Transcript: Eric Shinseki Confirmation Hearing

CQ Transcripts Wire
January 14, 2009

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA (D-HAWAII): The United States Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing will come to order.

Today's hearing is to consider the nomination of Eric Shinseki to be secretary of the veterans' affairs. I have known General Shinseki and his family for many years. Indeed, I had the honor and privilege of participating at his promotion ceremony, I should say, "way back there," when he became a colonel.

I look forward to working with him in the latest chapter of his notable career as secretary of Veterans' Affairs.

I am delighted to welcome with much aloha his distinguished -- this distinguished native of Hawaii. His wife, Patty, is here, and -- and Tim (ph), her son -- their son-in-law -- here.

Following the inauguration next week, President Obama intends to formally nominate those individuals he has selected for cabinet positions, including General Shinseki. The plan is for most, if not all, of those nominations to go directly to the executive calendar, and to be voted on later that day.

Thus, it is my hope that General Shinseki will be confirmed by the Senate on January 20th. This is the same process that was followed in connection with the nominees to head V.A. during the last two changes in administration.

My friend, Senator Inouye, and former Senator Bob Dole, will elaborate on General Shinseki's long and distinguished career in the Army, which culminated with his service of the Army's 34th chief of staff.

I will simply note that he graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1965, and that he served two combat tours in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice in combat. It was the second injury that could have ended his promising Army career. It did not end, because then-Captain Shinseki fought to remain in -- in active duty. And in an inspired decision, the Army agreed.

Throughout his 38 years of service in uniform, he gave his personal best, serving with great pride and dignity. This distinguished and decorated soldier set a new standard for the Army. He transformed the Army into an agile, lean, flexible and lethal fighting force. He set a higher standard for this to follow, while keeping the spirit of aloha. With his pride dedication to service, he made our Army stronger.

General Shinseki, you will have tremendous challenges facing you. Heading V.A. is a challenging job. And that is even more true in a time of war. V.A. must not only meet the needs of those from prior conflicts, but also quickly adapt to address the needs of those newly injured or disabled. Each war brings different challenges and different demands.

With Iraq and Afghanistan, V.A. is responding to new challenges: Veterans needing state-of-the-art prosthetics or age-appropriate long- term care for injuries that will last a lifetime. The department must also confront less-obvious invisible wounds such as PTSD and TBI.

Another area that needs prompt attention is the system for compensating service members and veterans for in-service injury. The frustrating lack of timeliness and the challenge of coordinating DOD and VA's systems are some of the areas that must be addressed quickly.

This committee stands ready to work with the administration on this effort. If you are confirmed, this must be one of your highest priorities. You will also need to focus on the transition for injured service members from active duty to veteran status.

A lot of work has been done over the last two years, and I am hopeful that your long experience in the Army will enable you to continue these efforts. For returning service members, especially those who are seriously injured, there must be a truly seamless transition from DOD to V.A.

V.A. has a strong and dedicated workforce of employees who seek to do what is right. The secretary, with the backing of the Congress, must give those employees the leadership, the tools and, especially, the resources they need to carry out their jobs.

If confirmed, one of your first responsibilities will be to ensure that the 2010 budget is adequate for the coming fiscal year.

When V.A. is doing its best, few notice that. But things are not perfect within V.A. Few human endeavors ever are. If a veteran receives less than what is expected, it can lead to an indictment of the entire V.A. system.

Complaints must be investigates and problems must be fixed. But individual failings should not lead to the indictment of the entire system.

In closing, I am confident that you have a strong sense of empathy for those served by V.A., and a deep commitment to VA's mission. This will serve you well as secretary.

I applaud your effort to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest in connection with your stock portfolio, your private consulting firm, and the boards on which you serve. I trust that all fair-minded individuals will appreciate the steps you have taken to preclude even an appearance of any conflict of interest.

With respect to the rest of your team, this committee has a strong history of bipartisanship. And this is especially true with respect to nominations. As quickly as an administration can send forward other advice-and-consent positions for V.A., I promise that the committee will take action.

I look forward to your testimony, your responses to questions from committee members, and to any post-hearing questions. It is vitally important that the position of secretary of Veterans' Affairs be confirmed as soon as possible.

There is a roll-call vote, by the way, which is scheduled to start at 10:30. My hope is that we can continue the hearing with some senators voting at the start of the roll call, and then returning, at which time, other senators would leave to vote. If we reach a point where there is no senator available to continue the hearing process, the -- it will be a brief recess.

So let me call on our ranking member for his statement.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-N.C.): Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Aloha.

AKAKA: Aloha.

BURR: And to our colleagues, let me say to you, and to them, how much I look forward, in the 111th Congress, at us working together to improve the lives of our nation's veterans and their families.

I also want to welcome General Shinseki. And I want to congratulate you on your nomination to serve as the secretary of the Veterans' Administration.

I, personally, had the opportunity to sit down with General Shinseki, and to review his extensive credentials. I believe it's clear to me, and I think it's clear to all members, that you have the experience, you have the leadership skills, you have the determination needed to serve a -- a very important and challenging position as secretary of the Veterans' Administration. And I certainly welcome you and your family here today.

Let me take a slightly different tact than what the chairman took. And the chairman has to say, "If you're confirmed." Let me say this, General, when you're confirmed as the head of the V.A., you'd be entrusted with one of the most noble missions of the federal government. And that's caring for the men and women who have served and sacrificed on behalf of the -- our entire nation.

That means providing veterans and their families with a broad range of benefits and services that they need to live full and productive lives, and making sure that our fallen heroes are honored and memorialized.

But as we'll discuss today, the next secretary will face many serious challenges in carrying out that mission. With our nation continuing to fight conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have men and women returning home with the physical and psychological wounds of war. For those who leave the military, the goal must be to ensure they are quickly and effectively provided with the benefits and services that they need to return to civilian life as closely as possible as to how they left.

Unfortunately, too many wounded service members do not experience a seamless transition from active duty to civilian life. General, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can prevent these wounded warriors from falling through the proverbial crack.

Our nation is also facing the highest unemployment rates in nearly 16 years, which may lead veterans who lose their jobs to seek health care from the V.A. for the very first time.

General, as secretary, your charge would be to ensure that, as more veterans come into the system, the quality of the health care provided by the V.A. does not deteriorate. This challenge will be even greater in states like mine of North Carolina, where the number of veterans is growing, and where V.A. capacity is already stressed beyond its capable means.

In addition, the next secretary will be responsible for implementing the new post-9-11 G.I. Bill. At a minimum, that means making sure veterans and their families receive the correct amount of benefits, on time. But it also means providing user-friendly benefits that allow veterans and their families to make the educational choices that best meet their needs.

