Next VA secretary should come from rank and file

The problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs are nothing new. Illegal or neglectful conduct aside, far too many veterans are waiting for health care, and far too many more are waiting for their claims to be adjudicated.

Veterans and politicians alike have decried poor response times and VA failures for many years, and while the rhetoric flows and the voices of concern can be heard across the state and the nation, little action has been successful in alleviating the poor conditions for veterans.

While not passing judgment on President George W. Bush for his military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, he failed to plan for the aftermath of those wars. He did not have the foresight to realize that when those wars were over, the United States would see an influx of veterans, wounded and otherwise, who would seek promised health care and other benefits, including pensions, compensation for wounds received in action, claims for home purchases and education, and other filings.

This has overwhelmed the VA, which was already staggering under massive piles of paperwork from older veterans who fought in past wars. While the VA budget is larger than ever, so is its caseload. The VA is always playing catch-up.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week, is an honorable man. I had the opportunity to interview him on three occasions when he visited Las Vegas, and I believe that his concern for veterans was and is real and that his heart is in the right place. He was twice wounded in Vietnam, was a retired Army general and was Army Chief of Staff. And therein lies the problem. He has the same approach that his predecessors had. He’s a proper, restrained, polite, passive “yes sir, no sir,” former high-ranking officer who is trained to sit in his office and order subordinates to carry out missions.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted that when Shinseki appeared before a congressional committee recently, he dodged, danced and failed to address the VA debacle. It was not completely his fault — that’s what he was trained to do, like so many others before him.

In order to pull the VA together and make certain that all employees are doing the right thing, President Barack Obama should not search the field of retired officers for Shinseki’s replacement. What’s needed is a VA secretary who comes from the enlisted ranks — a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, or a retired Army sergeant major. Someone with strong hands-on military experience who is not afraid to get off his or her seat and, unannounced, visit each and every department in each and every VA facility and question every department head and manager and coordinator, demanding honest answers. If some individuals are found to be incompetent, or otherwise not carrying out their duties, they should be dealt with immediately.

It’s sometimes difficult to fire VA employees, but they can be transfered to other jobs with less responsibility, or they can be reprimanded and made to answer for their poor work habits by denying them salary raises or promotions. (As I write this, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has introduced legislation that would make it easier to release poorly performing VA employees. Let’s hope that legislation passes.)

Until someone who did not wear stars or bars is given full authority, someone who is not afraid to take the top VA job and take a dynamic stand against any VA employee who does not give 100 percent to veterans (or worse, who commits out and out fraud), little will change. The president must make the systemic change needed when selecting a replacement for VA secretary.

Journalist, author and Vietnam veteran Chuck N. Baker is a Purple Heart recipient and the host of the “Veterans Reporter Radio Show” Thursdays from 8 to 9 p.m. on KLAV-AM (1230).

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