November 1, 2007 – Dr. James Peake, the retired Army general whom President Bush recently nominated to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, has a long and distinguished career. Among other things, he ran the Army’s medical system until a few years ago, serving as Army surgeon general. But as people begin to review Peake’s record, he’s getting mixed reviews.
A retired Army general who worked closely with Peake in the Army’s medical command has mixed feelings about the nomination. The general sat in meetings with Peake, and he brainstormed with him.
The general requested anonymity because he still works with the Army. “Jim doesn’t take easily to criticism, and when I tell you honestly what I think of him, I could lose my job,” he said.
Peake is the third man who Bush says will finally make things right for vets.
Since President Bush took office, two secretaries of Veterans Affairs have come and gone. Both men promised to make sweeping changes in the veterans’ medical system, which just about everybody agrees is broken and overwhelmed. Both of them failed.
First, here’s the positive side. The retired general said that Peake is “very bright, very dedicated and works extremely hard.” And, the retired general says Peake dives into solving problems.
All of which are great attributes for the job. President Bush said pretty much the same thing when he introduced Peake at a press conference on Tuesday, saying, “He will apply his decades of expertise in combat medicine and health care management to improve the veterans’ health system. He will insist on the highest level of care for every American veteran.”
The retired general also said that Peake is conscientious and will try to do the right thing. He said Peake loves micromanaging details.
But the former colleague said Peake bogs down in details. He said the VA medical system is such a mess that it’s going to take someone with sweeping vision to overhaul it — and Peake doesn’t have that vision. In fact, the former colleague and some veterans’ advocates say that Peake’s myopia might have helped cause the crisis that soldiers faced when they came home from the war with serious mental health problems.
“That is clearly a failure,” said Gary Myers, a former Army lawyer, now in private practice, who works on military cases.
Myers says it’s important to remember that Peake was running the Army’s medical system when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and he kept running it until 18 months after the U.S. invaded Iraq. By late 2003, Army researchers were telling Peake that large numbers of troops were having serious mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. An Army study, later published in the New England Journal of Medicine, warned that soldiers were reporting “important barriers to receiving mental health services.”
Everyone from the press to a presidential commission found that when soldiers came back to America, the military’s medical centers were overwhelmed. There was a huge shortage of mental health specialists. Soldiers couldn’t get the treatment they needed, even when their lives were falling apart. So Myers wants senators to ask Peake at his confirmation hearings “why there wasn’t an urgent effort to increase the number of mental health care providers in anticipation of the arrival of these young men and women,” Myers said.
And of course, mental health wasn’t the only problem. Some journalists were reporting back in 2003 that soldiers who came home with physical injuries were having a terrible time getting treatment, and were languishing in squalid barracks. Peake was in charge then, too.
NPR asked Peake for an interview, but a spokesman at the White House press office said he won’t talk publicly until he testifies at his confirmation hearings.