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Tomorrow, General Eric Shinseki will return to Capitol Hill, where his reputation for candor was made. Shinseki is President-elect Obama's choice to be the next secretary of veterans affairs. He is best known as the general who gave testimony on the Hill in 2003 in which he questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's planned strategy in Iraq. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has this profile.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Eric 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. He did fight, and he stayed and 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 one moment. It was February 25th, 2003, a month before the invasion of Iraq. And at a Senate hearing, Democrat Carl Levin asked him a question.
(Soundbite of Senate Armed Services Committee meeting, February 25, 2003)
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): General Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq?
General ERIC SHINSEKI (Former Chief of Staff of the Army; Appointee, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Barack Obama Administration): In specific numbers, I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements. But I think...
Senator LEVIN: How about a range?
General SHINSEKI: 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.
KELLY: Several hundred thousand soldiers - that was way above Secretary Rumsfeld's estimates. And Rumsfeld quickly administered a public scolding.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far from the mark.
KELLY: Out of that clash was born something of a legend - the soft-spoken General Shinseki as the one man who stood up to Rumsfeld and lost his job for it.
Retired General ROBERT SCALES (External Researcher, Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College): I think all of us understood at the time that he was confronting the Rumsfeld administration face-on.
KELLY: That's retired Army General Bob Scales. He's known Shinseki since the '80s, when they first worked together. Scales says that when Shinseki was picked last month to run veterans affairs, it helped set the record straight on Iraq.
General SCALES: It was a clear vindication that, at the end of the day, Rick turned out to be right. 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.
KELLY: Rumsfeld aides have disputed that version of history. They deny General 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.
Tomorrow, at his Senate confirmation hearing for the veterans' affairs job, General Shinseki will surely be asked about the episode. But Paul Rieckhoff, for one, is hoping he doesn't dwell on it. Rieckhoff is head of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff 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.
Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Founder and Executive Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): He's going to have to show that he's not just the guy who challenged Rumsfeld. 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 and supporting our veterans coming home.
KELLY: 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 growing. The consensus so far, though, appears to be that Shinseki is up to the challenge. Senator Daniel Akaka, who is chairing tomorrow's hearing, has already gone on record praising his judgment and calling the general a great choice. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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