General, considering all the challenges that lie ahead, I appreciate your willingness to serve our nation in this very important role. I congratulate you, again, on your nomination. And, more importantly, I look forward to working with you, and on the behalf of, our nation's veterans and their families. I thank you, General.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, Senator Burr.

Before we continue with opening statements of the committee, I -- I'd like to call on two distinguished World War II veterans: My esteemed Senior Senator Dan Inouye, and a former colleague, Senator Bob Dole, for their introduction of General Shinseki.

I'll -- I'll leave it to the two of you to decide on the order of your introductions.

(UNKNOWN): Senator Dole, could you push that button?

FORMER SEN. BOB DOLE (R-KAN.): Oh, yes. That -- it... AKAKA: Senator Dole?

DOLE: Well, you know, like everybody on this committee, we're all concerned about our veterans. And there are 25 million plus veterans. So this is no small job that you're undertaking. But you've undertaken about every -- I read all the material I could find. I don't know of anything you haven't done.

And you've been twice-wounded. You've been on that side. You've been a patient. You understand the needs of patients. You know that we're -- obviously, priority one -- priority number one are deserving veterans, and the great majority are. But there are always some who may be gaming the system.

But I'm honored to be here not only with you, but with my former colleague, Senator Inouye. A little trivia: We were wounded a week apart, a mile apart -- or a hill apart -- in Italy, near the close of the war. And we wound up at -- in the same hospital, along with Colonel Hart, who the Hart Building was named after.

So here are three of us guys. We don't know whether we're going to -- politics or whatever -- found ourselves together in the United States Senate. And they were both wonderful men. And the Hart Building is named after Phil Hart, because he was the conscience of the Senate.

I never heard him utter a bad word about any other colleague, on or off the floor. And he was just a great mentor for me, because before I decided to run, I came to Washington and had a long visit with Phil Hart.

And Dan and I -- Dan, as an aside was the best bridge player at Percy Jones General Hospital. We had nothing else to do, so we stayed up all night. And I think he would -- he won the championship. I don't know how many entries there were, but he won the championship.

But I think one thing that ought to be noted here -- we have General Shinseki succeeding General Peake. And these guys have been longtime friends. And it'd be a seamless transition. And they'll be working together whenever they need each other.

I don't know what General Peake has in mind, but I want to personally thank him for what he's done. And I -- and I particularly want to thank General Shinseki from all he's done from Vietnam to Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the present day, for his willingness, again, to offer his dedication, knowledge and experience to this country.

I know he has a sign (ph) it will take time away from his cherished grandchildren, which is not easy, particularly when General Shinseki has already given so much to his country.

As I said when Senator Inouye and I had the pleasure of introducing the current secretary, "It's good to have a secretary who has been patient, and who knows what it's like to have been in the system," succeeding General Peake. And he's lived with disability since his service in Vietnam. And I can't believe a day does not go by that he is not inconvenienced in some way in his life because of the sacrifices he's already made for his country.

He's a West Point graduate, as was General Peake. That doesn't mean he won't care for those in the Navy, and all the other branches, but it's just another indication that this is a man of quality. You know, we're lucky to have him. And I think it was -- I think he was -- you were the Army chief of staff when Peake was appointed surgeon general, which I'm certain you had something to do with.

But, anyways, I said they are longtime friends. And this would be one of the easiest transitions there is.

And he is a -- he'll be a strong voice for veterans in a new administration. And he has a profile. And I don't condemn anybody who is V.A. secretary in the past, but when you have a general with a record like his, he -- he's going to have young men and women who are patients or looking for help after they're out of the hospital, knowing that they have confidence in the leader of the V.A. system.

I mean this -- this means a lot to people. You may never get to meet the general, but they've got to think in their mind, "Here is a man who has been through it. Here's a man who understands it. And I feel better about what's going to happen."

So, you know, I was on a flight -- I think it was going to Kyrgyzstan -- I wasn't certain I knew where it was. But on the way to the flight, a colonel, who happened to be from Kansas, came over to me and said, "I just want to visit awhile." And he left, and he left me his card. And he said, "Before you get off the plane, or some time" -- he handed me his card, and on the back was a quote by John Stuart Mill.

And this is the quote: "War is an ugly thing," it read, "but it is not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth -- nothing is worth war -- is much worse. The person who has nothing to which he is willing to fight for, which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature, and has no chance of being free unless made so and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself," end of quote.

And this is something I know our friend, General Shinseki, understands.

As a free country, America honors its commitments. And the first of those commitments is to support men and women in uniform, and their families, who risk everything, in most cases. And we will -- more commitments, because we have a committee such as we have. But we have men like the new secretary, who will serve and do everything that should be done for our deserving veterans, and promised them by a grateful nation.

As the members of this committee know, I joined former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala on a presidential commission examining the care we provide to our warriors in V.A. and DOD facilities. And I think that it's fair to say -- there were nine of us on the committee; five of us had disabilities.

And whatever you think about President Bush, we had several meetings with the committee, with the wounded veterans. And the only thing he ever told us -- he told us he was responsible for what happened to each one of these young men and young women. And he -- he said, "Do whatever it takes."

Nobody was asked the cost, nobody was asked their politics. And that's the way it should be. And that's the way it'll be with the new secretary.

So I think I was pleased, and President Bush was pleased, and many members of Congress were pleased with the recommendations of the Shalala committee. And if not, I know Congress will make -- make changes.

But we made recommendations where we thought if somebody lost an arm, for example, even though it's indirectly covered -- compensated -- there should be a separate compensation, because that quality of life has gone from a 10 to a two or three or four; and the same with anybody else with a -- with a serious injury. It doesn't have to be physical. It can be TBI or -- or those very bad cases of TPSD. And that's just one example that we think Congress should take a good look at.

When I called General Shinseki to offer to help, I learned he does not consider being secretary of V.A. a political appointment. And I compliment President-elect Obama for keeping the V.A. that way. The V.A. -- if there's any cabinet in the government that should not be political, it's the Veterans' Administration.

Nobody knew when we went to war whether we were Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Nobody knows -- it doesn't make much difference to the veterans today. They're just looking for some decent, honest person like General Shinseki to provide them the leadership.

The president-elect has made a wise choice. And his appointment is yet another powerful indicator of how we care for and respect our men and women who serve in our country. And I cannot think of a better person to look after our 25 million plus veterans than this true American hero, who has done about everything one can think of for his country.

I wish I were still in the Senate so I could vote for his confirmation.

God bless America, General Shinseki and our men and women, whose service has kept us free.

