VA chief Eric Shinseki is facing a tough battle, but he's seen others
By Richard Simon | Los Angeles Times | Published: May 24, 2014
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki knows adversity.
As a soldier in Vietnam, he was seriously wounded twice, the second time during a second tour of duty when he stepped on a land mine and lost half of his right foot. That should have ended his Army career. Instead, he asked for, and received, a waiver to stay on active duty.
His determination turned blunt force in 2003 when, as Army chief of staff, Shinseki clashed with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the George W. Bush administration's Iraq war strategy. Although history would prove Shinseki correct in his assessment, he retired several months later, after 38 years in the Army.
The uniform was put away, but not the soldier.
Now, the first Japanese American to become a four-star general is in a firestorm, facing a president "madder than hell" and an investigation, whose early results are expected next week, that could determine whether his leadership will survive reports that VA employees have been covering up long wait times for medical care.
But Shinseki, 71, has held this job since 2009, longer than any of his predecessors, and doesn't give up easily.
"His tenacity in the face of adversity is really very strong," said Richard Halloran, author of "My Name Is Shinseki and I Am a Soldier."
Some doubt that Shinseki, in spite of a long and distinguished military career, can turn around the VA.
When he told lawmakers last week that he too was "mad as hell" about the wait lists, he came in for ridicule for his low-key, seemingly passive manner.
"If he's that mad, he needs a better war face," Derek Bennett, chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said on Twitter.
"Your 'mad as hell' face looks a lot like your 'Oh, we're out of orange juice' face," comedian Jon Stewart said.
But that's Shinseki, those who know him say: a retired general with a master's degree in English literature who doesn't pound the table or raise his voice.
"Ric Shinseki doesn't get 'mad as hell,'" said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has known him since their days at West Point in the 1960s. "He is determined, focused and wants to factually understand a problem so he can get a sensible solution. He fired 3,000 VA employees last year. He will take action and hold people accountable."
Joseph Galloway, a retired military writer who has known Shinseki for more than two decades, called him a "quiet, soft-spoken soldier. No bluster. No BS. Probably the least political four-star I ever met. He prefers to quietly lead by example."
Shinseki has asked for patience while the VA inspector general investigates reports of excessive wait times and falsification of records at the department's medical facilities, and he pledged to veterans last week to redouble efforts to "earn your trust." Twenty-six VA sites are under investigation.
President Obama said this week that Shinseki had "put his heart and soul" into trying to improve veterans' services. "If he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve," the president added.
While the American Legion and a number of Republican and a few Democratic lawmakers have called for Shinseki's resignation, those who know him best say he is likely to remain in the job so long as Obama has confidence in him.
Few dispute Shinseki's devotion to veterans.
As Army chief of staff, Shinseki called every soldier who lost a limb, retired Army Sgt. Maj. Jack L. Tilley said.
"More than once, he has said, 'I have been carried out of battle twice on the backs of American soldiers. You can imagine my love for them,'" said Halloran, Shinseki's biographer.
His supporters say he faces a daunting task in dealing with the giant VA bureaucracy, the second-largest federal department after Defense, with 1,700 hospitals and clinics handling 85 million appointments a year. "When you have a force of about 300,000 people, on any given day somebody's messing something up," Tilley said.
Shinseki's supporters also point out that the VA's problems predate the Obama administration and have been exacerbated by new demands for services from aging Vietnam veterans and new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"He's trying to bring about change," said Joseph A. Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, citing the modernizing of VA's disability claims processing system as "a transformation that has already reduced the backlog of disability compensation claims by about half in the past year."
Shinseki has also managed to reduce the number of veterans who are homeless, extend benefits to Agent Orange victims and provide Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than 1 million veterans.
But Dan Dellinger, national commander of the 2.4-million-member American Legion, who has called for Shinseki to resign, contends that the VA set an "unattainable" goal to schedule patients within 14 days of desired appointment dates — a deadline that some employees have claimed forced them to deceptively manipulate wait lists.
"Some things are better, but other things are worse," Dellinger said. "I'm looking at veterans dying every day because of the inefficiencies of the VA."
Dellinger contends that the disability claims backlog hasn't been reduced as much as the VA reports.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the 14-day goal may have been too ambitious.
"Instead of standing up and saying, 'We can't achieve that goal. It's too ambitious, and we need more staffing in order to do that,' I think pressure within various hospitals — we don't know how many — has been put on clerks to say, 'You figure out a way to make it appear that people are getting care within 14 days.' It's wrong. People are lying," he said.
Violante, whose group stands by Shinseki, said he was irritated by "everyone pointing the finger" at the VA chief during last week's hearing when Congress and the administration hadn't provided the level of funding the VA needs.
"You've got to ask yourself, why are they cooking the books? It's because they don't have the resources," he said. Although the VA budget has been increased, Violante says it hasn't been increased enough.
Shinseki has been in firestorms before.
Born in 1942 in Hawaii, Shinseki was inspired to join the military by stories of uncles who served in Japanese American units in World War II. In his office hangs a painting of the nisei forces rescuing "the Lost Battalion," a Texas unit trapped in France.
After graduating from West Point in 1965, Shinseki went to Vietnam. In a 2012 talk to VA nurses, he recalled his hospital stay in Da Nang in 1970 after tripping a land mine. A nurse told him that he would face possible amputation of the rest of the foot at the ankle.
"They are going to give you a lot of reasons why they think this has to happen," she said, "but the basic reason is that no one currently makes a prosthesis for a forefoot amputation like yours, but they do make one for the entire foot,'" Shinseki recalled. He said the nurse told him he could try to save his ankle if he rotated it.
"As she left, she added, sternly, 'Every time I see you, captain, I expect to see you rotating that ankle,'" he said. "I started rotating that ankle just as fast and hard as I could. Painful. I can still almost feel it."
The ankle was saved, and the nurse, he said, changed the course of his life. "Had she not known, or cared enough, to make the effort to educate me," he said, he probably would have had to leave the Army.
Shinseki went on to teach English at West Point. As he moved up the ranks, he commanded the 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas; Army troops in Europe; and the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Shinseki, who married his high school sweetheart, Patty, and has two children, became Army chief of staff in 1999.
He ran afoul of Rumsfeld in 2003 for suggesting, during an appearance before a congressional committee, that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed to secure a postwar Iraq. That was contrary to Rumsfeld's assessment. When Shinseki retired some months later, Rumsfeld did not attend the ceremony.
But in 2007, President Bush approved a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq, as Shinseki predicted would be necessary.
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, the powerful Democrat from Hawaii, was at Shinseki's 2009 confirmation hearing. "He told the truth. It wasn't easy," Inouye said at the hearing. "His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job."
Pete Hegseth, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran whose group Concerned Veterans for America called for Shinseki's resignation a year ago, said Shinseki is "disconnected from the reality" of what veterans experience with the VA. "The fact that he's willing to say it's a good system, these are isolated problems, is indicative of someone who has been reading their own talking points for too long," he said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution who regards himself as a friend of Shinseki, said he didn't believe the VA had done enough to address the backlog of veterans waiting for mental health care to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"As good of a guy as he is and as much as he has otherwise accomplished ... maybe there is a pretty good logic to why we expect Cabinet secretaries to step down after a first term," he said. "These problems in government are so hard, and they're often just so intractable, that there really is an argument for a fresh set of eyes."
Tilley, the retired sergeant major, remains a big Shinseki fan.
"I would go to war with this guy any day," he said.