Thursday, January 19, 2017

Eric Shinseki and the 2014 VA Scandal



"Twenty-five million veterans are living among us today. These men and women selflessly set aside their civilian lives to put on the uniform and serve us." - Steve Buyer

"The sacrifices made by veterans and their willingness to fight in defense of our nation merit our deep respect and praise - and to the best in benefits and medical care." - Sue Kelly

"In Congress, while the House's proposed defense budget calls for significant increases, it also cuts eleven billion dollars from veterans spending, including healthcare and disability pay. Be clear, we can't equate spending on veterans with spending on defense." - Jennifer Granholm

"There was a huge, tremendous amount of disabled veterans and the Veteran's Administration just wasn't geared up for it. I know for a fact that it's getting better and better." - R. Lee Ermey

Introduction

Interestingly enough, when I was in the United States Army, General Eric Shinseki was the Commanding General of the United States Army. Since my time in service, I have lost track of his career. This is, of course, until recently. In the most recent scandal inside the Department of Veterans Affairs, General Shinseki and four other high ranking administrators were fired, along with several lower ranking administrators. As varied reports of incompetence, poor conditions, and slow reaction times poured in, people began to very seriously question the department’s ability to service the needs of our veterans. This may be a little harsh; however, as I find that in an instance such as this, it is necessary to place the leadership under review. Now, Secretary Shinseki was the one running the department, so I will review his tenure with the VA. How did he perform? How was his work viewed in the media? I also want to review, briefly, his career as a top Army General. Was the Army at high readiness under his command? Were there any issues with his leadership while he was still in the Army? The goal of these inquiries is to determine if General Shinseki was really ready for a cabinet level position in the government. I also hope to be able to make a judgment about how much he was really responsible for the inconsistencies in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Biography

It would not hurt, first, to give a brief bio of Eric Shinseki (General, Retired, United States Army), and/or Secretary Shinseki of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Shinseki was born on November 28, 1942 on the island of Lihue, Kaua’I, in what was then the U.S. Territory of Hawaii. He was born into a family whose roots were set down in 1901, having been uprooted from Hiroshima, Japan. In 1960, he graduated from Kaua'i High and Intermediate School. What happened next was the beginning of a career that would be a first for our country. Inspired by his three uncles, who had served in the 442 Infantry Regiment, one of the most highly decorated fighting units in the history of the United States, Shinseki applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1965 with a Bachelors of Science, and the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. From this point on, he served at a wide range of posts, held various commands, and served in two wars. His service began in Vietnam, where he was awarded three Bronze Stars for bravery and two Purple Hearts. He has also, since, been awarded the Army Commendation Medal two times, the Legion of Merit two times, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, and many others. His final position in the Army was as the Army Chief of Staff. This made him the highest ranking officer in the Army, and only the 34th person to hold that rank. It also made him the first officer of Asian Ancestry to hold the position. This is, of course, an important note because he was born not long after the United States went to war with the Empire of Japan.

Army Chief of Staff

During his time in the Pentagon, General Shinseki was by no means inactive. He initiated a new mobilizing strategy for the Army that was designed to make the Army more strategically deployable and mobile in urban combat. The units he envisioned were Stryker Interim-Force Brigade Combat Teams. He also developed a Long Term Strategic Plan, based around new equipment and this new organization, which he called the Future Combat Systems. This new organization was controversial and it would later lead him into a conflict with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The conflict was centered around the post-9/11 reaction of the Bush Administration. He felt that the men running things in the planning stages of the 2nd Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, were grossly underestimating the amount of troops that would be needed to conduct the operation. Of course, once the invasion was over, with the occupation under way, the counter-insurgency began, and the Department of Defense, controlling a force that was undermanned and struggling to keep up, was forced to recognize that General Shinseki’s predictions had been more accurate than their own. They were also forced to admit that his new deployment strategy had been the most appropriate course of action from the beginning.This was also corroborated by the Commander of Army Central Command (CENTCOM), General John Abizaid. On June 11, 2003, after his four year term as Army Chief of Staff was over, General Shinseki retired. He was not willing to continue fighting with Donald Rumsfeld.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

The General’s next position with the government was, of course, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The announcement of his nomination came in early December of 2008. He had zero issues getting the job, and he was confirmed unanimously only moments after the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama on January 20, 2009. After this, the General’s tenure was nothing less than exemplary. He was lauded by both former colleagues and journalists. In a statement to retired General Peter Chiarelli, Robert Siegel described the scandal that ended Shinseki’s term unceremoniously, as “a case of a very very good man, who's run up against some pretty terrible problems in his job.” Chiarelli responded to Siegel’s comment with a statement that begins to raise an interesting question. He said, “I don't look up to any man more than I look up to Eric Shinseki.” On May 30, 2014, President Obama announced that he had accepted Shinseki’s formal resignation from his position. He did so with great reluctance, as Shinseki faced continued calls for his resignation in light of the scandal. The question that is now nagging at my mind is, how is it that a man with such a fantastic public service record, and a man that was deemed more than qualified by the United States Senate, a point that would be more completely reviewed in a full project, fell from public grace so quickly and so unceremoniously?

