President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran who sustained combat-related injuries, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs sends a clear message to the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that, unlike President George W. Bush, Obama takes the sacrifices they have made seriously.
At a news conference in Chicago on Sunday where he introduced Shinseki, Obama said “there is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs -- General Eric Shinseki. No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need."
On his transition website, change.gov, Obama said he intends to “Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.”
He said the military “deserve a smooth, error-free, no- fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans and that is our responsibility, not theirs.”
Shinseki, if confirmed, will lead an agency that Rep. Bob Filner, the head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said last month that the VA created a “culture of dishonesty” over the way it has treated some of the more than 350,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans under its care.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Shinseki will streamlining the process for the hundreds of thousands of benefits claim that have clogged the VA system.
Last month, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
The incident resulted in hastily arranged roundtable discussion last week led by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner who excoriated the VA for creating a “culture of dishonesty” that he said has become so pervasive over the years that it has completely shattered the confidence of war veterans who feel they can no longer depend on the agency for help when they return from combat.
“This episode has further strengthened my belief that VA desperately needs new leadership, and it needs new leadership today,” Filner, D-CA, said. “These incidents and "mistakes," all occurring to the detriment of our veterans and never to their benefit, remind me more of the Keystone Cops rather than a supportive organization dedicated to taking care of our veterans.
"First, I am not convinced that only 500 documents were saved from the shredding bin. This is merely a snapshot in time. The VA was unable to convince me that more documents have not been shredded in the past and I honestly do not know how many records have been destroyed and how many files lost over the past decades.”
Filner said that was not good enough.
"The VA’s outreach has been limited to a reliance on media reports and a message on the VA website. The VA did not report a systematic way of reaching out to veterans to alert them of new policies that may have huge implications in their claims going forward. Congress must hold the VA accountable for a job not well done. A complete paradigm shift is necessary and I look forward to working with new leadership to correct the problems plaguing the benefits claims system.”