The VA After Gen. Shinseki

VA Hospital in Durham NC

Photo courtesy of Veterans Administration

The VA After Gen. Shinseki

By Earl Perkins | published June 12, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

You wouldn't think it would be particularly difficult to provide decent services or hire qualified management when your budget approaches $164 billion per year, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is grasping at straws to replace Erik Shinseki who was recently forced out as VA secretary. A fairly lengthy list of potential candidates has emerged, according to Defense One, a website that covers military issues.

Former USO President Sloan Gibson has stepped forward as a temporary stand-in while President Obama sifts through resumes. The usual suspects are being rounded up, with key names coming in from all directions—Congress, the Pentagon, the civilian world and the veterans community.

Strong Pentagon backgrounds head a list of five candidates, including retired Adm. Mike Mullen. The graduate of Harvard Business School's advanced management program, he was former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving under Obama and President George W. Bush.

Mullen is best-known for calling for the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military. In testimony before Congress, Mullen said military men and women should not have "to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

Gen. James Mattis retired in 2013 after 40 years of service, including a lengthy stretch as head of U.S. Central Command. He also has experience heading another ineffective bureaucracy, having served as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander. Mattis is blunt and unapologetic, known for passionate speeches concerning veterans, one of which Marine Corps Times said "may be the most motivating speech of all time."

Mattis would probably accept the position, but he's a controversial figure and he has weak public support. Before Shinseki's resignation, Mattis derided the VA as "a system that's got a lot of money behind it to tell (veterans) that they're damaged."

Gen. Ray Odierno has been Army chief of staff since Sept. 7, 2011, making him a strong advocate of today's generation of veterans. The 37-year veteran was primary military advisor to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Holding advanced degrees in engineering and national security strategy, the West Point graduate is a grandfather and married to his high school sweetheart. Odierno also understands what it’s like to be a military parent—his son was an Army captain before retiring because his arm was blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.

Overpoliticizing the military is one of Odierno's pet peeves, and once told them so, noting the armed forces must be funded for the "world as it exists, not as one we wish it to be." If Odierno thinks navigating a mine field is difficult, wait until he enjoys the opportunity to address a senate confirmation hearing.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal is another lightning rod who is almost certainly a longshot. The former top commander in Afghanistan was one of Obama's favorites, but kept the job less than a year, being forced to resign following fallout from a Rolling Stone article that reflected poorly on top administration officials. McChrystal also said he's not "the best person" to head VA.

“That’s a job that I think is going to be very difficult and is going to take some specific expertise,” he said. “I care enough about what happens there that I hope they seek someone with just the right combination, and they let that individual have enough freedom of action so he can do the right thing.”

If you're looking for someone least likely to answer the call, then bet on retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli. He was the Army's vice chief of staff and its highest ranking general in the Pentagon from 2008 to 2012, during which time he attacked many complex issues that still plague VA. Chiarelli was a four-star general with more than 40 years of service, advocating for a change in policy and attitude concerning women in combat and how female veterans are dealt with, along with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues for all veterans.

Chiarelli is known as an iconoclast and innovator who has often thought outside the box seeking creative solutions to problems. He once employed young men in Baghdad's Sadr City to help repair its sewage system.

Several years ago he retired to care for his aging mother, turning down then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's request that he fill a position as Under Secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. Chiarelli is now chief executive of One Mind, where he continues his work to increase awareness concerning mental illness and brain injuries.

Holly Petraeus is a name that has emerged from the private sector. But her husband, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, has also seen support for the VA opening. In January 2011, she agreed to head the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau where she fights to protect veterans. Her former job was director of the Better Business Bureau’s Military Line. Holly Petraeus’ brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather served in the military.

Petraeus has worked with Congress, helping make veterans a specifically protected group under the CFPB because they are vulnerable to financial scams. She also has extensive knowledge concerning the inner workings of the VA financial system.

One potential drawback to her nomination could be her last name. Everyone remembers her husband was forced to resign in the wake of an extramarital affair with his biographer, and this administration is seeking the least amount of controversy possible.

The veteran community is also fielding a couple potential candidates, although they too may be unlikely choices. Paul Rieckhoff founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and he's advocated that Obama should choose a veteran of the two most recent wars because they can relate to post-9/11 veterans returning home.

Rieckhoff's group has more than 200,000 members, which will force politicians to consider their opinion. He has lobbied tirelessly in Washington on numerous veteran issues, including mental health and reducing suicides. Rieckhoff says the country needs someone who understands the political workings of Congress, healthcare and technology.

Tommy Sowers is young, but he would be an interesting choice at VA. The 38-year-old Iraq War veteran was VA assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs from 2012 until early this year.

"It's an incredible privilege to fight to make sure veterans can access their benefits," Sowers said at the time.

His resume shows a 10-year stint with the Army Corps of Engineers, along with earning the rank of major with Army Special Forces. He possesses a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and he's also taught at West Point.

Sowers' relative youth was seen as a political advantage to VA leadership, helping the agency relate to younger veterans. He already passed the Senate vetting process to earn his assistant secretary job, receiving backing from home-state Sen. Claire McCaskill, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He succeeded Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, and he's also been an IAVA adviser.

And then come all the "public servants." No list can be considered complete without a double fistful of politicians.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, would certainly be an interesting choice. She deployed twice to Iraq and presently serves as a captain in Hawaii's National Guard. She's a combat veteran and represents the fastest-growing veteran population--female service members. The U.S. military is roughly 15 percent female, and the VA acknowledges that women face unique difficulties associated with the agency.

After Shinseki resigned, Gabbard called him "an American hero" in a statement released at that time. This day is not about Shinseki," she said. "This day is about all of our service-members and veterans, and the tragedy that has been occurring within the VA, an organization which has lost sight of its mission.”

