M. Thomas Davis is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army.
After Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki appeared before a Senate committee last week, one television commentator indicated that when Shinseki said he was “mad as hell” about problems within the VA hospital system, he didn’t actually look all that mad. True, he didn’t. But those of us who have known and served with Shinseki realize that this lack of outward emotion should not be read as a lack of passion.
I first met Shinseki 20 years ago, when he was the Army’s chief of training. He had a low-key personality, but he was a passionate advocate for obtaining the facilities, equipment and modern concepts that would keep our Army the best in the world. I was impressed.
Shinseki was soon gone from the Pentagon and headed to Fort Hood to command the 1st Cavalry Division, a choice assignment for a young major general. But in a little more than a year he was back in Washington as the Army’s assistant deputy chief for operations, yet another select position. He did not like coming back to Washington; he preferred to be with the troops. In speeches, he used to introduce himself simply as, “My name is Shinseki; I’m a soldier.”
During this time, we were headed back to his office after one rather contentious budget meeting, and I noticed that he was walking slowly and limping slightly. Upon arriving, he gingerly placed a foot on the coffee table and was clearly uncomfortable, although he said nothing until I asked if he had injured himself. “No, some days it just hurts a bit,” was all he said. After the meeting, his executive assistant told me, “You know, he lost most of that foot in Vietnam.” He’s never mentioned it to me. The foot, to him, was only an obstacle to overcome. His expression may not change — but neither does his determination.
Ric Shinseki is passionate about those who have served in the military. The screen saver on his office computer used to have the patch of the 1st Cavalry Division constantly scrolling across it with a caption beneath saying: “No soldier goes into harm’s way untrained.” It was his daily reminder of the responsibility of command that he saw as highly personal. None of us were surprised when he became the Army’s 34th chief of staff — a Japanese American from Hawaii occupying the seat once held by Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower, among other great soldiers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a sprawling bureaucracy, operating under procedures largely developed in another era. It may need to change its focus when processing claims from veterans, shifting from an attitude that “care will be provided when you prove you need it” to something closer to “care will be provided until we determine you don’t.” As in a court of law, it is often important where the burden of proof lies.
The agency also desperately needs a major investment in its antiquated case-processing system. Today it must deal with the expanded burdens of a decade of conflict — one that has left the nation with the responsibility to care for wounded who in past wars would never have survived their initial injuries, and others with forms of post-traumatic stress disorder that we are only slowly learning to identify and treat.
Running the VA has been a difficult, daunting task for all who have attempted it. The care it provides veterans is superb; but the process by which it determines that care is woefully in need of repair and updating. These fundamental, structural issues will not disappear should Shinseki resign or be forced to leave. They would be left to any successor, and the results would be similar. There are times when organizational failures require a thorough look at the organization itself rather than those trying to manage it — and this is one of those times.
Ric Shinseki is “mad as hell.” Trust me. His anger doesn’t show; he doesn’t make for riveting television. But there is no one better prepared, by both professional and personal experience, to attack the problems of running such a complex organization. Lee Iacocca once ran commercials saying, “If you can find a better car — buy it!” The nation cannot find a better man to tackle the challenges of the VA than Ric Shinseki.
And, by the way, I am sure while he was seated at that Senate committee hearing table, his foot was still hurting.
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