Veterans Advocates Pin Hopes on New VA Leadership

The Press Enterprise

January 20, 2009 –  Veterans advocates are looking for sweeping changes in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if President Barack Obama’s pick for taking control of that agency is confirmed as expected.

Retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki is probably best known for being one of the few voices to contradict then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s assessment of the troop levels necessary for success in the Iraq War. At the time, Shinseki was Army chief of staff.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Filner spoke out about problems with integrating the VA’s computers with those of the Department of Defense, saying they fit a pattern of VA officials downplaying such problems and failing to share the information with Congress. He said he believes Shinseki needs to carry out a wholesale shakeup of the VA.

 “The confidence in the VA has been really undermined,” Filner said, citing cases in the past several years that have involved document-shredding, backdating of statistics and suppression of issues such as the military suicide rates. “Shinseki’s job is to rebuild that. He has a reputation for doing that, for being very loyal to his troops.”

Filner also wants the efficiency of the system to improve.

“There are over 800,000 claims that are backlogged,” he said. “This is an insult to the vets. We’ve got to cut through that.”

Filner said he hopes mental health care, especially as it relates to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, will improve under the new leadership.

‘do what’s right’

“As many veterans from Vietnam have committed suicide as died in the war,” Filner said. “And we’re heading for the same thing with this war. This is our fault as a nation and we’ve got to treat it. I don’t care what it costs.”

Russell Terry operates Iraq War Veterans in Yucaipa, an organization that assists veterans in navigating the VA system.

“I had breakfast this morning with four Vietnam veterans and we’re all hoping that since (Shinseki) is military he’ll want to do what’s right,” Terry said. “I’m going to wait three or four months and see what his platform is. Is he going to bring in some new blood in D.C.? That’s what we’re hoping for.”

In Santa Barbara, Bob Handy helps run Veterans United for Truth. The group helped bring a lawsuit against the VA last year calling for wholesale changes in its administration and operation.

Up to the job

“I think he’s going to properly live up to his reputation for caring for his troops,” Handy said of Shinseki. “I’d like to see him focus on adequate and timely care for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and the high rate of veteran suicides.”

One of the things revealed in the court proceedings last year was an internal VA e-mail from Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s mental health director, which seemed to direct the recipients to suppress information about rising veteran suicide rates.

“I think people like Katz should have to go,” Handy said.

But he doesn’t think veterans seeking care can expect immediate changes.

“I would think probably no earlier than six to eight months and probably more like a year before he can do something that will have drastic changes in the way the VA system works,” he said.

Filner said such changes take leadership and he thinks Shinseki is up to the job.

“If he has the resources and becomes a visible advocate, that’s the main thing,” he said. “You have to be charismatic among your employees and the public. Shinseki can do that.”

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