And I'd ask that my statement be made a part of the record.

AKAKA: Thank you. Your statement will be included in the record. And thank you very much, Senator Dole.

Now, Senator Dan Inouye?

SEN. DANIEL INOUYE (D-HAWAII): Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Senator Burr, and distinguished members of this committee. I am grateful for this opportunity to appear before you with my very dear friend, Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader, to present General Shinseki, President-elect Obama's nominee to serve as secretary of the V.A.

In Hawaii, our favorite word is "aloha," but second to that is the word "ohana," and that word means "family." But a Hawaiian family includes men and women, not necessarily of blood kinship, but united by shared concerns and shared beliefs. Yes, it's ohana.

I had the great honor of standing with Senator Oren E. Long, Hawaii's first elected senator, to nominate General Shinseki to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Since that appointment and his acceptance, I have, naturally, followed his career.

In his initial tour of duty in Vietnam, he did well, but he suffered a grievous injury. Most Americans are not aware of this, but he has an amputated foot. Any other many would have justifiably resigned himself to civilian life and retired from the military -- would have been an honorable thing to do. However, General Shinseki pleaded to remain in active duty, despite the hardship and physical pain.

Well, I met -- well, this is just one measure of the man who appears before you today -- an unflinching devotion to our country, and to his duty. His plea was granted. General Shinseki's service encompassed both further study -- he got his masters from Duke University, and, later, at the United States Army Command and General Staff College and National War College.

These studies, together with an astute grasp of the pragmatic, and the quality of his leadership, supported a steadily spiraling course upward through the ranks of the Army. And that's another measure of General Shinseki -- the stamina required for sustained excellence.

During my service as a senator, I had the occasion to go to Kosovo. And I was so proud when I met General Shinseki, commanding general of our Kosovo operation. At that time, I was certain that his career would blossom further. And June of 1999, General Shinseki became the chief of staff of the United States Army.

His tenure in that high post included the onset of the Iraq War. As we move from the emotional frenzy of commencing hostilities, members of Congress began to have questions; most notably, whether we had adequate resources to succeed in this war.

And, obviously, General Shinseki was called upon to testify at hearings. And I think most of us expected the general to give the standard line that any administration would favor. But as we all know, he did not. He told the truth. It wasn't easy. And in so doing, took a position contrary to his commander-in-chief. His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job; but it -- it is the surest measure of his fitness to serve as a member of the cabinet. To speak the truth in the face of enormous pressure is to take the easy way out. This is the kind of man I want to see as secretary of the Department of Defense -- Department of Veterans' Affairs.

And members of the committee, I'm proud to know him. But I'm prouder still to be in his ohana.

I thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Inouye, for your statement, and for help presenting with Senator Dole...


DOLE: Mr. Chairman, could I just add one word...

AKAKA: Senator Dole?

DOLE: ... that I want to agree with the chairman?

There is much good about the V.A. I mean, you know, there have been a lot of negative stories. But I think we all agree that, in most cases, they do a good job. And it's -- it's just gotten better in the last 10, 15, 20 years. And it's going to get better because of men like this.

AKAKA: Thank you.

Thank you very much for your -- your statements.

And, now, I will continue with opening statements from -- from the group here.

And I -- let -- let me call on Senator Specter, who told me he has to leave, so (inaudible) with your opening statement.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PENN.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm pleased to be here to join in the accolades for General Shinseki -- interested to hear the opening statements of Senator Dole and Senator Inouye.

Senator Dole and I have a common heritage, coming from the same little town in Kansas -- 4,998 people -- used to have 5,000 until Dole and I left town. I moved there when I was 12. He was away at college. He was a much older man at that time. But I pretty much caught up with him.

And, here, Senator Inouye's recitation of General Shinseki's illustrious career really -- really tells it all.

West Point grad -- I had the opportunity to meet General Shinseki about a decade ago in Bosnia -- very much impressed with his record then, and impressed to have a chance to sit down and talk to him a few -- a few days ago. He has a very, very difficult job. The -- the United States has become a great, powerful nation because of what our fighting men and women have done, from the Revolutionary War, on.

I have a special interest in veterans' affairs, which led me to select this as a first committee. And I had the honor to chair it for some six years. And my interest arose because of my father, who was a veteran of World War I.

My dad was born in Russia. And he was 18 in 1911, and the czar wanted to send him to Siberia. And he didn't want to go to Siberia. He heard it was cold there. He wanted to go to Kansas. And it was a close call, but he got to Kansas, where I was born.

And he served in World War I. And he was wounded in action -- carried shrapnel in his legs from the Argonne Forest until the day he died, including the days when he drove a big truck-full of junk onto the scale of Doran Dole, who ran the grain elevator in Russell, Kansas -- Bob's father -- the only scale big enough to -- to weigh the truck.

But the federal government promised the veterans a bonus of $500 -- a lot of money in those days; still a lot of money. And the government broke the promise, which the government too often does, to the veterans.

And there was a march on Washington. My father couldn't participate. He couldn't walk that far, and he didn't have the train fare. But on that day, they killed veterans right out here on the Mall -- one of the blackest days in American history.

And when I heard about that as a toddler -- I think this -- hard to know what motivates a person -- that made up my mind to -- to come to Washington to get my father's bonus, figuratively speaking. And I haven't gotten it yet, so I'm running for reelection.

But we have a lot of work to do to provide adequate funding. We tend to forget about the veterans after they've done their job. And I have urged General Shinseki to be a tough advocate from Office of Management and Budget. And I'm pleased to support you, General.

We have the Holder hearing tomorrow, so, regrettably, I'm not going to be able to stay. But nothing could change my mind anyway. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-W.VA.): Thank you, Senator Specter. There's lots of dots on that clock. And I got to go vote, and I'll be right back. And the distinguished senator from Montana -- where is Montana?


ROCKEFELLER: Just west of West Virginia -- is here to act as chairman. And I...

(UNKNOWN): (Inaudible) out there, too.

ROCKEFELLER: And I -- I just wanted to say that it was very moving to me -- it was very moving to me when General Shinseki walked into my office. I was for him before he came in. I was so much for him, even more, when he left, just to know the man in the sense I sort of knew the man when he came in.

But to have both of you -- I remember introducing you once, Senator Dole -- it was -- it was an incredible privilege and a very emotional experience for me because of all that you've done in your life.

Senator Inouye -- well, he's my boss still, so I have to be nice to him. But it's not very hard, because he has sacrificed. The only thing I really resent about him is the fact that in the movie that Ken Burns did on the war -- seven minutes left -- I -- I could have time to say this -- that you were so incredibly handsome. And I've always held that against you.