The Scandal

The initial stages of the scandal were actually fairly localized at a branch of the Veterans Health Administration, a sub department of the VA, in Phoenix, Arizona. The story was first released by CNN on a daily news cast. They reported that at least forty veterans had died while waiting for urgent care at this facility, as well as, cases of falsified documents and graft, related to the upkeep of false appointment schedules and employee bonuses. These numbers and accusations were later confirmed by an internal audit of the VA and its facilities, which was ordered by General Shinseki directly. His report was damning in the worst way. It identified that similar issues of preventable deaths, an estimated 120,000 cases of delayed treatment or treatment never received, records falsification, and graft were common in branches of the Veterans Health Administration throughout the country. On June 11, 2014, the FBI announced that it had launched an investigation in to the matter, and they were considering criminal charges. Later that month, Barack Obama ordered the White House to open its own investigation; in which, they found much the same, saying that the VA was racked with, “significant and chronic systems failures,” and that it was possessed with, “a corrosive culture.” Congress also passed a bill that was subsequently signed by President Obama authorizing the appropriation of one million dollars to assist with the criminal investigation into the business of the VHA.

What Happened?

This scandal marred the reputation of an otherwise exceptional public servant. So what happened? Was there a breakdown in communication? What kind of system had been set up for accountability in the VHA? Why did it take as long as it did for the story to break? Who was really responsible? Was national leadership out of touch with local administrators? Was corruption on this scale already present when Shinseki took over the operations of the VA? The VA has a history of slow treatment, difficulties in the administration of the department, high pressure work situations, and stress regarding numbers, and even graft. So, could a certain amount of blame be placed on the pre-existing problem? I would definitely say so, but it cannot and should not be the only thing that people look to when they seek to better understand this issue. Should the executives and other employees at the various VHA branches be blamed? There is no question about it, and they should face serious charges. However, this is still not enough. A great deal of blame, inevitably, has to be placed on General Shinseki. He was the man running the show. This corruption took place, at least on this occasion, under his watch, and he is responsible for the actions of the people underneath his leadership. How could such a smart man, one with the equivalency of a PhD from the Army War College, miss this? A deeper analysis of military culture will show that the General’s many years of military command got him used to a certain style of administration. He, being the highest ranking General in the Army, had the ability to see that anything he said was done. He gave commands and they were followed. This culture also produced the thorn that later lodged itself in his side as he was running the VA. He trusted, without question, the military chain of command, and he expected that, no matter their personal objections, his officers and men would conduct themselves in a manner befitting their status as soldiers and officers in the United States Army. His problem was that as the leader of a civilian organization, he was not going to be able to trust these principles with people that had never been trained to follow them without question.

The VA was not the Army, and it needed someone that understood that a measure of accountability, whether open or clandestine, was required to ensure that his orders were getting to everyone and that he was getting ALL of the information that he needed about his department, no matter how destructive that information might be. Essentially, Shinseki was transferring his Army command style to the VA, which were it to work, needed some adjustments, but when he stated that he, “could not explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of the VA; that breach of integrity is unacceptable to me, and it is irresponsible and indefensible,” I was impressed with the notion that he really was confused. He did not understand how someone in such a position of authority could be so lax about their behavior. It did not seem like he was picking up on the possibility that their action or inaction could most definitely have been politically or economically motivated. It is well known that government work is not necessarily the highest paying job in the world. Nor are the people in the department necessarily motivated to do something if it means going against their party’s political agenda. Some could very possibly be spies for opposing political parties or departments, seeking to gain an edge on any program that might benefit their interests. Essentially, the General was not a good politician; at least, that is what such a statement engenders.

What Was the Problem?

