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General Shinseki and Veterans

Here We Go Again

by RAYMOND F. GUSTAVSON, Jr.

On January 21, 2009 the US Senate confirmed Retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as the seventh Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  At stake is a 284,000-employee organization that delivers care and financial benefits to millions of veterans and survivors.  The estimated budget this year is $98 billion and covers a national network of regional offices and health care facilities.

What qualifications and experience does this man bring to this highly visible and important position?

General Shinseki is the product of a military, not veterans, environment.  He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1965, and was commissioned a 2Lt.  Additional education included a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Duke University, and attendance at the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and the National War College.

His combat military experience consisted of two tours in Vietnam as a forward artillery observer; and then as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment.  During combat, he stepped on a land mine and suffered a severe foot injury.

His non-combat military experience consisted of a variety of command and staff assignments in progressive areas of responsibility in Europe, the Pacific and stateside.  He was also a parachutist and Army Ranger.  His last duty assignment was a four year appointment to Army Chief of Staff, and it was in that position in 2003 that he clashed with then Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld over the number of troops needed for a military victory and post-war stabilization in Iraq.  Following this quarrel he retired in June of 2003.

Since his retirement General Shinseki has served as director of Honeywell International and Ducommun; Grove Farm Corporation; First Hawaiian Bank; and Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.  He has also served on the advisory boards of the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the U.S. Comptroller General.  He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and the Association of the United States Army.

General Shinseki thus brings a diverse background that is, unfortunately, unrelated to veterans affairs.  His philosophy contains generalizations as to the course the VA should pursue.  He has stated, for example, that "the overriding challenge… is to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st century organization focused on the Nation’s Veterans as its clients."  He plans to develop a 2010 budget within his first 90 days that will “transform the VA into an organization that is people-centric, results-driven and forward-looking.” 

Other generalizations include enhancing the GI Bill, streamlining the disability claims system, leveraging information technology to accelerate and modernize services, and opening VA’s health care system to veterans previously unable to enroll in it, while facilitating access for returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans.

We have heard this talk before, in one form or another, by other incoming Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, and still the VA is bogged down in a myriad of problems.  Speaking in generalities is fine as a starting point, but in the end, the complex problems of the VA will remain basically unchanged unless the man chosen to lead the Agency is familiar with its intimate workings from the ground up.  How do you gain familiarity?  By working in such jobs as file clerk, claims processing clerk, Supervisory Coach, or rating specialist (RVSR) in the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration.  Other examples can be found in the Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA), Loan Guaranty, Office of Inspector General, or Vocational Rehabilitation divisions. 

It could be argued that advisors skilled in the technical aspects of VA claims processing, for example, could be used to assist the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in making correct decisions that impact the future course of the VA.  But such input from advisors lacks one thing:  the inability of the Secretary to test such decisions in a real life scenario by comparing them to his own VA work experience.

Good intentions are fine, but would you hire a plumber to perform an angioplasty?  I think not.

RAYMOND F. GUSTAVSON, Jr. spent 31years of service with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the St. Petersburg Regional Office, the last five years of which were spent as a Rating Specialist on the Appeals Team. Since retirement he has published articles in Vietnow Magazine, the Marine Corps Gazette, and other magazines.