Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shinseki to lead VA

It was news weeks ago, but I haven't seen much of a focus in our neck of the woods. I think it's a good choice.

The Army Times has a good commentary
on his selection.


Shinseki as VA secretary

Nominating retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs is the latest bold move by President-elect Barack Obama to reassure troops and veterans that he intends to look out for their welfare.

Like his decisions to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates in that job and naming retired Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser, Obama’s nomination of the former Army chief of staff to lead VA has the potential to prove similarly inspired.

Shinseki served for 38 years, despite losing part of a foot to a land mine in Vietnam. As a combat veteran and a disabled veteran, he has instant credibility as VA secretary.

But in his years as Army chief of staff, Shinseki showed a quirk that could work against him at VA — he sometimes went into a defensive crouch when his views and decisions were criticized.

When he decided in 2000 that all soldiers would wear black berets, for example, his refusal to define his reasons for such a dramatic change and to make any effort to sell it to his troops led to a public relations fiasco that dragged out for many months.

Shinseki resisted commenting to the media and even Congress; it took a subpoena to get him to Capitol Hill to discuss the issue.

In 2003, his statement to lawmakers that “several hundred thousand troops” would be needed to occupy Iraq brought a humiliating public rebuke from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted a much smaller force for that mission.

While hindsight has shown that Shinseki’s views were right on the mark, he refused to defend himself at the time and quietly retired a few months later.

But a small vignette at the chief of staff’s annual holiday party in 2000 at his personal quarters on Fort Myer, Va., illuminates another side of Shinseki.

During the party, attended by many top-level Pentagon officials and members of the media, Shinseki was introduced to the wife of an Army Times editor. In the ensuing small talk, she mentioned that her father also was a Vietnam veteran.

Shinseki left his own party, bounded upstairs and returned with one of the commemorative coins that senior military leaders hand out on their official travels. He gave it to his guest and asked that she present it to her father, with thanks from the Army chief of staff for his wartime service.

That tale highlights Shinseki’s deep bond with those who serve. But the job of VA secretary is a far cry from that of a general who issues orders with impunity and expects them to be followed without question or dissent.

VA receives heavy, constant scrutiny both from Congress and from the many advocacy groups for veterans and their families — and for good reason. In recent years, VA has endured a string of embarrassing problems, including badly underfunded budgets and a health care system still struggling to accommodate the swelling ranks of disabled veterans from the current wars.

Personal data on millions of veterans has gone missing, documents to verify benefits claims have been trashed and a stubborn mountain of 400,000 backlogged benefits claims has resisted all efforts to reduce it.

Shinseki can expect to take frequent flak on these and other issues. To effectively lead VA in confronting the challenges, he can’t go into bunker mode; he must publicly and forcefully make the case for getting VA the resources required to fully serve the needs of our veterans — and then work to build consensus to make it happen.

If he does that, he has the opportunity to become a truly transformational leader at VA.

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