Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Shinseki Deserved a Better Ending Let His Critics Step Up and Run the Va, a Department Almost Designed to Fail

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Shinseki Deserved a Better Ending Let His Critics Step Up and Run the Va, a Department Almost Designed to Fail

Article excerpt

The forcing out of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs Friday was probably necessary but was nonetheless a tragedy in terms of U.S. public service.

I need to acknowledge up front that he and his wife Patty were neighbors and friends in the late 1990s when I was vice president of the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. My knowledge of Gen. Shinseki and of his approach to his work, to what he considered his duty, along with his record of service, are part of the basis of what I am about to say.

His biography is almost unbelievable. He was born of Japanese- American parents on Hawaii in 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor, a time when Japanese-Americans were being put into internment camps. He graduated from West Point. He served two combat tours in Vietnam, losing part of a foot to a land mine but returning to duty. He rose steadily in the Army, finally to chief of staff in 1999. His service included a difficult tour in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When President George W. Bush's secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and deputy secretary of defense, Paul D. Wolfowitz, were cooking up the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gen. Shinseki was asked his professional estimate of how many U.S. forces would be needed to occupy Iraq successfully. He responded, "several hundred thousand."

That number was higher than what Mr. Rumsfeld was saying, so he turned against Gen. Shinseki. When the general left the Army in 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld did not attend his retirement ceremony, a visible, public insult not only to Mr. Shinseki, but to the office of Army chief of staff. The peak number of U.S. forces in Iraq rose to 170,000. The Iraq war would be hard to consider a U.S. success.

When President Barack Obama named Gen. Shinseki secretary of veterans affairs in 2009, there was general rejoicing among active- duty and retired service members, based on his reputation not only as a general who cared about his troops but also as one who had suffered a severe wound himself, much like those endured by other returned and returning forces.

The job was probably impossible, one that would grind down even someone as dedicated as Gen. Shinseki.

The VA performs at least three basically incompatible functions: burying U.S. troops who die at home or abroad, in their beds or in combat; administering and delivering the benefits to which U.S. veterans are entitled; and running a huge nationwide hospital system.

The first is appropriate to a large network of funeral homes and cemeteries. The second comprises the full range of human-services administration. The third involves running one of the largest health-care systems anywhere.

The first point a sensible management consultant would make is that the three functions should be disaggregated. …

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