Global Politics

Eric Shinseki has a very American story

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Credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron

United States Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki arrives to address The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference in Washington May 30, 2014.

The reports about long waits for doctor visits, falsification of records, and the possibility that wounded American warriors might have died because of delays at the Veterans Health Administration, all proved to be too much for Eric Shinseki.

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President Obama announced on Friday that he had accepted Shinseki's resignation as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, “with considerable regret.” 

Obama said Shinseki offered to step down because the VA needs new leadership and the mounting scandal meant that he had become a distraction. “We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem,” the president told reporters in the White House briefing room.

Even as the storm at the VA health system surged, many believed that the 71-year-old, four star Army general would retain his position in Obama's cabinet. 

“If someone had had that job, they may have resigned or may have been relieved earlier than Eric Shinseki,” said Bryan Bender, national security reporter for the Boston Globe and author of “You Are Not Forgotten.”

“Republicans and Democrats have enormous respect for this guy, who has given his entire adult life to public service – first, as an Army officer and now, as Veterans Secretary for five years, which is longer than anyone else,” Bender said.

But those stories just kept piling up, about waiting lists, mismanagement and misconduct. And it was happening on Shinseki's watch. He acknowledged the grim reality during an appearance in Washington on Friday morning, at a conference on homeless veterans.

“Given the facts that I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki said. “I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about – that's the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones who I have been honored to serve.”

When Obama named Shinseki to be VA Secretary in 2008, the newly-elected president seemed to be sending a sharp political message.

“The choice of Shinseki at the time was seen by many not simply as a retired general with a lot of respect in management skills who could take on this big task, but it was also kind of a poke in the eye by Obama to the previous administration,” said Bender.

Here was someone who was effectively relieved of duty as Army Chief of Staff, a position Shinseki rose to at the end of President Clinton's second term, because he dared to disagree with Bush administration hawks on Iraq.

In late February 2003, weeks before the US-led invasion began, Shinseki told Congress that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed for the Iraq war. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others, had been telling the public this would be a quick campaign that would require far fewer numbers of boots on the ground.

“It turned out that [Shinseki] was right,” Bender said. “History proved him right, but at the time he was basically cashiered – retired earlier – than planned.”

Shinseki earned a Purple Heart after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam that almost led to the amputation of his right foot. But he worked hard at rehabilitating the injury and went on to serve on active duty officer and became the highest-ranking Asian American in the US military.

Shinseki grew up hearing stories about his uncles who fought in World War II with other Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which served in the European theater and was one of the most decorated outfits in American military history. Bender said Shinseki's biography is a truly American story, “and in some ways the end of his political career is quite American as well.”

“He presided over an agency that has long had a reputation for management problems,” Bender said. “I think he gets a lot of credit for doing some things right at the VA. Lowering this backlog of claims reduced tremendously the number of homeless veterans that are out on the streets.”

Still, Bender added, “it just became clear that [Shinseki] was not the right person to carry the agency forward – certainly Congress didn't have any confidence that he could do it. And I think it just got to the point where he and the president decided that they needed a fresh set of eyes on this.”

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