The Challenges Facing The Next VA Secretary

Andrea Seabrook looks back at the moment that thrust Gen. Eric Shinseki into the spotlight: his prewar call to send far more troops into Iraq. She also speaks to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest, who broke the story of the deplorable conditions for veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, about the challenges Shinseki faces at the VA.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Let's go back now to 2003 and General Shinseki's moment in that Senate spotlight. It was just before the Iraq War began. He was Army chief of staff. Michigan Democrat Carl Levin asked that question.

(Soundbite of Senate hearing)

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq?

General ERIC SHINSEKI (Nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs): Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably a figure that would be required.

SEABROOK: That wasn't the company line, and the criticism from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was quick and harsh. The Washington Post's Dana Priest has covered General Shinseki for years, and I asked her about that moment. Is the comment that led him out of the government then what's bringing him back in now?

Ms. DANA PRIEST (Reporter, Washington Post): Hopefully not. I mean, that is what Obama referred to when he announced his candidacy for this position. But, you know, the Veterans' Administration has plenty of money and plenty of support from the public for its mission. What it doesn't have is some good leadership.

Eric Shinseki has been known as an understated, low-key leader, a quiet person, not flashy, not particularly forceful. He's not someone who you would expect to shake up things right away. That is what the VA, the Veterans' Administration, really needs.

He and the ranking Senate Democrat on the Veterans' Administration Committee are both from Hawaii. They probably know each other pretty well. I'm not sure that that's a good thing because one of the things that has been lacking is great pressure from Congress to change long-standing problems in the VA.

One of them is just the workforce culture. And unless Shinseki can rise above his own manner of leadership, which, you know, garners lots of respect from people, but whether it's forceful enough to bring changes to a bureaucratic culture that has not served veterans well is really something we're going to have to watch and see.

SEABROOK: There are listeners who will remember that you won the Pulitzer Prize this year for your coverage of the care for veterans, specifically at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington. That led to a major house cleaning at the Department of Veterans' Affairs, or so it is reported. But it sounds like you're saying there's still major problems there. What kind of shape is it in now?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, it's better than it was a year ago, but it's by no means where people think it is or where it needs to go. I would say number one is the soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who are no longer going to be serving in the military.

When they make the transition to the Veterans' Administration, there are lots of people still getting lost in the system, paperwork delays, six month to a year delays in transferring their case files and getting them where they should be in that system. The administration likes to say there's a seamless transition, and really, by no means is it seamless.

There's another issue in the National Guard and Reserves, in particular, who are scattered through out the country, and the smaller VA offices still aren't able to offer the range of services that many of those people need.

In the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and TBI, traumatic brain injury, the two signature mental wounds of this war, they have not yet been able to provide the kind of hours that people need to come to visit counselors, you know, after work hours so that they can continue their employment, nor have they just got the number of psychiatrists and psychologists who can offer face-to-face counseling and therapy for many of the returning soldiers. So there is still a lot of work to do. One of the keys will be, again, Congress keeping the pressure on, demanding accountability from General Shinseki in this case.

SEABROOK: So not only is the department itself going to have to go through a transition from Lieutenant General James B. Peake to General Shinseki, but also Shinseki himself has to make this transition. It's really different being a civilian in a cabinet job than, say, you know, being a general in the Army and how he has been.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, that's right, and he left as chief of staff of the Army, and everybody salutes the four-star. That's the culture there. In the burrows of the large VA bureaucracy, people have been excellent at hiding from accountability.

And one of the things that I found interesting - I was a little surprised at the appointment. It reminds me of the appointment of another general, Jim Jones, who's the national security adviser. Both of these of men share a certain kind of demeanor. They are not flashy. They are low-key.

They are understated, and I think that, in a way, is how Obama is, too. And I think that perhaps we're seeing a personality type that is comfortable to him. And there are a lot of questions on whether or not that is going to be enough to move an entrenched bureaucracy.

SEABROOK: Dana Priest of the Washington Post. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PRIEST: Thank you, Andrea.

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