She called for “creative steps that will yield immediate results.”

Gabbard also advocated for legislation that would enable veterans to seek private medical care separate from the VA system. She even wrote Obama, asking him to order the VA to pay for private veteran care. Concerned Veterans of America, a conservative-leaning group, included her name on its list of recommendations for both parties, although she has not openly lobbied for the position.

And then there's former Sen. Bob Kerrey, one-time governor of Nebraska and close friend with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is another former Nebraska senator.

Kerrey has long called for Shinseki's resignation, and he did serve in Congress from 1989 to 2001. I guess that means he knows all the secret handshakes or political navigating that's required to deal with politicians. He also served in Vietnam as a Navy Seal, eventually receiving the Medal of Honor. Ironically, Kerrey was critical of Shinseki but spoke highly of the VA.

"It saved my life," he said, noting that he was a patient for almost a decade. "Gave me a chance to put my life back together." He also might have technically disqualified himself from consideration, according to website Nebraska Watchdog.

“We need a younger veteran—preferably one who was injured in Iraq or Afghanistan—because those are the guys who need to be at the front of the line,” he said.

Former Rep. Patrick Murphy, (D-Florida), was the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress, losing reelection in 2010. He has continued his advocacy for veterans, spearheading an MSNBC series of documentaries concerning veterans called "Taking the Hill."

When Shinseki resigned, Murphy told the Washington Post the nominee needs to be someone who “will inspire confidence in veterans, who walked in their ranks … has an intimate understanding of veteran policy, and has the leadership ability.” No word on whether he was looking in the mirror when he made that statement.

Stars and Stripes said "A service-disabled female veteran who's a Democrat? Longer shots have existed." That would be Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, who gave a high-profile speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

She's an Iraq War veteran and Army captain who was shot down while flying a Black Hawk helicopter, losing both legs below the knee and the use of her right arm. The first female double amputee from the Iraq conflict, Duckworth knows exactly what goes on at VA because she had plenty of first-hand experience.

She spent a year at Walter Reed Army Hospital, before accepting Obama's nomination as assistant secretary of veterans affairs, serving in his administration from 2009 to 2011. She placed special emphasis on veteran homelessness, and then ran for Congress from Ohio in 2012. When almost everyone else was throwing Shinseki under the bus, Duckworth reserved judgment, but ultimately she also called for her former boss's resignation. She also said that politics was partly to blame for his predicament.

Duckworth possesses high-level VA experience and a Purple Heart, but proved a hard read when the Washington Post asked if she'd accept the job if Obama called again.

“I’m a sucker for that ‘Your nation needs you to serve’ line. But I would say no,” she said, then added, “I’m just getting started serving my constituents here and I guess you could never say no, but I think that the work that I’m doing now is critical.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), is a Vietnam veteran and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. A graduate of West Point who became an Army Ranger, Reed has shown little interest in lobbying for the position.

“I am continuing to serve the people of Rhode Island in the United States Senate, which is one of the greatest privileges I can think of,” Reed recently told Politico, adding that “pretty much” meant he didn’t want the job.

You must also consider the fact the administration will consider the Democrats' ability to retain seats, and Rhode Island would almost certainly not swing Republican. Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat who was a decorated Iraq War veteran and National Guard member, early this year became the first of that war's veterans to serve in the Senate. Walsh initially hesitated to call for Shinseki's resignation, but blamed the situation on "Washington politicians" who "keep voting against services for veterans." However, by the end of May, Walsh had changed his mind.

“It is time for President Obama to remove Secretary Shinseki from office,” he said, adding, “accountability lies with President Obama, Secretary Shinseki, the VA, and also with Congress, which has the obligation to fully fund the costs of war.”

Although Walsh was one of the first Democrats to seek Shinseki’s resignation, he doesn't appear to be angling for the job. He's preoccupied with seeking his party's nomination to retain the seat he was appointed to in February.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, enlisted in the Army National Guard at 17 and retired 24 years later as a sergeant major. The Afghanistan War veteran is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, and he's also on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The West Point, Nebraska, native had a tougher demeanor than some of the Republicans during the VA hearings.

And finally there are two good friends—Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, who look like they're attempting to foist the position on each other. McCain claims Coburn's credentials are better than anyone's in Washington and that Coburn deserves the job.

“If there’s anybody in Congress that knows more about health care, then Tom Coburn should be the next secretary of the Veterans Administration, in my view,” McCain said on CBS’ Face The Nation Sunday. Coburn and McCain sponsored legislation addressing the ongoing VA problems, which Senate will be considering next week.

Coburn's real career was as a doctor, specializing in family medicine, obstetrics and allergy treatment. He delivered more than 4,000 babies, and he's beaten cancer three times. Coburn is leaving the Senate because of another cancer battle, and McCain is evidently the only one calling for Coburn's nomination.

McCain laughs off questions concerning the nomination, but he certainly has the resume if he were running toward the job. The Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war has long been a loud voice advocating for veterans. He's a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, a former presidential candidate and member of the Senate since 1986, serving on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.

McCain entered the Naval Academy in 1954 and served in the Navy until 1981 as a fighter pilot, spending six years at the Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war. He also strongly criticized Obama over the VA's problems, noting that the Phoenix VA Medical Center is located in Arizona.

He urged the president to “call together the best people he can find” to fix the agency, but apparently doesn’t think he falls into that group. “I don’t have the credentials,” he said this week. “Plus, I don’t want to destroy a beautiful friendship."

Related Thursday Review articles:

The VA Hospitals: It's Worse Than We Thought; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 10, 2014.

The VA's Growing Scandals; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; Monday, May 12, 2014.