Shinseki Nominated To Head Veterans Affairs

President-elect Barack Obama has named a decorated Vietnam veteran as his choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki is a former Army chief of staff who was known for criticizing the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq with too few troops.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President-elect Barack Obama has introduced his choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's retired General Eric Shinseki. He's probably best known as the general who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy in Iraq on the eve of the war in 2003. NPR's Joseph Shapiro is here to tell us more about that pick. Good morning, Joe.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is quite a vindication for General Shinseki.

SHAPIRO: Well, it is. It was Shinseki who told Congress right before the war started in Iraq that he thought it would take several hundred thousand troops to keep the peace in Iraq. And that was a lot more than Rumsfeld was claiming. And that got the secretary angry. And several months later, Shinseki retired. So yesterday President-elect Obama, in introducing him, said General Shinseki was right.

MONTAGNE: Now, how have other military leaders and veterans' groups reacted to the announcement of this appointment of General Shinseki?

SHAPIRO: Well, there was a pretty positive reaction. General Shinseki comes with a lot of credibility. And of course there's the symbolism of this appointment. The incoming president has picked someone who has this reputation for speaking truth, even when it's not what everyone wants to hear.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little more about his background, his military career.

SHAPIRO: Sure. He's 66. He's Japanese American. He was born in Hawaii. He's a four-star general. And he twice was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries in combat in Vietnam. And that included - he stepped on a land mine. He lost most of one foot, but he fought to stay in the military. And he was one of only eight soldiers with amputations from that war who did stay on active duty. So he knows how injured veterans want to get back to leading normal lives.

MONTAGNE: And of course that would be one of the biggest challenges that he'd be facing at the VA, given the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the wounded service members coming home.

SHAPIRO: Right, he's got lots of challenges there. The VA provides probably some of the best treatment you can get for PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. But there've been some embarrassments in the last year. The VA's mental health director got caught in a private email trying to hide from the public the fact that there's been an alarming increase in suicide attempts among veterans being treated at the VA. And then another VA official in Texas told her staff to stop diagnosing so many soldiers with PTSD because she said too many were trying to get VA disability benefits.

And that gets to one of the biggest problems that veterans have to wait too long when they apply for disability benefits. About one in five wait six months or more - sometimes a lot more - to find out if they get approved for a monthly disability check. The VA's been adding staff to try to cut that backlog, but some staff have been caught by the VA's own investigators of trying to reduce their own backlogs by shredding documents or backdating paperwork. And then there's another problem, and that's achieving something that the Pentagon and the VA call seamless transition. That's the idea of getting a soldier who leaves a military medical system into a VA doctor right away. And too often that doesn't work very well.

And this weekend I spoke to a soldier I know who just left Walter Reed Army hospital three weeks ago. He's moved to a new city. He does have an appointment with the nearest VA hospital, but it's not going to be until January. At Walter Reed he was seeing a therapist every week. Someone was monitoring his medications. They were checking on him every day. He's a strong guy, but now he's got to wait two months for his next doctor's appointment.

MONTAGNE: Well, we always hear the problems facing the VA. Just give us a few of the good things that it's doing.

SHAPIRO: Well, the VA's been a leader in moving to electronic medical records and improving patient safety. It takes care of about five and a half million veterans, so it's learned how to use its size to keep down the costs of drugs and medical equipment. You know, President-elect Obama's been talking about expanding and improving health care, and the VA can be a model.

MONTAGNE: Joe, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joseph Shapiro on the appointment of General Eric Shinseki to be head of Veterans Affairs.

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Obama Nominates Shinseki To Lead VA

President-elect Barack Obama on Sunday named retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as his choice to be the next secretary of veterans affairs.

Shinseki, the first Japanese-American four-star general in the Army, is best known for clashing with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the invasion of Iraq, when Shinseki warned that the Bush administration was not planning to send in enough troops.

There's special significance to Obama using this day — Dec. 7 — to announce his choice of Shinseki: This is the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — a moment in the nation's history both Obama and Shinseki understand well, as both grew up in Hawaii.

Shinseki graduated from West Point in 1965, then served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam. He was wounded there, losing part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine.

Shinseki rose through the ranks of the Army to become the first Asian-American four-star general and, ultimately, the first Asian-American to head one of the military branches.

"And there is no one more distinguished, more determined or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of veterans affairs — Gen. Eric Shinseki," Obama said Sunday.

Shinseki proved prophetic in 2003 when, during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, he warned a congressional committee that securing Iraq after the invasion would require hundreds of thousands of troops.

Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz belittled Shinseki's assessment, calling it wildly off the mark. Marginalized, Shinseki retired later in 2003.

Obama, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, seems to appreciate Shinseki's candor.

"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."

Shinseki acknowledges many veterans today worry about their physical, mental and economic health upon leaving the service.

"Veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular are confronting serious, severe wounds — some seen, some unseen — making it difficult for them to get on with their lives in this struggling economy. They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans. And that is our responsibility, not theirs."

Shinseki pledges that, if confirmed, he will work to serve veterans as well as they have served the country.

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