WASHINGTON — In January, in an attempt to highlight the department’s efforts to end veterans homelessness, Veterans Affairs officials planned a media blitz centered on Secretary Eric Shinseki’s participation in the annual street count.
They promised he would roam through D.C. neighborhoods with volunteers, helping collect information and talk to reporters about the homelessness challenge. It was a chance to see the highest veterans official in America interacting with his most vulnerable constituents.
It never happened, at least not for the media.
Shinseki did go out that night, walking for hours and introducing himself to destitute individuals left living outside on a freezing winter night. He offered assistance and apologies to veterans who believed the VA had let them down.
But before he did that, he shooed the media away. Staffers said he “wanted a real experience” with those homeless veterans, without the distraction of camera flashes.
Shinseki has taken a lot of public ire recently for not being more media friendly, from conservative critics, veterans pundits and media bigwigs. The Boston Globe called him “a quiet leader at a time when veterans need a persistent public nuisance.” Time magazine said his reticence shows “he lacks the creativity and leadership skills” needed for his post.
The 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran disagrees, in his own calm, quiet way.
“I’m not somebody easily frustrated,” he told Stars and Stripes in an interview last month. “I know what I have to do. And what I have to do is serve veterans better than they’re being served today.”
On June 30, Shinseki will become the longest serving secretary in Department of Veterans Affairs history and the longest serving leader of federal veterans programs since the end of the Vietnam War.
It’s a mark of longevity that has surprised many within the veterans community, given his low-key demeanor and stated distaste for the partisan politics of Washington.
“He’s not a politician,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “This is a guy who still acts like he’s taking care of his troops.”
But with a host of challenges looming for the department in coming years, the question is whether that is enough.
Many promises, little progress
Shinseki took over as VA secretary amid President Barack Obama’s promises to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and bring tens of thousands of new veterans back home.
Obama’s first 100 days included three bold mandates for Shinseki: end the benefits backlog, end veteran homelessness, and enable seamless sharing of medical records between the defense and veterans affairs departments.
Today, 1,600 days into Obama’s presidency, none of those mandates have been fulfilled.
On the homelessness front, outreach efforts have pulled about 15,000 veterans off the streets in recent years. About 60,000 remain, with 18 months left before the VA’s stated goal of ending the problem. Even homeless advocates call that deadline a stretch.
VA officials insist they’ll have seamless sharing of basic medical records in place by the end of this year. But a true lifelong digital file, due by 2017, is in flux because of Defense Department decisions to seek new software rather than relying on VA systems.
And the benefits backlog — claims pending for more than four months — sat at more than 540,000 at the start of June, down 60,000 from a few months earlier but hundreds of thousands higher than when Shinseki took office. The average wait time for a veteran seeking benefits today is more than eight months.
In recent months, the backlog problem has become an overwhelming publicity headache for VA officials, forcing a series of news conferences on minor advances and reluctant national media interviews from Shinseki.
What had been a largely internal annoyance has now become a major policy debate on Capitol Hill and comedic fodder on late-night talk shows. Writers on “The Daily Show” have lampooned Shinseki — by proxy and by name — multiple times over the last two months, and promised to keep up the heat in coming weeks.
Concerned Veterans of America, a conservative lobbying group and frequent critic of the president, called today’s VA “a sorry mess” and has called for Shinseki to resign. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., one of a handful of Iraq veterans in Congress, has joined their campaign.
Reluctant in the spotlight
Supporters insist that Shinseki’s own humility and calm demeanor has allowed others to craft an image of him as aloof or out-of-touch.
“He has a deep and unbounded commitment to the troops he took into battle and the troops he fought with,” said former VA deputy secretary Scott Gould, who worked beside Shinseki for four years. “He remembers these are guys he sent into battle himself.”
Gould spoke after leaving the department, admitting that while in office he could never speak so frankly about Shinseki as a leader. He describes him as a workhorse, “someone I’ve seen roll off a red-eye flight, get a quick shave and start shaking hands at the next event.”
He has made visits to VA facilities in all 50 states, delivering pep talks to workers and progress briefings to local officials. At a recent visit with employees in Detroit, he discussed technical details of the department’s new claims processing software.
