By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki pledged yesterday to transform the Department of Veterans Affairs into a proactive, "21st-century organization" to meet the needs of a growing population of wounded veterans.
Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who put his career on the line in 2003 by challenging then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's estimate of troop numbers required in Iraq, received bipartisan praise as a man of candor and integrity in a Senate confirmation hearing on Shinseki's nomination as VA secretary in the incoming Obama administration.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) recalled Shinseki's controversial prewar testimony that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy and stabilize Iraq. "He told the truth, and in doing so took a position contrary to the administration," Inouye said. "His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job, but it is the surest measure of his fitness to serve as a Cabinet member."
Several senators expressed gratitude for Shinseki's willingness to take on the challenges at VA, which is struggling to meet the needs of a growing population of more than 25 million veterans, more of whom are likely to seek benefits as the economy deteriorates. In the hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Shinseki pledged to speed up the sluggish process for approving claims, which takes an average of six months; to streamline the transfer of medical and other records from the Defense Department to VA; to better meet the needs of veterans living in rural areas; and to modernize the delivery of benefits.
"We are somewhere back in the 19th century" in terms of the VA claims system, said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). Shinseki agreed, saying one of his top goals is to update VA's information technology network and move toward an electronic records system. "Asking [veterans] to take a number and wait or put up with records that are lost or take six months to adjudicate is not part of the culture I expect," Shinseki said.
"My message would be this: Treat our veterans with respect and dignity," the nominee said. "They're not here begging for a handout."
Shinseki, a native Hawaiian, graduated from West Point in 1965, served two combat tours in Vietnam as an artillery forward observer and cavalry troop commander and, after being wounded twice, "pleaded to stay on active duty," Inouye said. The Army agreed, and Shinseki served as an instructor in the English department of West Point and then rose through the ranks in Army command and staff positions. He commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in 1994 and 1995 and led NATO forces in Bosnia from 1997 to 1998. The following year, he took office as the 34th chief of staff of the U.S. Army.
Forced from that post by Rumsfeld, Shinseki also proved prophetic in warning at his June 2003 retirement ceremony that the Pentagon should "beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army," suggesting that the Army was too small for its current missions. Such caution was vindicated by a decision in early 2007 by Rumsfeld's successor, Robert M. Gates, to permanently expand the Army by 65,000 soldiers over five years.
If confirmed, Shinseki said, he will confront the immediate tasks of formulating a "credible and adequate" 2010 budget request and implementing the new GI bill by August. "The overriding challenge, which I will begin to address on my first day in office, will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st-century organization focused on the nation's veterans as its clients."
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), the committee chairman, said that Shinseki's nomination would be scheduled for a vote by the Senate on Jan. 20 and that he anticipated Shinseki's confirmation on Inauguration Day.
The nomination of Shinseki, himself an amputee, will inspire confidence in military veterans, said former Republican senator Robert J. Dole. "Here's a man who's been through it; here's a man who understands it," Dole said at the hearing.