WASHINGTON — Senators had nothing but glowing praise Wednesday for Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Eric Shinseki, calling him an exemplary soldier and an excellent pick for the job.

But they also offered plenty of gloomy forecasts about the challenges facing the department in the near future, and warned Shinseki that good intentions won’t be enough to help veterans.

The typical wait for benefits from the VA hovers around six months, according to committee researchers. Medical records still aren’t easily shared between VA and Defense Department physicians.

Thousands of young, combat-injured veterans are entering the VA health care system, and thousands of older veterans who’ve recently lost their jobs may soon follow. Aging hospitals and nursing homes need immediate repairs and funding to keep up with standards.

"If this was easy to fix, we would have done it already," Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said during the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee’s confirmation hearing.

Shinseki — a former Army Chief of Staff and a combat veteran who lost part of his foot during the Vietnam War — said he believes improving the department will require a transformation at nearly every level: more training for staff, better use of technology and a shift in attitude towards a "people-centered" department.

"Through their service our veterans have sacrificed greatly," he told the committee. "They are clients, not customers, whose best interests are our sole reason for existence."

Shinseki said his top priorities would be addressing the benefits backlog in the department — "I don’t understand why six months is something we live with" — and preparing the department for the new GI Bill process.

He said he will immediately begin interviewing staffers to ensure those college tuition payments are ready to be mailed out Aug. 1, the date the new program is set to begin.

Shinseki also spoke of aggressively pursuing research for post-traumatic stress disorder and shifting research on Gulf War syndrome from causes to treatments. And he said he hopes to make the department "as paperless as possible," as part of a larger effort to make it easier and quicker to track veterans’ health and benefits issues.

The senators praised those plans, repeatedly saying they have little doubt he’ll sail through the Senate confirmation vote.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., called his nomination "an inspired act of leadership." Ranking committee member Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he knew of no one who would oppose Shinseki’s worthy resume. Sen. John Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., called the pick one of the proudest moments of his 23-year Senate career.

Shinseki and several of president-elect Barack Obama’s other cabinet nominees are expected to be confirmed next Tuesday, shortly after Obama’s inauguration.

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