Shinseki jokes that he doesn’t need much sleep. Staffers said that’s only half in jest — midnight emails are a common occurrence.
He served 38 years as a soldier, rising from the poor son of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii to the Army’s 34th Chief of Staff. He frequently lapses into military conversation and talks a lot about “the kids” he’s responsible for — the staffers working the backlog problem today, the soldiers he sent to war in Afghanistan, “the kids I went to war with in Vietnam.”
Shinseki was wounded three times in that war. The first time was mortar shrapnel in his face and chest, the second was a broken arm in a helicopter crash. The third time, a land mine blew off most of his right foot.
That last injury nearly forced him out of the service. He told students at Florida State University’s commencement last month that it was only through determination — some might say stubbornness — that he stayed in the Army.
“After my return to the U.S., I was informed that the orthopedic surgeon would be removing my right foot at the ankle,” he said. “My, ‘no thanks,’ did not sit well with the surgeon, and what followed were extended back-and-forths that led, at one point, to some stern warnings.”
Officials had to construct a new kind of prosthesis to deal with the injury, but he fought through the rehabilitation and pain. It’s a topic he doesn’t discuss with the media, but one friends say he has discussed on unpublicized trips up to visit wounded troops at Walter Reed, even before he became secretary.
Support among his 'troops'
Shinseki has increased his visibility in recent months, agreeing to more national media interviews and peppering his speeches with personal details once considered off-limits. Part of the approach, he said, is to simply improve the department’s outreach efforts. But he also knows that the days of generous funding boosts are numbered.
While the department’s result on the three big initiatives is spotty, success with funding is unquestionable.
The VA budget has ballooned over the last four years, up more than 40 percent from fiscal 2009. If the department’s fiscal 2014 request is approved, the department will surpass the Army and Air Force in annual funding, trailing the Navy only by a few billion dollars in spending.
That’s part of the reason that most established veterans groups have praised his efforts. “He’s the first secretary who has gotten the bullets for this fight,” Wallace said.
Leaders from the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans have also been outspoken in their support for Shinseki, calling him the most responsive and focused VA administrator in recent memory. DAV officials labeled the top VA post “the most thankless job in Washington” and noted that Shinseki has “dedicated his life to military service,” even in his post-military life.
Shinseki meets with his "troops" — the five biggest veterans service organizations — on a monthly basis. Attendees say the conversations are an honest exchange, an actual conversation about problems and concerns the groups are having. The secretary also meets regularly with a host of other veterans advocates, offering the same top-level access on their priorities.
Privately, many lobbied presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to keep Shinseki on as VA secretary if he won last fall, an unheard of move for traditionally right-leaning groups working with a Democratic administrator.
He’s also been a fixture at Student Veterans of America events, one of the newest emerging veterans communities.
Shinseki recycles the same joke at most of those stops — “Graduate, graduate, graduate. If I sound like your dad, it’s because I’m paying most of your bills.” — but also seems to linger the longest at those stops, talking to the younger generations of troops about their challenges and aspirations.
“It’s like he’s back in uniform,” said Mike Dakduk, executive director of SVA. “We see a genuine individual who cares about his troops. He wants to see our student veterans succeed.”
'If you want to solve the problem, you have to write a bold plan'
That support isn’t unconditional. In testimony before Congress, the veterans advocates — even his strongest supporters — have called the upcoming deadlines optimistic at best, naive at worst.
Shinseki knows it’s a tall order, “Pollyanna-ish” to many who hear his public proclamations.
“I accept that there are other opinions, but they don’t have the mission that I do,” he said.
“I come from different experience. My experience is, we get it done. I don’t care how high the hill is, we’re going to take it. And we never accept a mission that is just to get halfway there.”
The most pressing problem for now is the backlog.
VA officials blame much of the processing delay issues today on decisions three years ago to flood the system with tens of thousands of new claims related to Agent Orange exposure from the Vietnam War. The new cases diverted processing resources, slowed down new claims and snarled the claims system.
At the same time, VA officials were still struggling to deal with new post-9/11 GI Bill claims, and realizing their outdated paper systems were inadequate for 21st century demands. Shinseki ordered already overdue work on automated systems to be sped up, culminating in the veterans benefits management software being rolled out this year.
