VA Secretary Nominee Says He's Prepared for Daunting Task
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2005 "The challenge of leading such an organization is daunting, but I am prepared to accept it," Ambassador Jim Nicholson, nominated by President Bush to become the new secretary of Veterans Affairs, told a Senate committee Jan. 24.
Nicholson, testifying Monday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, pointed out that if confirmed, "I will do my utmost to see that they receive all that they have earned, and that it is delivered with the dignity that they have also earned."
President Bush named the former ambassador to the Vatican to replace Anthony J. Principi.
The VA operates the nation's largest integrated healthcare system. Some 26 million veterans, their dependents and survivors rely on the department for healthcare and billions of dollars in monetary benefits, such as life insurance, education, mortgage insurance and readjustment benefits.
The department also has a workforce of more than 230,000 employees.
During testimony, Nicholson, a West Point graduate who served on active for eight years, including combat duty in Vietnam, said his military background helped prepare him for the job. He said he understands the sacrifices veterans have made.
"I have had the privilege of wearing the uniform of the United States Army in combat," he told the committee. "So I have seen both the horrors of war and the heroes of America making the greatest sacrifices of military service on behalf of their comrades and our nation.
"One cannot leave a battlefield without having profound respect for the courage and cool of all who have served there," he emphasized.
"Their example of unwavering commitment to their mission, no matter how dangerous and uncomfortable, will always reverberate with me, and readies me for a mission of service to those veterans," he said.
During testimony, Nicholson also outlined principles he has committed to upholding, if confirmed as secretary.
They include, he said, ensuring that veterans have access to the best available healthcare in the most appropriate clinical settings delivered in a timely manner by caring, compassionate clinicians.
And he said that veterans, their eligible dependents, and survivors will get "prompt, accurate, equitable, and understandable decisions on their claims for benefits."
Also, veterans "should be appropriately honored in death for their service and sacrifices on behalf of a grateful nation," he said.
Nicholson said he would work to ensure that the VA and Defense Department provide a "seamless transition" for those veterans who return home with injuries suffered from the war overseas, telling the committee "it is critical that we honor America's debt to those who have served us so faithfully."
"The armed forces of our country are, in my opinion, the model for what is good and great about America," he said. "They are a paragon of integrity, they don't take, they give."
"They are disciplined, highly trained, with a love for their country. They are a unique force in the world, and we need to treat them uniquely well."
Nicholson said he would continue what called the "terrific strides" the VA has made in serving veterans during secretary Principi's tenure.
He said under the secretary's leadership, the VA provided healthcare to 860,000 more veterans than it did in 2001, and drastically reduced waiting times for healthcare appointments. The VA also opened nearly 100 new community-based, outpatient clinics, so that 87 percent of the veteran population now lives within 30 minutes of a VA medical facility.
"As a result of its focus on excellence in healthcare, he said, "the VA is now the proven benchmark in preventative healthcare quality, and chronic disease management," he noted.
He also pointed out that since 2001 the VA drastically reduced its inventory of pending claims for disability compensation, reduced average processing time of those claims, and at the same time substantially improved the quality of claims decisions.
Moreover, in 2001, the VA embarked upon the largest expansion of the national cemetery system since the Civil War, he said.
"When construction of all the new cemeteries is completed, VA will have expanded the national cemetery system by 85 percent," he emphasized.
However, Nicholson added that despite all the VA accomplished over the past four years, if confirmed, he would strive "to move the department to another level by building on all that has been put in place and improving upon those areas that remain a challenge."
Some challenges mentioned by committee members during the hearing included possible funding cuts by the Bush administration to the VA budget that could force the department to cut benefits, and how to deal with thousands of newly disabled veterans added to VA benefit rolls by the war on terror.
"I pledge to you, if confirmed by you, that I will do all in my power to see that both the veterans and the citizens of our great nation are pleased by the service of their Veterans Administration," Nicholson told the committee.