, a soldier who riled his superiors in the Bush years by telling Congress the U.S. needed more troops in Iraq than the administration wanted.
That bond is why veterans groups overwhelmingly endorsed Eric Shinseki as Veterans Affairs secretary in 2009. And it’s part of the reason many continued to support him until his resignation Friday in the firestorm surrounding lengthy waits for veterans to get care at VA hospitals and reports that employees had tried to cover them up.
“I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about — that’s the veterans of this great country — to their families and loved ones,” Shinseki told advocates for homeless veterans Friday before giving President Barack Obama his resignation.
Support for Shinseki among vets groups was not universal. The American Legion led the call for his resignation.
“It is not the solution, yet it is a beginning,” National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said.
As Army chief of staff in 2003, Shinseki bluntly told Congress that it would take a sustained presence of several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq after the U.S. invasion, an estimate far higher than Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld used to sell the public on American intervention. Rumsfeld and deputy Paul Wolfowitz belittled Shinseki’s testimony and he soon retired.
But his words proved prophetic — and subsequent military leaders acknowledged as much when President George W. Bush ordered a “surge” of troops to Iraq. In nominating Shinseki to lead the VA, Obama said he’d chosen him in part because he had stood up for the truth — and for overburdened fighting soldiers — in that war.
Like the president himself, Hawaii-born Shinseki also represented a racial milestone, as the first Army four-star general of Japanese-American descent.
By all accounts, the VA is difficult to manage. Consider the numbers: 9 million veterans get health care from the VA and nearly 4 million receive compensation for injuries and illnesses incurred from their service. The department runs 150 hospitals and more than 800 outpatient clinics.
Shinseki, 71, served longer than any other VA secretary since 1989, when the agency became a cabinet-level department. Bush had three VA secretaries and one acting secretary during two terms. Shinseki’s longevity gave him ownership of — and responsibility for — the VA’s myriad problems, many exacerbated by the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Shinseki made some progress in trimming the disability claims backlog and in reducing veterans’ homelessness, he could not overcome findings by his department’s inspector general that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout” VA’s health centers. In Phoenix, the inspector found 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost or forgotten.”
The reaction has been swift and furious. Nobody has argued that the anger is unjustified, not even Shinseki. “The breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me,” he said.
Yet, the problem of long waits pre-dated Shinseki’s tenure. In 2003, a presidential task force established by Bush warned that “at least 236,000 veterans were on a waiting list of six months or more for a first appointment or an initial follow-up.”
Shinseki met monthly with the major veteran service organizations, but generally tried to stay out of the public eye. Some wanted Shinseki to be more public and passionate in tackling the VA’s problems.
“I’ve never seen him get angry,” said Homer Townsend, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I know he’s angry, but he’s not the kind that bangs the table or yells and screams and shouts at people.”
Over five years, Shinseki had some success reducing chronic homelessness among veterans. The government estimates that veterans’ homelessness has dropped by about one-quarter over the past three years. Nearly 58,000 veterans remain on the streets or in temporary shelters on any given night.
The backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days soared under Shinseki’s tenure, reaching 600,000 claims at its peak. The VA had trouble keeping up with the number and complexity of the claims coming from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, Shinseki made it easier for veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to get benefits.
The backlog is now down to fewer than 300,000, but the furor cost Shinseki political capital as he entered into the next crisis, which ultimately cost him his job.
Some veterans groups said money for VA has not kept up with the demands and Congress has to bear some responsibility.
Townsend said the jury is still out on whether Shinseki did enough to confront the department’s problems
“I think anybody who has that job today is going to fail,” Townsend said. “I don’t think everybody realizes the depth of the problems.”
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