December 14, 2008 – Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and all of the resulting harms to soldiers, civilians, economies and constitutional principles, no segment of society has been more abused and neglected than returning U.S. military veterans.
So the nomination of retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as President-elect Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs was welcome news. Obama has made an inspired choice, one that should go far not only to remedy the shoddy treatment of veterans, but to restore respect and honor to a military establishment tarnished by its recent history.
In 2007, backlogs of veterans’ disability claims were running between 400,000 and 600,000, leading to class-action lawsuits claiming that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, many of them suicidal, were not receiving care. That situation, first reported by CBS News, was misrepresented by the head of VA Mental Health, Dr. Ira Katz.
In an e-mail message to colleagues — headed “Shhh!” — Katz described the under-reporting of attempted suicides by his office — less than 10 percent of the known total of about 1,000 a month — and asked if they should release those numbers “before someone stumbles on it?”
In a similar vein, earlier last year, the Pentagon initially played down reports of disgraceful conditions and extreme neglect of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after they were exposed to a shocked nation by the Washington Post.
An independent investigation concluded that top brass knew, or should have known, of serious problems, but neglected to address them because the facility was scheduled to be eventually shut down.
Heads rolled and Congress mandated a series of reports on veterans’ care, the latest of which, just released, calls for the military to conduct large-scale studies on returning veterans to identify and treat traumatic brain injuries, which account for about 22 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan casualties — twice the rate of similar injuries in Vietnam. Such injuries, even if mild, can be linked to long-term problems such as aggression, dementia and seizures.
Much remains to be done in addressing returning veterans’ needs, but a start has been made, and Shinseki is uniquely equipped for the challenge. Born in Hawaii in 1942 to Japanese-American parents, he is the nation’s first Asian-American four star general. Awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam (he lost most of his right foot when he stepped on a land mine) he has a history of independence and honesty, most famously for his prescient remarks to Congress in February 2003, when he was Army chief of staff, that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to stabilize Iraq.
His estimate was treated with disdain by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“far off the mark”) and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz (“wildly off the mark”). Vice President Dick Cheney called it “an overstatement.” Shinseki stood his ground, but relationships were frosty after his public challenges to his superiors, and he was forced to resign four months later.
When nominated, Shinseki said, “I can think of no higher responsibility than ensuring that men and women who have served our nation in uniform are treated with the care and respect that they have earned. If confirmed, I will work each and every day to ensure that we are serving you as well as you have served us.”
Obama said he chose the “extraordinary and courageous” general because of his stand on needing more troops. “He was right,” he said. And Obama is right to choose Shinseki, right to give America’s beleaguered veterans the champion they so richly deserve.