Shinseki's Apology Punctuates A Long Career Of Service

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized for lengthy waits at VA facilities, saying he's ousting the leaders of a VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., after stories about delays in care there. Shinseki's decision to resign marks a muddy end to an illustrious career, which began when he joined the Army nearly five decades ago.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. With what he called, considerable regret, President Obama today accepted the resignation of his Veterans Affairs Secretary, Eric Shinseki.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country. He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care, but as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them.

He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care they need.

BLOCK: Shinseki joined the Army in 1965. He spent the next five decades as a soldier, a general, and until today, as Secretary of the VA.

In a moment, we'll talk with another retired four-star general about his recognition. First, here's NPR's Quil Lawrence with a look back at Eric Shinseki's career.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: If you've heard of Ric Shinseki before this month, it's probably because of the famous exchange over troop levels in the Iraq war.

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SENATOR CARL LEVIN: General Shinseki, could you give us some ideas to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq?

LAWRENCE: That was Senator Carl Levin on the eve of the U.S. invasion, 2003. Shinseki was Army Chief of Staff.

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ERIC SHINSEKI: This point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably - we're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant.

LAWRENCE: That contradicted the George W. Bush administration's plans of a quick invasion with a much smaller force. His candor effectively ended a 38 year Army career, which included two combat tours in Vietnam, two Purple Hearts - one from the landmine that caused most of Shinseki his foot.

Shinseki was credited with pushing through the Stryker vehicle - a sort of tank on wheels - very popular with soldiers in Iraq for mobility and resistance to IEDs.

When his predictions on Iraq came true, baseball caps started appearing around the Army that read, Ric was right. But safe to say, Shinseki never wore one.

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BOB SCALES: He's not the type of person who would ever say I told you so or I was right.

LAWRENCE: Retired Army Major Gen. Bob Scales is an old friend. He says Shinseki dislikes media attention.

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SCALES: That's just not his nature. His view has always been, you know, I'll let my deeds determine my reputation and I'm not going to proselytize.

LAWRENCE: A sort of vindication came in 2008 when President-elect, Barack Obama, invited Shinseki back to lead the VA.

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OBAMA: No one will ever doubt that this former Army Chief of Staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support that they need.

LAWRENCE: At VA, Shinseki also made decisions without regard for political fallout. For example, the backlog of health claims mushroomed under his watch. That's because Shinseki stopped disputing decades of VA applications for Agent Orange illnesses, unexplained Gulf War illness and combat trauma.

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SHINSEKI: We are - stepped forward and said, if you've been in combat and you have medically verifiable PTSD, we're going to grant service connection for PTSD.

LAWRENCE: The burgeoning backlog spurred calls for Shinseki's resignation last year, but he weathered those and the backlogs started dropping. But the episode strained his relations with Congress and the media. And then, news came from Phoenix that the hospital there was lying about how long it took them to see patients.

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SHINSEKI: Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I extend an apology to the people whom I care most people about - and that's the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones who I have been honored to serve.

LAWRENCE: That was Shinseki this morning before offering his resignation, admitting he was not aware of the extent to which VA hospitals - maybe 60 percent of them - had been lying about how quickly they were getting care to patients. Shinseki was the longest-serving Veterans Affairs Secretary.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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