December 14, 2008 – President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs is the smartest and best appointment he’s made so far.
It sends a signal to millions of our veterans, and to the active-duty military, as well, that the serious business of caring for those who’ve borne the burdens of fighting our wars will now be in the right hands — the hands of a fine soldier who bears the scars of war himself.
The current occupant of the White House has made much of his role as a wartime commander in chief these last seven years, but his record and that of his administration has been disgraceful when it comes to taking care of the inevitable casualties of war.
President George W. Bush and his minions have opposed virtually every piece of legislation to improve the treatment and benefits for those who are still in uniform and for the veterans of past wars, whether it’s increased pay and pensions or upgrading the GI Bill.
He talked the talk but he seldom walked the walk. The troops were perfunctorily ”blessed” in every speech and rounded up for photo-ops on bases far and wide, even as my McClatchy colleague Chris Adams, in a string of stories going back three years, has revealed that the VA’s dysfunctional disability system is prone to massive delays and errors, and that its mental health system is riddled with holes.
That Obama chose Shinseki to reform the stumbling, bumbling, expensive bureaucracy that is the VA is an unmistakable signal that business is going to be anything but usual in the future.
Shinseki, a West Point graduate who as a young lieutenant lost part of his foot to a landmine in Vietnam, is a soldier’s soldier, and everyone who wears a uniform knows that.
They also know that the diminutive Japanese-American who grew up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii was virtually alone among senior military officers in having the nerve to warn the Bush administration and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that they were taking us to war in Iraq without enough troops to secure the place.
For that, and for opposing an equally misbegotten Rumsfeld plan to cut six divisions out of the active Army and the Army National Guard on the eve of 9/11, then-Army chief of staff Shinseki was publicly excoriated and treated disgracefully by Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz.
Fourteen months before his four-year term as Army chief was due to end, in a blatant attempt to force Shinseki to resign, Rumsfeld’s acolytes in the Pentagon leaked word that they’d already selected his successor.
It didn’t work. Shinseki is anything but a quitter, and he shrugged it off and soldiered on.
At his retirement ceremony at Fort Myer in the summer of 2003, even as a growing insurgency was wrecking Rumsfeld’s plans for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Shinseki pointedly warned against giving a 10-division Army a 14-division mission. In other words, he correctly warned his civilian military overlords that they didn’t have enough troops to secure and pacify Iraq. Again.
With that, Shinseki faded away quietly. He never gave interviews or publicly criticized a war gone terribly wrong, thus displaying far more dignity and grace than the armchair warriors who lacked even the common decency to concede that he’d been right and they’d been wrong.
In choosing Shinseki to repair and run the VA, Obama has made it clear to the military and the veterans’ community that things are going to change in civil-military relations; that although he’s a Democrat who opposed the Iraq war and has never worn the uniform himself, he really gets it.
Good change is coming
It will be a pleasure to watch as Shinseki takes on the biggest and most important challenge of his life: fixing the broken agency that’s supposed to care for those who’ve suffered the most in defending and protecting our nation.
Right now, the VA has a backlog of 700,000 unprocessed claims for benefits that are six months old or older, from World War II’s greatest generation to the newest generation of wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A recent inspection found thousands of case files in various VA offices that had been tossed into trash baskets to be shredded. Out of sight, out of mind. What claim?
Pass the word: Ric Shinseki’s back, and things are gonna change!
Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.