General Shinseki, Act II, Scene 1
January 14, 2009 – As Gen. Eric K. Shinseki entered the hushed chamber of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Wednesday, he proved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong to say that American lives have no second acts.
With his own about to begin, General Shinseki told his confirmation hearing to be head of the Department of Veterans Affairs how he will be dealing with some of the costliest aftermath of a war that he famously predicted, just before the curtain fell on his first act, would bog down hundreds of thousands of troops for years. With the invasion of Iraq looming, his Pentagon bosses rebuked him for saying that, and he retired a few months later as Army Chief of Staff.
So there was great anticipation Wednesday for what would be the general’s longest public discussion in more than five years.
In written answers provided to committee members in advance of the hearing, General Shinseki said his priorities would be post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries suffered by troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as finding jobs for vets, examining and dealing with the problem of homeless vets, and helping all wounded vets make the difficult transition from military health care to VA facilities.
In his written answers to committee members, the general said his that the “over-arching challenge that the VA faces is its own transformation into a 21st century organization.” It was an echo of the transformation theme that dominated his time as the Army’s top general.
This transformation, he wrote, would include streamlining the disability claims system, ensuring adequate resources and facilities to meet the health care needs of all veterans and using new information technologies to improve the delivery of benefits and services.
He pledged to spend his early weeks in office spending significant time visiting VA facilities, and pledged that combating homelessness among veterans will be a priority.
Among those scheduled to introduce the general was Bob Dole, a onetime Senate majority leader and the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, who lost the use of his right arm in World War II. More recently, Mr. Dole served as co-leader of a bipartisan commission that invested problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and throughout the military’s health care system.
When he retired in June 2003 after 38 years as a soldier, General Shinseki was the highest-ranking Asian-American in United States military history. He received two Purple Hearts for life-threatening injuries in Vietnam, one in which he lost so much of his foot that the Army wanted to discharge him.
While he rose through the ranks as a commander of armored units during the cold war era, he was the Army’s expert on peacekeeping operations, leading the first forces that imposed an armistice in Bosnia.
Associates say it was that experience pacifying a bloody Balkan battlefield that led him to electrify Washington less than a month before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he issued a blunt warning during a Senate hearing that securing Iraq would require more troops than were being deployed for the invasion.
“Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required” to stabilize Iraq after an invasion, he said.
“We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems,” he added. “And so it takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.”
He immediately was scolded by the Pentagon leadership, in particular Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. In remarks Mr. Wolfowitz later acknowledged he regretted, the deputy defense secretary dismissed General Shinseki as “wildly off the mark.”
General Shinseki was not fired for his comments, but was marginalized by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, and his influence as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certainly was never the same. He retired as scheduled in the summer of 2003.
Opening Statement of
Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary-designate of Veterans Affairs
Before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
United States Senate
January 14, 2009
Chairman Akaka, Senator Burr, Distinguished Members of the Committee on Veterans Affairs: Thank you for scheduling this hearing so expeditiously. I am honored to be before you today seeking your endorsement to become the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to meet with many of you individually and deeply appreciate the committee’s concern for and unwavering support for our Veterans and for the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I’ve listened carefully to your concerns and advice, and have benefited from your counsel I deeply appreciate the confidence of President-elect Obama in this nomination and am fully committed to fulfilling his charge to me — that is, transform the Department of Veterans Affairs into a 21st Century Organization.
I am acutely aware that transformation is a challenging task — particularly in an organization as complex and as steeped in tradition as is the Department of Veterans Affairs. We faced similar challenges nearly 10 years ago in beginning the transformation of the United States Army. Leadership, commitment and teamwork enable the challenges of transformation to become opportunities to innovate and better serve our Veterans. With your support, I am confident we will succeed.
If confirmed, I will quickly finalize and articulate a concise strategy for pursuing a transformed Department of Veterans Affairs, reflecting the vision of President-elect Obama. I have much to learn about the organization and look forward to gaining valuable input and insights from its civilian workforce as well as from the Veterans Service Organizations. However, three fundamental attributes mark the starting point for framing a 21st Century Organization: people-centric, results-driven, forward-looking.
First, Veterans will be the centerpiece of our organization – our client, as we design, implement, and sustain programs. Our support to veterans and their enrolled family members must go beyond that of servicing customers to a relationship based on trust and positive results over a lifetime. Through their service in uniform, Veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves in the security, safety, and well-being of our Nation. They are clients, whom we represent and whose best interests are our sole reason for existence. It is our charge to address their changing needs over time and across the full range of support that our Government has committed to provide to them. Equally essential, the Department’s workforce will be leaders and standard-setters in their fields. From delivering cutting-edge medical treatment to answering the most basic inquiries, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client oriented workforce. Training and development, communications and teambuilding, and continuous learning will be key components of our workforce culture.
Second, at the end of each day, our true measure of success is the timeliness and excellence of services and support provided to Veterans. Thus, we will continuously strive to set and meet sound performance benchmarks in these areas. Workforce leaders and providers alike will know the standards and perform to them. Our processes will remain accessible, responsive, and transparent to ensure that the many needs of a diverse Veterans population are met. An integral part of measuring success includes assessing cost effectiveness. As stewards of taxpayer funds, this issue will be central to our quality and management processes.
Third, to optimize our opportunities for delivering best services with available resources, we must continually challenge ourselves to look for ways to do things smarter and more effectively. We will aggressively leverage the world’s best practices, knowledge, and technology, which are providing ever-increasing capabilities in health care, information management, service delivery, and other areas. We already know that a portion of today’s youth will be tomorrow’s servicemen and women, and the next day’s Veterans. Thus, we will seek to identify and embed transformational initiatives as part of our culture as we care for Veterans, present and future.
While developing a strategy for transforming the VA into a 21st Century Organization, we will address immediately a set of complex, near-term challenges that face us, as well:
1. Successfully implement the New GI Bill (Post 9/11 Veterans’ Educational Assistance Act).
2. Streamline the disability claims system, increase quality, timeliness and consistency of claims processing, and update the Disability Rating Schedule, while maintaining veterans’ rights.
3. Ensure adequate resources and access points to meet the health care needs of all enrolled Veterans, as well as those OEF/OIF Veterans and Priority Group 8 Veterans, who will be joining the system.
4. Leverage the power of Information Technology to accelerate and modernize the delivery of benefits and services.
If confirmed, I will focus on these issues and the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request during my first 90 days in office. The overriding challenge, which I will begin to address on my first day in office, will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st Century Organization focused on the Nation’s Veterans as its clients.
I thank this committee for its long history of unwavering commitment to Veterans. If confirmed, I look forward to working closely with you in fulfilling that commitment.