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New VA director: Who's up for the job?

Even before Eric Shinseki’s resignation as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the whisper campaigns had begun: Who would be his successor?

Here are some names that have been floated:

Bob Gates

The former defense secretary would seem like a great fit since he ran the biggest Cabinet department during two administrations. But Gates may have burned his bridges in his memoir ‘Duty,” in which he skewered Congress as an “incompetent” and “egotistical” institution.

“Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and re-election) before country — this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress,” he wrote.

On President Barack Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, Gates wrote that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Gates isn’t high on working in D.C., either: “Why was I so often angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?”

James Mattis

The retired Marine general would be professional, but there’s no telling what he might say.

Mattis retired last year after 41 years in the Marine Corps. He has an impeccable resume — he led Marines in Afghanistan and in Iraq, taking the helm at U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. To say that he would have the immediate respect of veterans would be an understatement.

But he says what he wants to say, like this, from 2005:

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Such frankness is not exactly prized in Washington, and however refreshing that might be to the rank and file, it would not go over well inside the Beltway.

“I like brawling,” he said at the same 2005 speech. Given the new powers being discussed in Congress that would free the incoming secretary from bureaucratic restraints when firing executives, Mattis sure would get people’s attention.

Stanley McChrystal

Another former four-star general, McChrystal was a special operator who rose to command all Western forces in Afghanistan.

But how is a Type-A guy who is used to surrounding himself with other Type-A people going to cope with a bureaucracy, especially one as arthritic as the VA?

McChrystal also had his run-ins with the White House. He and his staff were profiled in Rolling Stone magazine in 2010. The story, in which McChrystal’s aides openly criticized Vice President Biden and other top administration officials, led to his resignation from his post in Afghanistan.

That article was written by the late Michael Hastings, who also wrote “The Operators,” a military drama said to take a “peel-back-the-curtain” look at U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

He would then of course be the first VA secretary to be portrayed on film by Brad Pitt in an upcoming movie based on that book.

Jim Webb

James Henry “Jim” Webb Jr. is a Naval Academy graduate and a former secretary of the Navy. He was a Marine Corps infantry officer until 1972 and is a highly decorated Vietnam War combat veteran. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School. From 1977 to 1981, Webb worked on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. During this time, he also represented veterans free of charge.

He is also a former U.S. senator from Virginia, whose first legislative act was to introduce a bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, to expand benefits for military families. Credentials established.

He is not afraid to brawl — in 2004, Webb wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today in which he, as a veteran, evaluated the candidacies of John Kerry and George W. Bush. He criticized Kerry for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and accused Bush of using his father’s connections to avoid service in Vietnam. Webb also wrote that Bush had “committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory” with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He is rumored to be mulling a presidential run in 2016. One must wonder whether someone considering the highest office in the land would be able to devote enough attention to fix the VA’s many problems.

Raymond Odierno

Gen. Ray Odierno is the current U.S. Army chief of staff. He is a West Point grad who has commanded soldiers around the globe, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He’s also a guy who understands war wounds and disabilities. His son Tony is a combat veteran who reached the rank of captain before leaving the Army after losing his left arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq.

Odierno also has gone toe-to-toe with Congress. Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh were defending the service’s 2014 budget proposal at an April hearing when Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, questioned them about the service’s Distributed Common Ground System. The testy exchange went viral on YouTube, with each accusing the other of not letting him speak.

Would Odierno take off his uniform and put on a suit to take care of America’s veteran community? He has spoken passionately about post-traumatic stress, about sexual assault and about suicide. Could be.

Tammy Duckworth

A service-disabled female veteran who’s a Democrat? Longer shots have existed.

Duckworth lost her right leg near the hip and her left leg below the knee in 2004 when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents.

She helped establish the Intrepid Foundation and is involved in its fundraising to build a rehabilitation center for other injured veterans.

The Senate confirmed her as assistant secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs in April 2009, a position she held until June 2011 when she resigned to run successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois’ 8th Congressional District.

She is another potential successor who can brawl. In another YouTube hit, this one from 2013, she tore into a federal contractor who was claiming disabled status because he twisted his ankle playing football for a military prep school 40 years before. He didn’t come out well in the exchange.

dickson.patrick@stripes.com
 

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