November 7, 2007 – The White House’s nomination of retired Lt. Gen. James Peake as the next secretary of Veterans Affairs is an interesting choice.
Peake began his career as an infantryman, was wounded in Vietnam, became a doctor and spent 40 years in uniform before retiring in 2004 after four years as Army surgeon general. If confirmed, he’d be the first retired flag officer, and the first doctor, to serve as VA secretary.
He would clearly bring a unique perspective to the job. But that’s no reason for the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to treat his nomination lightly.
Peake was Army surgeon general in the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Many of the problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and with the Army’s disability rating system — which led to the firings and resignations of senior officials this year — can be traced to policies in place during his tenure.
This is not to say Peake is responsible for those leadership failures. But senators should seek a clear understanding about what he knew, or should have known, while serving as surgeon general.
Next, the committee must press Peake on VA’s health care budget, which the Bush administration has shortchanged over the past seven years. Senators should demand assurances that Peake will be open and forthright about VA’s full budget needs — even if doing so irks his White House bosses.
They also need to know Peake’s views on recent proposals for overhauling the disability evaluation and ratings system. Which have the most merit?
Finally, how would he tackle VA’s growing backlog of 600,000 claims?
The issues facing VA, amid a long war with no end in sight, are too vast and serious for the Senate to treat this nomination with kid-glove formality.