But times since then have sort of evened things out, so I...


So I'm going to go vote and -- and -- and Senator Tester will be chairman. I'll be right back.

SEN. JON TESTER (D-MONT.): Thank you, Senator Rockefeller, and...

ROCKEFELLER: And I still want to give my statement.


ROCKEFELLER: I -- I'm sure -- I'm sure you do.

TESTER: Without objection, I guess.


TESTER: I appreciate the kind comments. That, typically, isn't always the case. So, thank you.

Senator Inouye and Senator Dole, thank you for being here. I appreciate you guys being here, and...


TESTER: Thank you.

I think it's entirely appropriate, as we approach the confirmation of General Shinseki, to -- to give a thanks to -- to General Peake for the work that he's done over the last short while that he's been in that office. He's done a nice job. And -- and we need to -- we need to thank him for that, because this is an important job.

And I want to welcome General Shinseki. From -- from my perspective, your reputation as -- as all of us said, is -- is impeccable. And it's -- your -- your -- your biography, absolutely, is -- is top-flight. I, quite honestly, am very, very happy that a man of your capability and your stature are -- is willing to -- to tackle this very, very important position as -- as the head of the V.A., because in Montana, we have about 100,000 veterans. That might not sound like a lot, but it's -- it's over 11 percent of our state population -- are vets.

It's -- it's -- it's a large group of people, a very deserving group of people that deserve good people working for them. And so you fit that mold in all the areas. So -- so thank you for being here.

I believe you will be confirmed. I intend to support you, barring something catastrophic that might come up. But that ain't going to happen.

As -- as -- as I said when you came to my office, I appreciate your willingness to serve. I -- I look forward to having you come out to the great state of Montana to take a peak around about the challenges that our veterans face every day. And -- and I don't think we're different than any other rural state.

It is -- it is a challenge for veterans to -- to get to health care, in some cases. And to be honest, it's a challenge for them even to navigate through the benefits system and -- and others -- which, we'll all try to work together to get that fixed.

I've had many, many hearings in the state of Montana over the last couple of years. And one of the -- one of the things that a vet told me early on was -- is that he had had some problems with the V.A. And he said, "It's apparent they're trying to outlive me, and they'll get it done."

We need to eliminate that kind of frustration as much as possible. These folks are folks that have served this country and, in some cases, literally put their lives on the line for this country. And I know you're committed to making things right by them and fulfilling the promises that -- that we've made to them. And -- and I -- I look forward to this committee and, particularly, myself, working with you to make sure that happens.

I -- I am frustrated, to say the least, about the fact that the V.A. and the DOD don't have a seamless electronic medical record record-sharing. I am in great hopes, with your past positions, that you can have some influence on the DOD.

I -- rightly or wrongly, I -- I put most of the focus on them in this particular situation. I think the V.A. has done a great job developing the system. We need to get the DOD to buy into it. And, then, we need to work together with them. I'm saying "the V.A.," when I say "we" need to work together to see that -- that we can make progress on -- on that front -- because I think it'll just help down the line in a number of different areas.

We also have the issues of mental health that is the signature injury coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some campaigns beyond the Yellow Ribbon Campaign, and -- that the Montana National Guard has -- has been developing and utilizing, as well as a number of other states. I think it's very successful for Guardsmen. You know, the Reservists have the same kind of -- of support. I mean, they have the same deployment schedules for the most part, same kinds of issues. Do they have access to those same kind of programs?

The -- the issue of -- of -- in -- in more rural areas, of contracting out, and -- and how we deal with that without destroying the V.A., because it does provide some of the best health care in the world. But -- but, still, with distance and -- and -- and economy of scale, it may be good to look at that in -- in certain instances.

And then, finally, with -- with vocational programs for veterans -- how we can work better, how the V.A. can work better with Labor Department programs to -- to help veterans find meaningful employment, while helping turn the economy around in this country, because they're some of the best people on Earth.

Senator Murray has -- has rejoined us. And, so, I would just say in closing -- and we'll follow up on some of this stuff with -- with the question-and-answer. But, in closing, I would just say I'm -- I'm very happy you're here.

I -- I had a very good relationship with General Peake -- I told you that in my office. I anticipate we'll have a better relationship. So thank you very much for being here, and I'll look forward to your confirmation.

Senator Murray?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WASH.): Thank you very much, Senator Tester.

General Shinseki, welcome to this committee. And thank you for being willing to take on this incredibly important task. You have been nominated to what I believe is one of the most challenging and rewarding positions in our government. And I applaud your willingness to take on this critical position. And I look forward to working closely with you, once you are confirmed.

I have always said that we need a V.A. secretary who will be honest about what our veterans need, and have the backbone to stand up and ask for it. Too many of the problems that we have seen at the V.A. have been brought to light by GAO reports or news organizations or investigations or whistleblowers.

We had a GAO report following the VA's $3 billion budget shortfall back in 2005 that showed that the V.A. had actually misled Congress, concealed the funding problems, and based its projections on inaccurate models.

A television network uncovered disturbing veterans' suicide numbers, while an internal e-mail from the VA's own head of mental health expressed a desire to cover up the data. McClatchy News found that the V.A. had repeatedly exaggerated the past successes of its medical system. And the list just goes on.

So, General Shinseki, I worked in the Seattle V.A. during college. And I have seen an incredible dedication and work of staff and doctors and nurses on the ground. And these everyday heroes are working very, very hard to make sure that America's veterans are receiving the kind of care that they deserve.

But both veterans and V.A. staff have been done a disservice by a top-down bureaucracy that has failed to be honest with Congress, and has been very resistant to change.

Under Secretary Peake's leadership, progress has been made, and I'm very glad for that. I believe he is leaving the V.A. as a better agency than he found it. But there is a lot of work ahead of us. Veterans are still waiting too long for benefits. Female veterans are returning to a system that is not prepared to care for their unique needs. Facilities are in desperate need of renovations. And 20 percent of our veterans are returning home with serious mental-health needs to a V.A. that still doesn't have the mechanisms in place to take care of them.

I know you've been out talking to veterans and VSOs, and hearing about those challenges, and listening to veterans themselves. And that is a key part of this job.

Americans -- America's veterans deserve a truthful advocate who will break through the red tape and make veterans, not the bottom line, the priority of V.A. management.

Having sat next to President-elect Obama when he sat on this committee, right next to me, I know his dedication to those who served our nation, and to their families. And I very much appreciate his pledge to reverse the current administration's flawed decision to close the doors of the V.A. to Priority-8 veterans.

As you know, I sponsored legislation to reopen access for all those who have served. And I applaud your commitment to achieve that goal responsibly as well.

As you wrote in response to one of this committee's pre-hearing questions, you said, quote, "The overarching challenge that the V.A. faces is its transformation into a 21st century organization, as called for by the president-elect," unquote. That is no small task. But given your history of tackling complex problems, and your record of speaking truth to power, I think you are up for this challenge.

Change is not going to happen overnight. We know that we're going to continue to face challenges at the V.A. no matter who is in charge. But with transparency, with honesty, with energy, the next V.A. secretary can begin to tackle these challenges and make a difference for our veterans.

I want you to know I stand ready to work with you to make that happen with as much energy and honesty and transparency as I can as well. And I hope that you view Congress as a partner, not an adversary, in your work to ensure that our veterans get the care and compassion that they have earned.

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator.

And now we'll hear from Senator Wicker.

SEN. ROGER WICKER (R-MISS.): Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And thank you, General Shinseki, for your service -- for your willingness to serve again on behalf of the United States of America.

I -- I learned this morning, when we were shaking hands and visiting, before the hearing convened, that you have a distinguished record on the faculty at United States Military Academy. And I -- I noticed that Representative John Shimkus, of Illinois, was here to shake hands and enthusiastically greet you and -- and wish you well. He was an English student of yours at the academy. And I wanted to -- I wanted that to be reflected on the record that Representative Shimkus came over to offer his support from the other body.

General, you have been before the Senate for confirmation on five occasions already. You surely must realize that, during this process, you will, eventually, be allowed to speak for yourself. But we're going to make sure that we talk, too.

And so by -- by way of -- of opening remarks -- I -- I wanted to thank you for coming by earlier and speaking to most of us in our offices. I read, with interest, your prepared testimony. And -- and I noticed that you outlined three general principles that you would be striving to achieve during your tour of duty in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

One would be that -- that veterans would be the centerpiece. And you mentioned, in that regard, that the workforce and the V.A. would be standard-setters in their field. I very much applaud that. Certainly, it's reasonable to -- to expect that the specifics, and your specific program, will come later. But I applaud that as a goal.

Secondly, you mentioned the timeliness and excellence of service by your department. And the third general principle is to look for ways to do things smarter and more effectively, and to use the world's best practices.

I think that's a very healthy beginning to setting principles, Mr. Chairman. And I applaud our nominee for those today.

I would just like to say during my opening statement that I hope we can employ those principles when it comes to two specific things that I mentioned to you earlier in our -- in our private conversation. And one would be with regard to veterans' nursing homes -- not only those that are run by the V.A. alone, but also in partnership with the various states.

We have close to 300 in both categories. And there is a proposal to build two more Veterans' Affairs nursing homes during '09.

There is a new concept in -- in the area of nursing homes -- that -- and it's called "the greenhouse approach." We haven't used this yet in the government. And, basically, it strives to put groups of eight or 10 patients, if you will, in a nursing home, together in a pod or in a separate building, and ask them to participate in the decision-making as to what sort of activities and what sort of food, and what sort of other decisions that they are capable of making, even though they're -- they are housed in a nursing home.

I'm a veteran myself. My father is a World War II veteran. My son will soon enter the United States Air Force. I'd like to think that if it ever came to the point where I had to go into a nursing home, I could go into the best, the most modern type of nursing home; one that exercises, as you said, "doing things in the smartest way" -- exercises the best practices.

So I -- I mentioned to you privately, and I will mention to you publicly, on the record, that I hope, in that regard, that we can work together with this committee, and with the Congress, to make sure that when our veterans -- when it comes time for them to move into a nursing home, if that should be required, that they can move into the very best possible kind of nursing-home care.

I would also hope that we could apply those three principles in -- in the way -- in -- in -- in the area of electronic medical records. I believe it was the chairman who, earlier, mentioned this -- the desire of this committee to have a seamless transfer from DOD to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Certainly, coming from DOD yourself, and now moving into this new area of responsibility, you're uniquely positioned to work in that regard.

But I know that if it were an easy task to have this seamless process of medical records moving from DOD to V.A., when the time comes for our members to transition -- if that were easy, we would have done it already. It's difficult. And we've -- we've asked the departments to do this.

I hope that the three principles that you outlined of -- of using best practices -- the best practices in the world -- and excellence in service, and being a standard-setter -- that, with regard to the electronic medical records and, also, veterans' nursing-home care -- that we can be a standard-setter. And I look forward to being your teammate in this regard.

And I thank you and congratulate you on your nomination and your certain confirmation. Thank you, sir.

Thank you, Mister...

AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Wicker.

Senator Webb -- your opening statement?

SEN. JIM WEBB (D-VA.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And, General, welcome.

I have to say, first of all, it was pretty moving to see you sitting there, flanked by Senator Inouye and former Senator Bob Dole. I was -- first of all, I was thinking about the kind of service that these individuals have given our country. And the other was you and I are both Vietnam guys. And there aren't many opportunities left in our lives for -- to be around people who are going to look at us and call us "young fella."

And also, Mr. Chairman, if I may, there's a -- there's an individual out here who I'd like to personally recognize -- a John Fales, who is over at the press table -- was wounded as a Marine in Vietnam, lost his sight as a result of his wounds. And I've been knowing John and working with him for more than 30 years, since I was a counsel on the Veterans' Committee. And, General, if you don't know him yet, you're going to. He's better famous as "Sgt. Shaft" in the Washington Times.

So, John, if you could take a quick bow -- appreciate it -- semper fidelis. And thank you for all that you've been doing for veterans over the years.


I think your selection, General Shinseki, is a -- is an inspired act of leadership by the incoming president. I look forward to your tenure.

When I look at the V.A. now, having been involved with it in -- in a lot of different capacities -- as a -- as a recipient and as a committee counsel and, now, here in the Senate, and having spent five years in the Pentagon -- I really believe the -- the greatest challenge for the V.A. is -- is simple leadership -- just getting the right people into positions, and understanding how to -- how to break the logjams that have -- that have created so many problems in -- in getting the benefits that have been voted out by the Congress into the hands of the veterans who deserve them.

And I think that your background, particularly, as having been chief of staff of the Army is particularly suited to trying to -- to solve those -- those problems.

I have a special interest, as you know, in the G.I. Bill, and how we're going to put that program on line in a -- in a timely way, and in a way that is going to have as few administrative difficulties as -- as -- as possible.

But I'd like to make one other point here at the -- at the outside of your testimony -- outset of your testimony. You are the fourth consecutive Academy graduate from -- by my count -- to serve in this -- to be serving in this position as you will. And that is -- on the -- on the one hand, that has an upside, obviously, with the type of leadership preparation and the service that goes along with that. And I say this as someone who also went to a service academy.

But, also, it is a challenge that I -- that I've watched in some of your predecessors, in -- in the sense that I would -- I would hope you will keep your eye on the -- on the notion that veterans' programs really do have a different character than -- than military programs. And sometimes this -- this seems to get lost in the -- in how they are administered.

I hope you will pay special attention to the way that we are now going through these disability evaluations. There is a -- in my mind, and in my experience, there's a -- there is a marked difference between assigning a disability for someone saying that they are not fit for active duty and, therefore, should leave the military, as opposed to how that disability is measured throughout someone's life as a veteran.

And -- and sometimes that -- that gets lost, even in the discussions that we've been having over the past couple of years, with the Dole-Shalala Commission and -- and these other things.

So the bottom line, really, on this -- my personal request to you, as a leader, is I hope you will do everything you can to reach out to the veterans groups. They are people who have spent their entire lifetimes -- adult lifetimes -- working on these issues, and -- and understanding the -- the -- the different characteristics of them, and also the -- the many, many talented people inside the V.A., who have done the same thing, who devoted their professional lives to this distinct environment of the aftermath of military service, and to really be sensitive to the -- to the different personality between the -- the Department of Defense and -- and veterans' benefits.

I mean, with that, I -- I wish you well. But, as I said, I think this is an inspired choice. And my door is always open.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Webb.

We'll continue with opening statements from members.

Next, it'll be Senator Rockefeller, followed by Senator Sanders and Senator Isakson.

Senator Rockefeller?

ROCKEFELLER: Well, I sort of -- sort of gave one, Mr. Chairman. So I'm cheating a little bit.

But I can't -- there's no way for me to express how proud I am that you're the president's nominee. And in one sense, it shouldn't have surprised me -- not -- not trying to be partisan about this. I'm -- I'm overwhelmed by the people that have been nominated for -- for cabinet positions and -- and confirmable positions that come to my office. And their -- their -- the -- their quality is just beyond belief, just one after another -- scientists, veterans, administrators -- to be all of them.

Everybody is going to make mistakes. And what -- what I like about -- always liked about you, before I even met you -- was that I -- I had a feeling that you wouldn't know how not to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences.

I got that from television and newspapers, and I got it full bore yesterday, that, like Senator Webb was just saying, I think the -- the Veterans' Administration, although I think it is the best hospital system in the United States of America, which most people don't give it credit for, it has so many problems still -- 220,000 people in the -- in -- that you have to lead.

And -- and, then, this whole question of, "How do you make veterans" -- and -- and Bob Dole was speaking to that -- "How do you make veterans feel like their future is -- is -- is good in terms of their rehabilitation, whether it's physical, psychological or inside the body in -- in some other way?"

And I think it's -- it's almost simplistic that, sometimes, just "the right person" at the top becomes the symbol. And it -- it just inspires people on down the line to do twice the job they were doing.

And I told you yesterday, when we were talking about a person that -- that Patty Murray will remember very well, named Dr. Ken Kaiser (ph). And he -- we have these frequent meetings -- panels -- that go on forever. Members come and go. And he wasn't any different from any other director of health, it seemed to me, as I listened to him, that had come before us before.

And then, suddenly, four years after he'd left, we found that the entire V.A. system had been computerized -- was -- everything was databased, unlike DOD. There was a lot of problems in synching with DOD -- and that he'd done it -- hadn't said anything about it.

We hadn't had the oversight to know it, which is our fault. There is so much oversight that we have to do in this committee, which I think needs to be constructive, and will cause our members to want to come to -- come to hearings, and to -- and to listen to testimony and to learn more.

But I -- I'm just -- I think you have to stop -- you have to start with the -- with the guy at the top, or the woman at the top. And I just -- I can't imagine a better choice than you. I just absolutely cannot imagine a better choice -- not just the experience and the wounding and the fighting and the commanding and the -- the decision-making under -- under, quote, "fire" -- your tough stance, standing up for the truth -- but your nature. You inspire confidence in people. And you do in me.

I'm still going to ask you some tough questions, but I -- I just -- I just -- I think you have -- probably have some sense I'm probably going to vote for you. But I just want you -- I want you to understand that it's going to be -- it'll be one of the best votes I've made since the 24 years that I've been on this committee.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Rockefeller.

Senator Sanders?

SEN. BERNARD SANDERS (I-VT.): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. And welcome, General Shinseki. I know you're going to be a great leader, and -- and the V.A. certainly needs the kind of leadership that you are going to be providing.

You know, it's a funny thing in this body: We have differences, and the American people have differences about the wisdom, for example, about the war in Iraq. But what I have been very happy to see is that there has been a coming together, despite the opinions that one might have about the wisdom of Iraq, with the understanding that we do not blame the men and women who are fighting that war for the decisions that were made here in Washington, and that we have a solemn obligation to make sure that every man and woman, who has fought in that war, when they come home -- that they get all of the care and the benefits to which they have been promised.

And I think we have made real progress in differentiating our differences with regard to the war with our understanding that we take care of our veterans, and we do for them what we promised we would do.

General, we have -- I'm happy to say, that under Chairman Akaka's leadership, and -- and Bob Filner, in the House -- we have made some progress in the last couple of years. The good news is we have begun to make some progress. The bad news is that we have a long way to go, in my view.

We have passed, as Senator Webb helped us move forward on this -- the most comprehensive and significant step forward in terms of G.I. education -- we will step forward for millions of men and women. We have made progress on V.A. funding. We have made progress on Priority-8 veterans -- mileage reimbursement, V.A. counseling for family members. That's the good news.

The bad news is that much remains to be done.

Some of the issues, General, that I hope we can pay attention to in the coming years are advanced appropriations. You can't run a system as large as the V.A. if you do not know what your budget is going to be. And it really is a disservice to all of our veterans if the V.A. does not have that knowledge.

I come from a state where we have suffered very heavily from the war in Iraq through our National Guard. And I hope very much that we make sure that the V.A. properly cares for our citizen-soldiers that have given so much. So let's not forget about the Guard and the Reserve.

Clearly, many of the men and women who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD and TBI. And this is a little bit outside of the culture of the V.A., in placing a priority on those needs.

I think we can all agree the V.A. has done a tremendous job, and it's leading the world in terms of taking care of people who have lost arms, lost legs, hearing, eye problems and so forth. But somehow, when the issue becomes, you know, emotional or mental problems, it's been a little bit outside of the traditional culture. But those wounds are as real as any other wounds many of our soldiers have suffered. And we need the research and the treatment to take care of those people.

I'm more -- one of the areas that I have focused on, and it's of great concern in the state of Vermont, is the issue of Priority-8s.

Now, I think we all agree that the most pressing needs of those people who are coming home wounded today -- we have to take care of our older veterans. That goes without saying. But there -- especially in this economic crisis, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of veterans who may make $35,000 a year, who are pushed out of the V.A.

Now, I think you can't bring them all back in overnight, but I think the goal must be than any person who wore the uniform of this country, regardless of income, should be able to come back into the V.A., and bring that back. So I look forward to working with you to do that.

I'm sure we have -- my colleagues have discussed with you the claims system. We are somewhere back in the 19th century, I think, on that regard. It is just incredible that in this age of -- of computer technology -- that people submit claims, they don't hear for months and months, and -- and it goes on and on. That's just grossly unfair. So we want to update and improve our claims system -- when people put in a claim, they get a timely response.

One of the real successes of the V.A. in recent years has been the growth of the CBOCs -- the community-based outreach clinics -- which, in Vermont, work very, very well -- and the vet centers, as well. Vet centers, as you know, are places where there is no bureaucracy, where the vets that are sent run those centers. People feel really comfortable walking in there. I think that's a great investment, and I hope we can expand that whole area.

Lastly, for many, many years -- ever since I first came into the Congress and the House, I've been working on Gulf War illness. You know, while we're all dealing with the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our older veterans, let's not forget those people who are still suffering from Gulf War illness.

So, General, I am going to strongly support your nomination. We have a system which is, I believe, the largest provider in America. So what we do impacts the whole health-care system in our country. It is profoundly important. And we owe -- we have a moral obligation to our veterans to -- to make sure we provide them the best care that we possibly can.

So I -- I very much look forward to working with you. And thank you for your years of service to our country.

AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.

Senator Isakson?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R-GA.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Shinseki, I, first of all, want to thank you for your service to the country, and commend you on your service to the country. And thank you very much for being willing to assume the responsibilities of the V.A. You are imminently qualified. I have studied your resume.

And we are somewhat contemporaries from the -- my period of service and yours. I think we're probably about the same age. And I really appreciate your taking it on. And you've got a life of experiences that will help the V.A. quite a bit.

And the V.A. has been making some great progress in some of the areas that were mentioned by Senator Sanders. And I want to comment on two, which I sent some earlier prepared questions to you about. One is the Augusta Uptown V.A., and Fort Gordon's Eisenhower Hospital.

General Shumaker (ph) established a seamless transition there for those soldiers coming home, leaving DOD and going into V.A. care, which has now been a -- by everybody, including Secretary Peake, who is the current secretary -- has talked about what a great success it has been.

In a number of places in the country, a lot of our veterans who come home with -- and are released from DOD -- kind of fall through the cracks between DOD and V.A. It's very important that we see to it that, that is a seamless transition.

What the Department of Defense has done with the Warrior Transition Centers has been a tremendous step forward in dealing with the types of difficulties in terms of PTSD and TBI, on those that are coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan. Equally, we need a transition from the V.A. -- I mean from DOD to V.A. -- to be as seamless and easy as possible for our veterans.

So I hope -- I've been able to get General Peake down to Augusta to see it firsthand. And I know you're going to have a world on your plate for the time being, but I hope sometime during the next year, you can pay a visit to that facility. As we can replicate it around the country, it will make service to our veterans, I think, much, much better than it already is.

And then, secondly, I want to echo what Mr. Sanders said -- or Senator Sanders -- said about the community-based clinics. Those are extremely important. Our state has one of the largest veterans' populations of any state in the country. And some of them have to go long distances to get to the V.A. hospital in Atlanta or the V.A. hospital in Augusta. And Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi river, geographically.

So those clinics, some of which we've been able to open in the last two years, have made it a lot easier for our veterans to get the health care they deserve, in a much more convenient and accessible way.

And I look forward to working with you in any way I can to support you and your efforts to support our veterans, who have served our country so well. And I thank you for the time today.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.

Now, for an opening statement, Senator Hutchison?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-TEXAS): Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And, welcome, General Shinseki. I want to tell you that I admire and respect you as much as anyone I have ever known in the armed services. And I'm going to support your nomination.

You have been a Purple Heart recipient. So you will know what veterans go through. And you were a great Army chief of staff.

I also want to say that your predecessor is one of the finest veterans' secretaries we've ever had. And I know you worked with him, because he was your surgeon general. And I know that the transition will be a very good one.

His emphasis on health care has been so positive. He has understood the problems. He has been an action-taker. And I just know, and will hope, that you will stay on that same track.

We're opening our fifth trauma center -- class-one trauma center. That's already been authorized. And I look forward to bringing that the fruition.

As you know, I'm the ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs and Military Construction Committee on Appropriations, as well as serving on this committee. And there are a few areas that I know you will address.

But I just want to point out, from my experience, that I think our priorities -- first, the claims processing wait is about half a year. And that's just unacceptable. We started working on it, and with the great help from some of our members here, especially Senator Murray and Senator Akaka, we have tried to add the supplemental appropriations to add claims processors. But that is something that will need your urgent attention to assure that people don't have a hiatus when they get -- when they go from active duty to the veteran status in those adjustments.

Second, electronic medical records -- I know that has been mentioned. That's an area where the V.A. has performed exemplary. And I think it's known that, after Hurricane Katrina, not one veteran's record was lost. That is what we need to put in place that will match the Department of Defense. But, frankly, it's the Department of Defense that needs to match the V.A. so that, that seamless transition of medical records occurs. And I hope that -- it was started under Secretary Peake. And I hope that you will continue, and bring that home.

I was so pleased that you support the research that we know is necessary for the kind of war that we have, and the -- the kinds of injuries that we have that are somewhat different from past wars. And, particularly, Gulf War research, which my colleague, Senator Sanders, also has mentioned -- he has been a champion of that, as have I.

And I talked to the researcher at U.T. Southwestern, who is doing that work, over the Christmas holidays, and he said that now that they have the bigger base to test their initial results, they are finding that there are -- there are effects from chemicals. It is showing in the brain scans of people who have had these Gulf War Syndrome symptoms. So we are going to be able to, now, take the next step to see how we can add the antidote to the lack of an enzyme in a person's brain that makes them susceptible to those chemicals.

And I'm very excited about it, and want to make sure that we go forward with this research that is just on the cusp, now, of showing the results that can be verified, so we can protect our -- our warriors, who are going to be potentially subject to those.

So I thank you for taking this job. And I look forward to working with you.

AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Hutchison.

Under the rules of the committee, the testimony of all presidential nominees appearing before the committee shall be taken under oath.

General Shinseki, would you now stand for the administration of the oath?

Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


AKAKA: Thank you.

Let the record note that it was responded in -- in the affirmative.

General Shinseki, will you please begin with your statement?

SHINSEKI: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman -- Chairman Akaka.

Senator Burr and distinguished members of this committee on Veterans' Affairs, I am deeply honored by President-elect Obama's nomination for me to serve as the secretary of this department, this Department of Veterans' Affairs.

I want you to know that I am fully committed to doing the best I can in this job, and of fulfilling the vision that he -- the charge that he passed to me. And that is to transform Veterans' Affairs into a 21st century organization. Over the last several weeks, I've had the opportunity to meet with many of you individually. And I want to express my deep appreciation for sharing your concerns with me. And what came very clearly through those conversations were your concerns for, and your unwavering support both of our veterans, and the good people who go to work every day in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

I listened carefully to your concerns and your advice. And I benefited from your counsel. And I look forward to delivering on the promises that we arrived at.

Mr. Chairman, let me just take a moment and thank you for the courtesy of -- although it's been a little while now -- courtesy of introducing my family -- my wife, Patty, and my son-in-law, Tim Hafee (ph), who is here this morning.

The Shinsekis are usually 13 in strength when we gather as a family. Today, we're a little unrepresented. That's because my daughter, Lori (ph), is taking care of her three children in Charlottesville. My son and his wife, Barbara (ph), and their four daughters are in New Jersey. But the rest of the family is here. And we're very proud of all of them.

I just want you to know, 43 years ago, my wife, Patty, married a soldier. And that's about all she understood she was doing. Never have -- never having -- coming from a military background, we weren't quite sure where things were going to lead. But, here, 43 years later, we're still sitting side-by-side, and looking to serve our country.

She's change family -- our family addresses 31 times in my 38 years in the military -- something on that order. So she has an appreciation for what spouses and families of our military personnel go through.

She is as caring and as devoted to soldiers today, as she was when I married her. She has stood at my bedside and helped me to learn to walk again, and gave me back the confidence to put my professional life back on track, when I faced a service-disqualifying injury.

And so I just wanted to take a moment to register for all of us, as the members of this committee know so well, that none of us has the privilege of doing what we do, without the love and support of families who sacrifice far more than most understand -- who sacrifice so that we have our opportunities to serve.

It was that way for my 38 years as a soldier. And it will be that way again, if I'm confirmed to serve both our veterans and the good people at the Veterans' Affairs Department, as their secretary.

Again, I'm playing a little catch-up here, but I'd like to also express my great honor of having had the rare privilege of being introduced to the committee by two of our nation's premiere public servants: Senator Inouye, from my home state of Hawaii, and Senator Dole -- former Senator Dole -- from Kansas -- both veterans. And both distinguished themselves in battle during World War II. And both, as they related, suffered through long and painful recoveries under the nurturing care of the V.A., and, then, who returned to public service to help lead our nation in its rise as a global leader in the last half of the 20th century.

I am humbled by their presence here this morning -- I want you to know that -- that they took the time to introduce me, and to publicly display their trust and confidence in this nomination.

I'd also like to acknowledge the presence of representatives of many of our veterans' service organizations here today. They are essential partners to assure the best possible service and support for those who, in President Lincoln's words, "shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."

And so to all veterans present this morning -- those in this room sitting either there on the dais with you, or those here in the audience, and those who may be watching these proceedings from distant and remote locations in the country -- I want to express my thanks for their service, their sacrifice for our country. And I'd be honored to be their secretary and their advocate at the Veterans' Affairs Department, if confirmed.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee, transformation is always challenging for any organization, and I use the particular term here, "transformation," rather than "incremental change" -- transformation in looking at all of our fundamental and comprehensive processes that make up any organization of the size and complexity of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

So transformation is always challenging for any organization, particularly ones with complex missions, and which are steeped in tradition, as is this particular department.

I would suggest that we faced similar challenges about 10 years ago, as we began the transformation of the United States Army, a process that continues today. We found that positive leadership, dedication, and team work, on the part of all in the organization allowed what was considered to be challenges when we began, to be redefined for all of us as opportunities for innovation and increased productivity. And it's up to leadership to help with that redefinition.

With your support, I am confident we will succeed.

If confirmed, I intend to articulate a concise strategy for pursuing a transformed Department of Veterans' Affairs, reflecting the vision of President-elect Obama. I have much to learn about the department. And I look forward to gaining the valuable input and insights from its dedicated employees, as well as from the veterans they serve, and the organizations who serve those veterans.

As Senator Wicker mentioned earlier, there are three fundamental attributes for me that mark the start point of framing a 21st century organization for Veterans' Affairs. It'll be people-centric. It must be results-driven. And, by necessity, it must be forward-looking.

And, first, about people: Veterans will be the centerpiece of our organization, our clients, as we design and implement and sustain programs which serve them. Through their service in uniform, veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our nation.

They are clients -- and I use that term particularly -- not just customers of our services. They are clients whom we represent, and whose best interests are our sole reason for existence. It is our charge to address their changing needs over time, and across the full range of support that our government has committed to providing them.

Equally essential -- the department's workforce will be leaders and standard-setters in their fields. There's a long tradition of the V.A. having exercised -- perform that leadership role. And my interest is ensuring that we continue where we lead, and regain the leadership where we do not today.

From delivering cutting edge medical treatment to answering the more basic (ph) enquiries, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce.

Training and development, communications and team building, continuous learning will be components of that culture.

Second results, at the end of each day our true measure of success is the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of services and support we provide to veterans.

We will set and meet objectives in each of those performance areas, timeliness, quality, consistency.

We will all know the standards and perform to them.

Our processes will remain accessible, responsive, and transparent to ensure that the differing needs of a diverse veteran population are addressed.

Success also includes cost effectiveness. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we will ensure that appropriate metrics are included in our quality assurance and our management processes.

Finally third, forward-looking. To optimize our opportunities for delivering best services with available resources, we must continually challenge ourselves to look for ways to do things smarter and more effectively.

We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices its knowledge base, its emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.

If confirmed, I will focus on the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request as soon as I arrive in the office.

And that will be immediate priority in the first 90 days.

The overriding priority will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st century organization singularly focused on the nation's veterans as its clients.

I thank this committee for its long history of unwavering commitment to those veterans. And if confirmed, I look forward to working closely with you in that commitment.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. And I look forward to your questions.

© The Washington Post Company