During times of conflict, the Veterans Administration is always under the microscope. It is at these times that veterans’ benefits have the best opportunity of catching up with veterans’ needs. In periods of relative peace, there is not the same momentum in Congress or the White House to propel veterans’ initiatives. Hopefully, the appointment of General (Retired) Erik K. Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs will ensure full exploitation of this limited opportunity.
Personal experience in any career makes a difference. In one of my assignments, I became very familiar with some of the individual failings of the Army medical system. I’ve also seen the tremendous improvements in that system in the past few years. My two plus years as a recipient of VA medical care has given me insight into the differences between being on active duty and being a veteran. Two years of helping my older, quadriplegic brother build a wheelchair transportation manufacturing company gave me experience with VA bureaucracy. Vicariously, I’ve been familiar with VA for forty years through my brother, a former Marine Corps test pilot, who has spent that time in the VA system.
General Shinseki is personally familiar with Army medical care, having been wounded during each of his two tours in Vietnam. In total, he spent approximately twenty months recovering from his wounds at the Medical Holding Detachment, US Army Tripler General Hospital.
Having served his country for thirty-eight years, General Shinseki certainly understands and has empathy for those who have served in uniform. He is used to making hard decisions. He gained valuable experience dealing with Washington in the decade or so that he served there. He certainly has the experience to run a large bureaucracy—there is none larger than the US Army.
I don’t know General Shinseki personally but by his deeds. He was commissioned a year before I was drafted. In my thirty-three years, our paths never crossed. I was, however, serving on the Joint Staff when he testified to Congress about the number of troops necessary to secure Iraq. I knew then, and the president should have known, that General Shinseki was right about that life and death issue. General Shinseki did the right thing. When asked, he responded to Congressional questions with candor. Paul Wolfowitz publicly demonized General Shinseki for doing what he was required to do by law—give Congress his honest estimate of the situation. Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush should be ashamed by the way they subsequently treated this highly decorated and courageous leader.
Heading VA will be a new role for the general. In uniform, a commander must always weigh mission accomplishment against the wellbeing of his soldiers. In his new position, General Shinseki’s mission will be the wellbeing of his charges, all twenty-four million of them.
Jeffrey M. Freeman