January 7, 2009, LiHu’e, Kaua’i – One important thing that has been said about Barack Obama also applies to Eric Shinseki, his nominee to head the Veterans Administration, says a relative of the retired general.
“Michelle Obama said to understand Barack you have to understand Hawai’i. The same is true for Eric Shinseki,” said Warren Haruki, a nephew who is president of Grove Farm, a major Kaua’i landowner.
At least some of Shinseki’s leadership skill comes from “growing up in a diverse place where nobody was a majority, everyone was a minority,” Haruki said.
If Shinseki, a third-generation descendant of Japanese immigrants who was born and raised on Kaua’i, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he’ll be the first Hawai’i-born person to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
The country’s first four-star Asian-American general retired from the Army’s highest-ranking uniformed job — chief of staff — in 2003.
His family and all of Kaua’i are very proud of his nomination, Haruki said. “It’s the classic local boy makes good story.”
While not everyone on the island knows him personally, everyone knows of him, said Kaua’i-based Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Richard Basl.
Basl usually mentions Shinseki in his pitch to potential soldiers, he said, because “he’s famous and he’s from this part of the state.”
Shinseki’s portrait hangs in the library of Kaua’i High School, where it was placed by his class of 1960 several years ago.
Shinseki always showed “real passion and love for the soldiers that he led” in his 38-year Army career, Haruki said.
When Haruki graduated from Kapa’a High School on Kaua’i in 1970, Shinseki was recuperating at Tripler Army Medical Center on O’ahu from partial loss of his foot in Vietnam combat. Shinseki came to his nephew’s graduation ceremony on crutches.
Though Army policy then required amputees to retire, Shinseki successfully appealed to remain in uniform.
As chief of staff, he helped lead the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Nationally, he is remembered for his testimony to Congress in 2003 that the U.S. would need “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” to keep the peace in Iraq — an estimate that was rejected by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld as too high, but in retrospect has appeared realistic.
Shinseki retired from the military later in 2003.
“No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans,” Obama said when he nominated Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, on Dec. 7, the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need.”
Shinseki promised his fellow veterans, “If confirmed, I will work each and every day” to ensure the nation serves “you as well as you have served us.”
Kaua’i friends say Shinseki’s capabilities go way back.
“During the years in high school, we worked very closely together,” said Randy Raralio, 65, of Lihu’e, who was Kaua’i High’s student body vice president when Shinseki was president.
“I found him to be very cordial and engaging. I could see why he was appointed to West Point.”
In high school, Shinseki was also a National Honor Society member. “In high school he was already a leader, very much involved in school activities and outside-of-school activities,” recalled fellow student Niles Kageyama. “We knew whatever he did he would do well. We are all very proud of him.”
“Obama got a good man,” said Wally Iwasaki, a Wailua resident who attended Kaua’i High with Shinseki and also is an Army veteran. “He knows his stuff and he’s not afraid to speak up. He’s going to fight for the vets.”
“For me, it’s just amazing to see this guy come from a small, little island and perform in a manner that gets him national recognition,” said Derek Kawakami, a newly elected Kaua’i County councilman who counts Shinseki as an inspiration.
Hawai’i Adjutant General Robert Lee called Shinseki’s appointment “fabulous.” As its vice chief and chief of staff, Shinseki “made the Army more responsive, helped it move from the old Cold War mentality to the Stryker concept,” Lee said.
“I hope he will do as well for the veterans’ department,” said Lee, who said there is an urgent need to improve services to injured veterans.
Shinseki often credited the soldiers of the storied 100th Battalion and 442nd Regiment as laying the groundwork for his success, noted Robert Arakaki, president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans.