Army Secretary Named to Head Veterans Office
By Bill McAllister
Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., who became a forceful advocate for fair treatment of women in the nation's largest military service, was named yesterday by President Clinton to head the huge Department of Veterans Affairs.
President Clinton announced the long-expected move at a White House ceremony, hailing the 55-year-old Washington lawyer as an official who "has always understood the special responsibility we owe to our men and women in uniform both during and after their years of service."
West has weathered a number of crises in his four years as the civilian head of the Army. Confronted by evidence of widespread sexual harassment of female soldiers he demanded equity for women. Faced with recent charges from conservatives that the Clinton administration was giving coveted burial space in Arlington National Cemetery to big Democratic Party donors, he refuted the allegations.
White House aides said Clinton would invoke a little-known section of the Vacancy Act to allow West to become acting VA secretary Jan. 2. His formal nomination will be sent to the Senate for confirmation later that month.
West, who served on active duty as an Army lawyer from 1969 to 1973, said he would face a new challenge running the VA. "I've been advised not to expect people to salute me and march off. But that's not my style," he said. He said his goal was to proclaim "rules of engagement to serve the veterans: to serve them effectively, efficiently and with compassion."
The VA Cabinet position has been vacant since the July resignation of Jesse Brown, a career veterans advocate who headed the department during Clinton's first term. The president's first choice to replace Brown, Deputy VA Secretary Hershel W. Gober, withdrew his nomination Oct. 24 after Republicans demanded the longtime Clinton friend from Arkansas face a public inquiry into allegations that he made "unwanted contact" with two women at a veterans event.
Democrats welcomed the West nomination, but congressional Republicans said the cemetery dispute is not resolved. Charles Battaglia, staff director of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the panel wants more details about burials at Arlington.
"We still have a number of questions to be answered," said Danny Devine, a spokesman for the House Veterans Affairs Committee. It has ordered a General Accounting Office study of the Arlington burials and is planning hearings into the issue early next year.
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which will vote on West's nomination, predicted "his speedy confirmation" and praised his handling of the cemetery issue. "In the past two weeks, under intense partisan fire, Togo West again demonstrated that he is a person of the highest integrity with extraordinary leadership skills," Rockefeller said.
A spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans, which had voiced concerns about West's prospective nomination, said the secretary-designate eased many of the concerns of veterans service organizations at a recent meeting at the Old Executive Office Building. "He promised to be accessible," said David W. Gorman, executive director the the DAV's Washington office. "He said: `It's your house. I'm the caretaker. You're going to have access if I'm in charge.' "
Speaking yesterday to a small group of veterans in the Roosevelt Room, Clinton praised West for his four years as head of the Army, saying his leadership had helped create "the greatest, best prepared, most modern fighting force in the world."
West told the president yesterday he believed he had been given "one of the best jobs in the world" when Clinton named him Army secretary in 1993. At the VA, he will oversee a far-flung and, by many assessments, a more independent bureaucracy consisting of more than 170 hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries and benefit offices that provide a wide range of services for the nation's 26 million veterans.
TOGO D. WEST JR.
Born: 1942 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Family: Married to Gail Berry, two children
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company