Democrats and some veterans groups are praising President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki to head the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, but others are quietly questioning his qualifications to lead the Cabinet agency that is largely in charge of military retirees’ health care.
The former Army chief of staff and four-star general will bring new energy and new hope to millions of veterans, said Bob Filner, California Democrat and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Mr. Filner also outlined some of the expectations and challenges the new VA chief faces.
“The stakes are high at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Mr. Filner said. “Our veterans need to know that their service to our country is respected and honored. A new basis of stable funding must be developed. The claims backlog must be attacked in a new and dynamic way. And the mental health of our veterans - from every conflict and each generation - must remain a high priority.”
John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), echoed Mr. Filner’s praise and called the nomination “a promising choice.”
“We have no doubt that General Shinseki has the integrity and personal fortitude to usher in the real changes needed to make the VA a true steward of our nation’s veterans and their families,” Mr. Rowan said. “His selection certainly lives up to Mr. Obama’s promise to bring change and hope to Washington. VA bureaucrats, for whom ‘change’ is a dirty word, will learn that there really is a new game in town. Veterans of all political persuasions should take heart and applaud this choice.”
Glen M. Gardner Jr., national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also praised Gen. Shinseki but noted the different requirements for heading a Cabinet agency, particularly one as troubled as Veterans Affairs.
“Running the VA will be far different than leading troops into battle,” said Mr. Gardner, who leads the nation’s largest organization of combat veterans. “But we hope he possesses the leadership, management and accountability traits that we demand from all VA secretaries.”
The VA provides benefits, social and economic programs as well as health care to nearly 25 million veterans, but was plagued by controversy this year over a growing number of backlogged disability claims, a rise in the number of suicide attempts, and clinical testing on vulnerable veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
One high-ranking retired officer who asked to remain anonymous questioned Gen. Shinseki’s record on veterans health-care issues.
“How much time has he spent visiting the PTSD wards, the multiple-amputee wards, the burn wards? The major question I have is: Just what has he done for the past five years to show any concern for our veterans? I do not see any evidence of Shinseki being an agent for change.”
Gen. Shinseki angered many in the military with his plan to have all Army soldiers wear black berets, an honor previously reserved for elite forces. After a backlash began, it was revealed that the needed extra berets would be made in China and other foreign countries, a detail Gen. Shinseki said he didn’t know until after the contract was signed.
Gen. Shinseki also clashed with Pentagon civilians, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in the run-up to the Iraq war, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 25, 2003, that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to control that country after a U.S. invasion.
When NBC interviewer Tom Brokaw pointed out the remark to Mr. Obama on Saturday, the president-elect responded that the four-star general “was right.”
A smaller troop increase than what Gen. Shinseki said was needed plus a change in tactics in President Bush’s 2007 “surge” have been credited with calming sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. Mr. Obama opposed the troop surge in the Senate, saying it actually would make sectarian violence worse.
It has been widely reported that Gen. Shinseki’s remarks forced him into retirement. He did retire several months later, on June 11.
However, in an April 19, 2002 article, The Washington Times reported the general’s scheduled retirement as Army chief of staff and named his suggested replacement, Gen. John M. Keane, the Army deputy chief of staff.
He completed his full four-year term on schedule, with a full-honors retirement ceremony in 2003 at Fort Myer. Mr. Rumsfeld did not attend.
Gen. Shinseki, 66, served two combat tours in Vietnam, with the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions as an artillery forward observer and as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry. He was severely wounded in action, losing part of a leg.
He was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with “V” Device and two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal.
According to Vietnam Veterans of America, he is the first Asian-American to reach the rank of four-star general or to head one of the military services. He was appointed army chief of staff by president Bill Clinton in 1999.
In his introduction of the general, Mr. Obama praised him as someone who “has always stood on principle because he has always stood with our troops.” He also specified in his NBC interview, which was conducted Saturday, that he timed the announcement to coincide with Sunday’s anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.
“Tomorrow, you had mentioned earlier, is when we commemorate Pearl Harbor, and so I’m going to be making an announcement tomorrow about the head of our Veterans Administration,” he said.
The coveted black berets that caught Gen. Shinseki in controversy were worn exclusively by such elites as the Army Rangers and the 82nd Airborne Division until the general ordered that they be standard issue to all soldiers. Gen. Shinseki wanted every soldier donning a beret “as a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values.”
The purchase for nearly $30 million was later nixed by the Bush administration. “U.S. troops shall not wear berets made in China or berets made with Chinese content,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.