WASHINGTON — As the words left President Barack Obama’s lips on Friday that he had accepted the resignation of retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs, a pained groan emerged from a crowd of troops, veterans and civilians who’d gathered around television sets at the Pentagon.
Even as calls grew in Congress for Shinseki, 71, to step down, and details emerged of an effort to misreport scheduling delays for patient appointments, many in the uniformed military had remained decidedly in Shinseki’s camp, convinced an American hero — maimed in Vietnam and humiliated for publicly questioning Iraq policy during the Bush administration — was being made a scapegoat.
His resignation does not fix the intractable problems that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs for decades, Shinseki supporters said; perhaps it will make them worse. Particularly galling to some in uniform was that Shinseki was well-known for loving the soldiers he commanded and that he had risen to become the chief of staff of the Army, the highest-ranking Asian-American in U.S. military history.
“GEN. Rick Shinseki gave his all in the service of his nation. He will be missed,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeted upon learning the news.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a friend of Shinseki, said that Shinseki was right to resign because he, rather than the VA’s problems, had become the focus. But McCaffrey said it would be hard for anyone to make much headway in solving the VA’s problems before November’s midterm elections. Politics will hinder real change.
“I would be surprised if you could find someone in military who doesn’t look up to him. But that doesn’t mean that he is a political infighter that would deal with Congress, the media and these semi-independent systems in the VA,” McCaffrey said.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, like Shinseki a Vietnam veteran, struggled Friday while in en route to Singapore to answer what should happen to Shinseki, just hours before the president’s announcement.
“I leave the politics of it to others. But I’ve made it very clear where I am as a veteran on this, where I am as a secretary of defense — this has to get fixed and this is as high a priority as this country has, taking care of its veterans,” Hagel told reporters. But he also had kind words for Shinseki. “General Shinseki is a war veteran, disabled; lost part of his foot in Vietnam. And I think he understands … what our veterans deserve.”
To be sure, there are those who reject Shinseki’s claims that he did not know about the litany of problems that led to missed care for 1,700 veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital and investigations in similar issues at 42 other VA medical centers nationwide. A damning inspector general’s report Wednesday confirmed that the Phoenix VA had cooked its books to make waiting times look shorter than they were. The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, and Concerned Veterans for America called for Shinseki’s resignation.
But to some of those who served alongside him in uniform, Friday’s announcement marked the fourth time in Shinseki’s career that he has been wounded in the service of his country. This time, it was because he did the same things that had made him such a successful Army commander — he trusted those around him, reacted calmly to crisis and when learning of a problem, tried to address it through channels.
Shinseki, they said, was not responsible for systemic problems in the VA like a decades-old computer system, the failure during the Bush years to modernize as hundreds of thousands from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began clamoring for VA care, or for the seeming lack of integrity within the ranks of the VA, where the cooked books helped lower-level administrators earn bonuses.
In Vietnam, Shinseki sustained shrapnel wounds in the shoulder and chest, returned to combat, then lost part of his right foot when a landmine exploded. His grace in dealing with his wounds resonated with the last generation of soldiers.
Often, in talking about his injuries in Vietnam, Shinseki would say: “Twice in my career I have been carried off the battlefield on the backs of soldiers.”
When the next generation of troops came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs, wondering when the phantom pain that comes when the body expects a missing part to return would stop, he would quietly counsel, “It doesn’t.”
He rose swiftly through the ranks to command the 7th Army and U.S. forces in Central Europe. As chief of staff of the Army, he created the Stryker brigades, which consisted of vehicles agile enough for urban warfare. In Iraq, especially, they became critical forces.
But it was his comments in the 2003 run-up to the Iraq War that made him a national hero of thoughtful resistance to the growing warpath, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that Bush administration predictions of what was needed to pacify Iraq were wrong.
Calling on his experience as a commander of peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, Shinseki said that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would likely be required for postwar Iraq, not the few thousand that the Bush administration had predicted.
A few days later, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz publicly contradicted him, saying, “The notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq are wildly off the mark.”
Branded an unwelcome whistleblower, Shinseki lost influence within the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the remaining months of his four-year term, which marked the end of his military career. In 2006, Gen. John Abizaid, then the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, acknowledged that Shinseki had been right.