If the department makes its 2015 deadline to eliminate the backlog, the success will be the result of those years of work behind the scenes and not the recent scorn heaped on the department (which has produced little change in the VA long-term plans).
New technology. New training. Simpler systems. And, Shinseki emphasizes, the hard work of dedicated VA employees, many of whom are veterans.
“I’ve begun to see changes in the culture, slowly, but changes that begin to understand that we are veteran-centric, that veterans have earned what we are supposed to provide, and our mission is to care for them the best we can,” he said.
Dave Leonard, director of the VA’s Detroit Regional office, insists that attitude has had a trickle-down effect.
“I have seen barriers broken down with other organizations and partnerships that I have not seen before in my 18 years with the VA,” he said “What we’re doing with the DOD, with states, with service organizations … I think those partnerships break a culture that has existed.
“And I attribute that to the bold goals that have been set.”
Shinseki describes the whole process as another military operation, one with clear objectives and responsibilities. He insists that the 2015 goal is more than just a publicity stunt to make VA’s efforts seem more urgent.
“There is a limited amount of time to solve a problem. If you say, ‘I’m going to solve this in 20 years,’ you’re not going to be funded,” he said. “Nobody cares.
“If you want to solve the problem, you have to write a bold plan. Not foolhardy. One that has a reasonable chance, if resourced, of being executed.”
'Could I do this better? Absolutely'
The secretary acknowledges that he and the department haven’t done a good job persuading outsiders to adopt that optimism.
When asked about his role as a nationwide voice for veterans, he defers. “Could I do this better? Absolutely. I’m not an expert on this.”
At a White House meeting with reporters in April, Shinseki said that he understands the frustration behind the calls for his resignation, but he doesn’t let it affect the way he approaches his job.
He still prefers local media meetings to Washington, D.C., gaggles, with the belief that the former can more effectively reach veterans still outside the VA system.
“I learned a long time ago as chief: be careful of thinking you can sit in Washington with a 3,000-mile screwdriver and fine-tune everything in the terrain,” he said. “You have to get out here.
“I’d have the same caution about making cookie-cutter statements from Washington, thinking it fits everywhere. You have to get out there, and I’ve made an effort in the last four years to do that. I think the education is ongoing, it’s something we have to continue to do.”
He has made a spate of public appearances recently in Washington, but mostly at the bequest of lawmakers suddenly focused on the backlog issue.
At a command performance on Capitol Hill last month with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left a news conference in advance of any questions, leaving the politicians to promise reforms for veterans to the assembled television cameras.
“This is someone who gets his ego completely out of the way,” Gould said of Shinseki. “He just wants to roll up his sleeves and get the work done.”
The deadline approaches
Shinseki is notoriously private, with most questions about his feelings or background quickly twisted into standardized VA message answers. But he does drop occasional references to his grandchildren (he has seven) and how he’s calmly converting them into Red Sox fans.
Even supporters wonder why he hasn’t stepped down to a well-deserved retirement to spend more time with Patty, his wife of 48 years, and the rest of his family.
“I serve at the pleasure of the president,” he said when asked that question, smiling at the cliched answer he has delivered multiple times.
But he turns serious when describing his post as “an opportunity” and “a gift.” He also thinks that, despite the recent attacks, the department is better regarded now than at any time in the past.
VA officials have added about 1 million more veterans to their benefits and health care rolls over the last four years, a mark of outreach that Shinseki notes proudly. One of the reasons for the backlog problem has been the flood of applications from new and old veterans, which VA staffers argue indicates a growing faith that the system can help improve their lives.
“The president asked me to make things better and transform the department,” Shinseki said. “I’ve got things yet to finish. The backlog is one of them.”
Fixing the backlog will actually be the first major deadline for Shinseki. If he stays in the job for another 18 months, the results will either lead to more laudatory comments from veterans groups over the success or more frustrated criticism from Capitol Hill about years of wasted effort.
For now, Shinseki won’t say how long he plans to whether the politics of Washington, only that his focus hasn’t changed since he took the job.
“I know what happened to the Vietnam generation,” he said. “My commitment is we don’t let that happen again to another generation, ever.”