WASHINGTON – If former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel can survive his nomination fight in the Senate, President Barack Obama’s second-term Cabinet will become the first to boast Vietnam veterans leading the departments of defense, state and veterans affairs.
But just how much that will benefit veterans remains to be seen.
Supporters and veterans advocates have touted the 66-year-old Hagel, whose nomination hearing takes place on Thursday, as a perfect candidate to bridge Pentagon and VA operations. If confirmed, the two-time Purple Heart recipient will be the first noncommissioned officer to lead the Department of Defense.
Rick Weidman, executive director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America, expects the bond between Hagel and his VA counterpart – Eric Shinseki – to be stronger because of their shared combat experience.
“There are some things you can’t teach, that you have to just live through,” he said. “Veterans issues are not something that is theoretical to him. He’s bringing a new point of view to every discussion.”
But Shinseki also enjoyed a close working relationship with current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary Robert Gates, and the results from those collaborations have been mixed.
Leaders from both departments have made lifelong electronic medical records for servicemembers a top goal since Obama promised seamless medical history back in 2009. Yet VA officials say they are still four years away from it becoming a reality, a wait that has frustrated department critics.
Recent efforts to combat rising suicide rates among troops and veterans have met with mixed success as well. VA administrators have noted on several occasions before Congress that even with a good working relationship, both departments are massive bureaucracies that will take years to fully integrate.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he believes Hagel’s presence will push both agencies to reach solutions quicker.
“We have seen progress in recent years, but no one would say they’re satisfied with the results,” Rieckhoff said. “But [Hagel] has instant credibility with troops and veterans, and a ground truth understanding of what they experienced.”
Hagel’s resume touts close ties to the veterans community beyond just his military service. Hagel is the son of a World War II veteran and a GI Bill graduate from the University of Nebraska.
He served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration in the early 1980s. He resigned that post in 1982, reportedly after a dispute with then agency head Robert Nimmo over treatment of Agent Orange injuries and cuts in veterans support programs.
He’s a lifelong member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans.
Just having knowledge of veterans advocates concerns could produce more attention and results, Rieckhoff said.
However, there’s a limit to how much that concern can translate into real gains for veterans, according to Paul Eaton, senior advisor at the National Security Network. Interaction with the VA is only a small part of the defense secretary’s job.
Hagel will have his hands full with defense budget cuts, Obama’s strategic forces shift and ending the war in Afghanistan. Critics have charged that a severe paring down of military spending could hurt military readiness and joint veterans programs that rely on defense dollars.
Shinseki has a formidable task of ending veterans homelessness in the next three years, eliminating the problematic benefits backlog and treating the long-term effects of brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that haunt the newest generation of veterans.
Eaton said Hagel’s biggest influence on future veterans will be any changes in military policy and planning.
“From a veteran’s perspective, the most important decisions he can make are regarding the judicious use of our fighting forces,” he said. “He has good perspective on what it means to go to war.”
In a statement following Hagel’s nomination, Shinseki called his fellow Purple Heart recipient a “principled public servant who has shown unwavering commitment to our nation’s defense and the servicemembers and veterans of every generation.”
He also said he looks forward to working with his fellow combat veteran “in meeting the needs of our transitioning servicemembers, survivors, veterans and their families.”