Capitol Hill watchers foresee easy confirmation of retired Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as head of the Veterans Administration. But many are surprised – and not everyone is happy – about the choice, considering the rough patches in Shinseki’s career since graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1965 and ascending to the top of the Army brass.
As the Army’s chief, he was infamous for pushing to have all its members wear black berets – traditionally a perk of only the elite Ranger Units. It also was revealed later that the extra berets needed to outfit all the soldiers would be knitted in China, a contract that was canceled by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The boondoggle destroyed Army morale during Shinseki’s watch, and though the Rangers now wear tan berets for differentiation, the affair is a mark on Shinseki’s Army reputation.
Shinseki also was a big advocate of the bulky Crusader artillery system to replace the aging Paladin canon system. When the Bush administration moved to cancel Crusader, Shinseki had his aides pushed Capitol Hill on the program’s behalf – outflanking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who greatly resented the revolt.
The top soldier had better success in fighting to keep alive an Army “transformation” cornerstone: the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle. The first Stryker brigades were deployed to Iraq in October 2003, and owe their existence largely to Shinseki, who headed off Rumsfeld’s plans to throttle back the program.
The rough road to acceptance for the Stryker was paved with loud critics who sounded off about its lack of armor, turning ability, rollover danger from a high center of gravity, and general lack of operational efficiency.
A Globalsecurity.org report summed up the feelings of many of the of the Stryker MGS’s critics when it said, “The evidence here from the Army board and other sources is that the MGS is about as soldier un-friendly as you can get.”
The final straw, however, came in February 2003 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when Shinseki said he believed the Army would need “several hundred thousand soldiers” to carry out the planned invasion of Iraq. Nothing like the lean and mean operation Rumsfeld envisioned. Subsequently, Shinseki was not nominated for the traditional second term as chief of staff and retired.
According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, about a quarter of the nation’s population, approximately 74.5 million people, are potentially eligible for VA benefits and services because they are veterans, family members, or survivors of veterans.
The VA is responsible for providing federal benefits to eligible veterans and their families and operates nationwide programs for health care, financial assistance, and burial benefits. The VA healthcare delivery system is the largest in the nation and provides a broad range of services, including services uniquely related to veterans’ health or special needs.
The agency also provides disability compensation to veterans who are disabled by injury or disease incurred or aggravated during military service – as well as pensions for certain wartime veterans with disabilities.
The GAO says the VA faces a range of key management challenges. In a recent report, the watchdog agency pointed out some glaring issues of its own: VA’s eligibility criteria for disability compensation do not fully incorporate a modern understanding of how technology and the labor market affect disabled veterans’ ability to work. VA continues to face long-standing problems with large pending disability claims inventories, lengthy processing times, concerns about decision accuracy and consistency, and replacing an aging benefits processing system it relies on to accurately process benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans. VA has faced difficulties in managing its resources to be consistent with a substantial increase in its patient workload, has allowed internal control weaknesses and inadequate oversight to limit its ability to maximize revenue from private insurance companies (third-party insurers), and has challenges recruiting and retaining health care professionals to provide care to its veteran population. VA lacks policies and procedures designed to provide adequate controls over miscellaneous obligation funds used for the procurement of goods and services. DOD and VA operate separate disability evaluation processes for wounded service members and veterans, respectively, that together may take months or years to complete. Since November 2007, the agencies have been piloting a joint process for determining disability benefits, but whether their efforts have been successful has not been determined. More than 850,000 service members have left active duty and are eligible for health care and potentially other benefits from VA. In recent years, problems have been identified with DOD and VA efforts to coordinate care and services for this population, including managing their transition from DOD to VA’s health care system, and expediting their access to VA disability benefits. DOD and VA also are in the process of setting up a new interagency program office that will play a crucial role in accelerating their efforts to achieve electronic health records and capabilities that allow for full interoperability between the two departments’ systems. However, the departments’ plan for achieving interoperability by September 2009, as required in law, is incomplete because many milestones have yet to be determined.
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," he told the Washington Times.
A noted critic of the health care being provided the nation’s veterans says the quiet, understated man tapped as the new Veterans Administration chief may not have the forcefulness to rein in the huge VA bureaucracy.
Dana Priest, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who broke the story of sorry conditions for the nation’s wounded heroes at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, says she is surprised that Gen. Shinseki was chosen by President-elect Barack Obama as his Secretary of the VA.
“Eric Shinseki has been known as an understated, low-key leader, a quiet person, not flashy, not particularly forceful,” Priest said. “He’s not someone who you would expect to shake up things right away. That is what the VA, the Veterans Administration, really needs,” the Washington Post reporter told National Public Radio in a recent on-air interview.
Priest went on to explain that in her opinion, the VA has plenty of money and support from the public for its mission – what it doesn’t have is some good leadership.
“One of the things that has been lacking is great pressure from Congress to change long standing problems in the VA and one of them is just the workforce culture and unless Shinseki can arise above his own manner of leadership” the job may not get done, Priest explained.
Priest conceded that in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal, the shape of the VA is better than it was a year ago.
“But it’s by no means where people think it is or where it needs to go,” she qualified, pointing to an inventory of troubles: Regarding service members coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who are no longer going to be serving in the military, when they make the transition to the VA: “There are lots of people still getting lost in the system, paperwork delays, six months to a year delays in transferring their case files and getting them where they should be in the system. The Administration likes to say that there is a seamless transition and really by no means is it seamless.” There’s another issue in the National Guard and Reserve, in which vets must use smaller VA offices scattered throughout the country. These facilities aren’t able to offer the range of services that many of those guardsmen and reservists need.
In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the two signature mental wounds of this war, for instance, they have not yet been able to provide the kind of hours that the people need to come to visit counselors – after work hours so that they can continue their employment – nor have they gotten the number of psychiatrists and psychologists who can offer face-to-face counseling and therapy needed for many of the returning soldiers.
Shinseki's nomination "reminds me of the appointment of another general, Jim Jones, who has been tapped as the national security adviser,” Priest said. “Both of these men share a certain kind of demeanor. They are not flashy. They are low key. They are understated.
“I think that in way is how Obama is too and I think that perhaps we’re seeing a personality type that is comfortable to him, and there are a lot of questions though whether or not that is going to be enough to move an entrenched bureaucracy,” Priest warned.
Shinseki joined the boards of Honeywell International and Ducommun, companies which specialize in military contracting, since his retirement. It is also thought, inside the Army, that Shinseki wants to run for the Senate when Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, decides to retire.
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