Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) — an Iraq war veteran, double amputee and former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs — said Monday that allegations facing the VA mirror chronic problems she witnessed at the sprawling department where she served from 2009 to 2011.
Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, lost both of her legs when an insurgent shot her helicopter out of the skies over Baghdad in 2004. She later ran the Illinois Veterans’ Department, joined the VA as an assistant secretary in May 2009 and left in 2011 to launch a congressional campaign.
In a wide-ranging 40 minute interview Monday, Duckworth recalled the frustrating experience of navigating "silos" that existed between the VA’s two main components: The Veterans Health Administration, which runs the clinics and hospitals and the Veterans Benefits Administration, which deals with claims and doles out payments. (A third component, the National Cemetery Administration, oversees hundreds of military cemeteries nationwide.)
"I’m not surprised because it’s such a large network that you’re going to find problems," Duckworth said.
"There is I think a lack of a sense of accountability almost to central office," or to top officials in Washington, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, she said.
Duckworth recalled how in several instances, officials in Washington learned of improperly sterilized equipment or delayed treatment for veterans at hospitals across the country only after reading local news reports. Officials in those hospitals "never told central office," she said. "That was frustrating to me, because they were trying to deal with it locally and it would be three, four or five months later. As soon as central office and Secretary Shinseki found out about it, we’d act on it immediately."
Despite her concerns, Duckworth expressed support for Shinseki, who has faced calls for his resignation in recent days because of the allegations.
"I think he should fix it. I’m not putting trying to put words in his mouth here, but I would think that he would want to fix it," she said.
When asked whether the allegations could affect President Obama's legacy of helping the nation's military veterans, Duckworth took a long pause before answering.
"It’s hard, because Mrs. Obama has done so much and Mrs. Biden has done so much and I see that as part of the president’s push," she said, referring to first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden's wife, Jill. "I think [Obama's] relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point."
"I think he’s done a lot," she added later. "I don’t know what more he could have done. He appointed Eric Shinseki, it’s been one of the top things on the first lady and Dr. Biden’s agenda. That has been going gangbusters. I don’t know any other president who’s done more than that. But now that we have this crisis, we need more."
While recovering from her Iraq war wounds at Walter Reed Medical Center in 2005, Duckworth met then-Sen. Obama, who visited her several times. She became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy and eventually was recruited by then-Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel to run for a House seat in suburban Chicago. She lost that 2006 race, but this year faces a less serious GOP challenge in her first reelection campaign. In recent months Duckworth has been talked about as a potential candidate to challenge Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in 2016.