Shinseki is right man to improve care of military veterans


POSTED: Thursday, January 22, 2009

Senators wasted no time in confirming President Obama's selection of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of Kauai on Tuesday as secretary of veterans affairs. His candid remarks in 2003 about the troop requirements for success in Iraq - inconsistent with Pentagon overconfidence - showed he has the integrity needed for the job. Shinseki can be relied upon not to turn his back to problems that have plagued the veteran services for years but to deal with them directly, openly and effectively.

As Army chief of staff in February 2003, Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that occupying Iraq would require “;several hundred thousand soldiers,”; partly because of “;the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.”; Shinseki had successfully commanded the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, so he was knowledgeable about such needs.

The insightful testimony conflicted with rosy estimates by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconservative deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, who branded Shinseki's estimate as “;wildly off the mark.”; Shinseki was abruptly replaced as chief of staff and scheduled for retirement in June 2003 after 38 years in the Army. As we know nearly six years later, Shinseki was right.

“;The cold and calculated effect was immediate and stifling,”; retired Army Col. Glenn Takemoto of Honolulu recalled in a letter last week to Midweek. “;The message to the U.S. military was received loud and clear: If anyone, even a four-star general, did not echo the party line and dared to say 'the emperor has no clothes,' they were not welcome in the Pentagon and would be punished.”;

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been scandalized by reports of substandard medical care at Walter Reed Hospital and insensitive care of mentally disturbed veterans during the Bush administration. Obama's choice of Shinseki to run the government's second-largest bureaucracy, behind the Pentagon, shows the new administration's determination to correct the problems rather than conceal them.

In hearings before Sen. Daniel Akaka's Veterans' Affairs Committee, Shinseki promised to care for veterans “;bearing scars of battle, some visible and many others invisible,”; the latter in reference to those suffering post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

Shinseki, a 1965 West Point graduate and the highest-ranking Asian-American in U.S. military history, received two Purple Hearts for injuries in Vietnam, losing so much of a foot that the Army wanted to discharge him. As four-star general and chief of staff, he is credited for starting to make the Army lighter, more agile and rapidly deployable.

“;He has a daunting task ahead of him,”; Akaka said at the confirmation hearing last week, “;and I look forward to working with him and the incoming president to help veterans receive the care and services they have earned through their service.”;