Shinseki Vows To Overhaul VA

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the Department of Veteran Affairs, has promised to modernize the agency. Shinseki appeared Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at his confirmation hearing.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. On Capitol Hill today, General Eric Shinseki aced his job interview for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. Shinseki is up for the top job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, he appears to be a shoe-in.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: You didn't have to sit through much of today's hearing before you got the distinct sense that Eric Shinseki enjoys something close to hero status on Capitol Hill. One after another, senators from both parties were falling over themselves to praise him.

Senator RICHARD BURR (Republican, North Carolina): You have the experience. You have the leadership skills. You have the determination needed to serve.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): I want to tell you that I admire and respect you as much as anyone I have ever known in the armed services.

Senator JOHN TESTER (Democrat, Montana): In my perspective, your reputation is impeccable and it's …

KELLY: That's Democrat John Tester and before him Republicans, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Richard Burr. Senators were so determined to sing General Shinseki's praises that it was a full hour and fifteen minutes into his own hearing before he got the chance to speak.

General ERIC SHINSEKI (Appointee, Secretary of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Barack Obama Administration): Thank you very much Mr. Chairman - Chairman Akaka, Senator Burr and distinguished members of this committee on Veterans Affairs. I am deeply honored by ..

KELLY: Shinseki is a retired four-star general and the first Asian-American head of the Army. But he's famous as the general who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003. Today, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, remembered the moment as pivotal.

Senator JAY ROCKFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): The effect that that had on the American people was magical.

KELLY: But Rumsfeld and his deputies found it less than magical, they rebuked him. And Shinseki quietly retired from the Army a few months later. Since then, he's mostly kept his own counsel, giving few speeches or interviews, never stepping forward to say, I told you so, and it was the same today. The general never mentioned the episode with Rumsfeld. He gave no clues as to whether he feels vindicated by the nod to return to public life.

Instead, he appeared entirely focused on the matter at hand, how to fix the VA. It is a big job. Veteran Affairs is the second largest bureaucracy in the government, only Defense is bigger. The VA is plagued by everything from a rising suicide rate among vets to a backlog in disability claims. General Shinseki.

General SHINSEKI: There is, in my opinion, no reason why a veteran submits a claim and then takes a number and waits for six months. We need to do something about this.

KELLY: Democrat Patty Murray agreed. She noted that the VA has developed a reputation for trying to cover-up problems. There was, for example, the VA's mental health director who got caught in a private email trying to hide from the public the alarming increase in suicide attempts. Today, Senator Murray pressed Shinseki, how would he go about transforming a bureaucracy that, as she put it, has been more focused on avoiding public relations disasters than on actually helping vets.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): How do you change that culture and what will we see under your administration?

General SHINSEKI: Senator, good question, and I do think it's about leadership.

KELLY: Leadership was a recurring theme in General Shinseki's testimony today, more so than specific solutions. He said if he could deliver one message to his future colleagues at Veterans Affairs, it would be this...

General SHINSEKI: Treat our veterans with respect and dignity. They're not here begging for a hand-out. They are truly our clients. They don't have anywhere or else to shop.

KELLY: Gen. Shinseki may himself have the chance to act on that advice in the very near future. Senator Daniel Akaka, who chaired today's hearing, said he anticipates the general will be confirmed next Tuesday, the same day Barack Obama is sworn in as president. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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Vets Affairs Pick Known For Contradicting Rumsfeld

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama in Chicago, Dec. 7. i i

hide captionRetired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama as his choice for secretary of veterans affairs on Dec. 7, 2008, in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama in Chicago, Dec. 7.

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama as his choice for secretary of veterans affairs on Dec. 7, 2008, in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Eric Shinseki, President-elect Obama's choice to be the next secretary of veterans affairs, is probably best known as the general who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy in Iraq on the eve of the war.

On Wednesday, Shinseki will return to Capitol Hill, the place where he made his reputation — this time, for his Senate confirmation hearing.

Shinseki first distinguished himself in an earlier war — Vietnam. He served two combat tours there and was awarded the Purple Heart twice. He lost part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine. After that, Shinseki had to fight to stay in the military. Eventually, he rose to become the first Asian-American four-star general.

But for all his achievements, Shinseki's career has come to be defined by that moment on Feb. 25, 2003 — a month before the invasion of Iraq — when Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin asked him a question at a Senate hearing.

"Gen. Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq?" Levin asked.

"In specific numbers, I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements," he replied. But when Levin pressed him for a range, Shinseki answered, "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point — something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably a figure that would be required."

Several hundred thousand soldiers was way above Rumsfeld's estimates. Rumsfeld quickly administered a public scolding: "The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far from the mark."

Out of that clash was born something of a legend: the soft-spoken Shinseki as the one man who stood up to Rumsfeld and lost his job for it.

'A Clear Vindication'

"I think all of us understood at the time that he was confronting the Rumsfeld administration face-on," says retired Army Gen. Bob Scales. He has known Shinseki since the 1980s, when they first worked together. Scales says that when Shinseki was picked last month to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, it helped set the record straight on Iraq.

"It was a clear vindication that at the end of the day, Rick turned out to be right," Scales says. "His prognostication of how that war would evolve over time turned out to be correct. And Rick comes down on the right side of history."

Rumsfeld aides have disputed that version of history. They deny that Shinseki was forced from office — pointing out he retired as scheduled months after that testimony and with full honors. And they argue that if Shinseki had real concerns about troop levels, he could have spoken up earlier and more forcefully. Instead, Shinseki mostly kept quiet. There is no public record of him objecting to the war plans.

Political Baggage?

At Shinseki's Senate confirmation hearing for the veterans affairs job, he will surely be asked about the episode. But Paul Rieckhoff, for one, is hoping he doesn't dwell on it.

Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that Shinseki has the potential to be a "transformative figure" at the VA, but that political baggage from six years ago won't help him.

"He's going to have to show that he's not just the guy who challenged Rumsfeld," Rieckhoff says. "He's not just the guy who would have been right on troop numbers inside Iraq. He's got to make it clear that that political element is behind him. And that now he's focused on caring [for] and supporting our veterans coming home."

If confirmed, Shinseki would face the challenge of fixing a broken agency at a time when budgets are tight and the number of wounded veterans is growing.

The consensus so far, though, appears to be that Shinseki is up to the challenge. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is chairing Wednesday's hearing, has already gone on record praising his judgment and calling the general "a great choice."

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