April 1, 2009 – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Skinseki is about to get some company: two more presidential appointees who say they have personal reasons for making sure VA works.
Disabled Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in 2004 when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, appears set to become assistant VA secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs by week’s end, with plans for a swearing-in ceremony to be held in the rehabilitation ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where she recovered from her wounds.
“I live every day knowing that I should have died in that dusty field north of Baghdad and am alive today only because my buddies would not leave me behind,” Duckworth said at a Wednesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I intend to honor their heroism by doing everything that I can to make sure that this nation stands by those who have served and leaves no veteran behind.”
Scott Gould, nominated to be Shinseki’s deputy who would handle the day-to-day operations of VA, spent 26 years in the Navy. He told the Senate committee he has two reasons for being especially dedicated to VA.
One is that he received his master’s degree and doctorate with the help of GI Bill education benefits. “I know the GI Bill can change lives,” he said. “It changed mine.”
A second and equally personal reason is that Gould’s father spent the last 11 years of his life as a patient at a veterans hospital. “My family understands the challenge of dealing with an imposing bureaucracy,” he said.
The nominations of Gould and Duckworth are on a fast track, with plans for confirmation by the full Senate before Congress takes a two-week break. If the Senate votes by Thursday night, the nominees could be sworn in Friday.
Shinseki has not exactly been alone at VA, as a cadre of career employees are keeping the department running. But he is the only Obama appointee working at the second-largest federal agency.
Both the committee’s chairman, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and its ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, are urging quick approval of the nominations.
Gould, whose wife is Michele Flournoy, the new undersecretary of defense for policy, brings to VA experience in trying to transform bureaucracies, with previous jobs that involved modernizing the IRS within the Treasury Department, restructuring the National Weather Service within the Commerce Department, and taking part in a major transformation program at IBM.
Gould said his experience “give me confidence that the goal of transformation can be achieved by VA employees,” through teamwork, leadership and the help of Congress.
Gould is an outsider to VA, although he was part of a recent agency review, which leaves veterans committee members with concerns about how someone who never worked at VA and is not associated with a veterans service organization, or any other group that has regularly worked with the department, can make significant changes.
Gould acknowledged that bureaucracies are difficult to budget, but said he had faith in VA employees, who he believes have good ideas and are willing to change.
“Our front-line employees have a lot to tell us,” he said. “I want them to contribute their ideas.”
Gould said VA needs “an improved labor-management partnership” and must cultivate teamwork, not confrontation.
“We need leadership, and there is a difference between leadership and management,” he said. “We need to stop thinking of career workers as a cost and start thinking of them as an investment.”
Duckworth, who will be responsible for working with Congress, the public and veterans, said VA has to do things differently and avoid mistakes from the past. Getting the word out to veterans about VA programs is different today, she said.
“It is no longer enough to hand out brochures at demobilization ceremonies,” she said. “We must develop social networking strategies, use nontraditional outlets such as blogs and employ the wide variety of new media available to get the message of available benefits to our veterans.”
One mistake to avoid, she said, is what happened at the end of the Vietnam war when VA “lost contact with so many Vietnam veterans.”
She wants VA to keep in contact with veterans and ensure they have accurate information.”If we send the message incorrectly, we risk angering or disappointing these vets to the point where they turn their backs on VA, as so many did after Vietnam,” she said.