VA Secretary Embraces ‘Personal Calling’ of Serving Veterans
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 10, 2009 Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki is a no-nonsense leader who wants veterans to measure his performance and that of the department he leads through concrete results, not rhetoric.
“Veterans have been given a lot of promises over a bunch of years, and I have assured them that they should measure us by our accomplishments, not just the promises,” Shinseki told American Forces Press Service. “We have some things to deliver.”
Less than two months into the job, Shinseki is focused on transforming VA into a “people-centric, results-oriented and forward-looking” department.
“We have committed to putting veterans at the focal point of all that we do here,” he said. “There is only one reason we exist, and that is to ensure that our veterans who have earned benefits and services get them quickly – and that it is accessible to them, it is logical, it is fair and consistent.”
For Shinseki, a 38-year soldier who retired in 2003 as Army chief of staff, the mission is extremely personal.
Many of the veterans he now serves were “the truly unbelievable heroes of World War II” who returned from Europe and the Pacific to provide leadership for the United States, including the military, he said. “We all stand on their shoulders,” Shinseki said. “We do things today professionally that they taught us how to do.”
But other veterans under VA’s charge served alongside Shinseki or under his command -- in Vietnam and elsewhere during his military career. For others, Shinseki was the one who issued the deployment orders that sent them into harm’s way.
“So this is an opportunity for me to give back to the ones I went to war with, and the men and women I sent to war,” he said. “It’s a way to give back, and I am honored to have that opportunity.”
Shinseki’s vision of giving back to America’s veterans got a solid endorsement yesterday as President Barack Obama, flanked by Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, reiterated his commitment to the nation’s veterans.
As Obama announced a new joint virtual lifetime electronic record that will improve care and services to transitioning veterans by smoothing the flow of medical records between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, the president recognized the debt the country owes its servicemembers and veterans.
“We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America,” he said. “It's a commitment that begins in enlistment, and it must never end.” But for too long, the United States has fallen short of that commitment, he added.
“Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need,” he said. “Too many veterans don't receive the support that they've earned. Too many who once wore our nation's uniform now sleep in our nation's streets.
“It's time to change all that,” he continued. “It's time to give our veterans a 21st-century VA.”
Obama said his fiscal 2010 budget request, which represents the largest single-year increase in VA funding in three decades, will help achieve that goal. “All told, we will increase funding by $25 billion over the next five years,” he said.
“This is the largest budget request ever put forward by a president,” Shinseki told American Forces Press Service. “And I think veterans should take great confidence in our president’s commitment to veterans” – a commitment he said Obama has maintained consistently as a member of the Senate Affairs Committee, as a presidential candidate, and now as commander in chief.
Congress, too, has strongly supported additional VA funding during the past two years, Shinseki said.
“So I am pretty optimistic about this budget,” he said. “The dialogue has already begun with key members of Congress.”
In an open letter to veterans after taking office, Shinseki said VA’s “best days as an organization to support veterans are ahead of us.”
“We will fulfill President Lincoln’s charge to care for ‘him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan’ by redesigning and re-engineering ourselves for the future,” he wrote.
“I look forward to working together with all VA employees to transform our department into an organization that reflects the change and commitment our country expects and our veterans deserve.”