The question about the department’s history of problems, whether they be corruption or poor services, must also be addressed. Shinseki now comes off as a poor administrator. One of his primary goals as Secretary should have been rooting out such issues from the beginning. With the reports that were already available, he could have dramatically reorganized the department to be more responsive and more accountable, and he could have staved off the scandal that took his job from him. This all having been said, another major culprit would have to be the United States Congress. They have historically been slow to properly fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, just as more and more veterans are produced by numerous military conflicts and are then in need of increased amounts of care. The budget has increased annually; however, adjusted for inflation, the funding has never been just quite enough to get the job done. (Christine Scott, “Veterans Affairs: Historical Budget Authority, FY1940-FY2012,” Congressional Research Service, CSR Report for Congress, June 13, 2012, p. 1-9.)

It would seem that the 2014 VHA scandal can be blamed on a great many people, all of whom would be identified and examined in a more thorough study; however, the fact still remains that an existent problem was not attended to properly and it became a scandal that ended a good man’s career. This points to an even bigger problem, however. It shows, and it does so very clearly, that our government is more reactionary than it is proactive. These issues were well known long before Shinseki was appointed to head the VA. It shows that the government only responds to issues when they can no longer be ignored, and this attitude, it can be argued, is the standard in multiple departments. Simply consider FEMA’s response to Hurricane Catrina. This was reactionary governance at its worst. The ‘corrosive culture’ within the VA can be construed to be representative of similar problems in other departments across all the branches of government; at least, that is what one can be lead to believe when the evidence is placed right in front of them.

Based on the report from the US Accountability Office, I believe that a more detailed analysis of the internal operations of the Department of Veterans Affairs will reveal a systemic problem of corruption, graft, and falsified reports. It will also show that the problems have never been truly addressed. They have only been met with patches and stop gap measures from the very beginning, making it very difficult to accuse General Shinseki of any kind of corruption. Based on the report from the Congressional Research Service, I believe that a further analysis of the VA’s finances will reveal a systemic problem with underfunding, lack of appropriate supplies, and a consistent shortage of personnel, in both medical personnel and administrative personnel. As this is a pre-existing issue, I do not think it is fair to shoulder the blame for underfunding on the most recent leader of the department. A more detailed analysis of Congressional records regarding the VA, I contend, will also reveal the systemic nature of the VA’s financial woes. I also contend that an analysis of our country’s instances of government intervention in society will also prove that not just the VA, but the entire government of this nation is reactionary, at best, seeking only the quickest solutions to problems, rather than taking their time to properly address the issues that our country faces and making sure that they are no longer an issue.

I also contend that a detailed review of General Shinseki’s military career, from his days at the Academy, through his service in Vietnam, to all the various command posts that he held throughout his career up to the Pentagon, will reveal that the General was an exemplary soldier, a fine officer, and a magnificent administrator. I believe that there would be only minor faults in his profile that could be very easily dismissed as minor aberrations. There is, of course, no way to ensure that he himself was never engaged in corruption while he was in the military; however, given what we do know, he was a credit to the service. It is no wonder that he was chosen to head the VA by President Obama. Shinseki is a respected leader and a great man. Any soldier would be proud to follow him into battle. I contend, however, that that did not necessarily translate to the VA. Used to a command structure that ensured discipline and compliance to all commands, with stiff consequences for disobedience, the General was not prepared for the politics of government work, and I also argue that he was not prepared for the lack of general order that he would face while commanding civilians, who are not necessarily bound by the same principles that he lived a great portion of his life embracing and defending. This, of course, opened him up to problems.

Conclusion

With the pre-existing issues in the VA, especially this very same problem, and with reports available to back it up, how did Shinseki not take it upon himself to solve the problems? I believe that a deep analysis of everything that he did as the head of the VA will show that the General took his military command experience and superimposed it upon the VA. He may have very well been aware of the problems, and he may have taken every step he could to ensure that the issue was addressed, but I can imagine that his personal action and follow up stopped at the administrators just below him. He expected that his orders would travel down the chain of command and ensure that the issue was resolved. This did not happen, and he paid the price for it with his career. A bit of blame can be placed on his head for this failure to follow up on the issue, and for not making it public the moment he stepped into his office. If the issue had come out then, I believe he would have had the full support of the Obama administration and Congress, as they had just run on getting the insiders out of Washington and returning real governance to the Capital.

He could have used this political atmosphere not only to address the existing issues in the VA. He could have also set up a system that would work to prevent the reoccurrence of such issues. This did not happen. Instead, he lost a fairly public job, and his career in government work is likely over. Another issue that all of this may reveal, and this is pure speculation, is what I would contend might be a battle for funding between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. It is very possible that the conflict over funding new wars versus taking care of wounded veterans that have made their way home is part of the VA’s problem. It certainly shows clearly when we look at the VA’s poor history of treating veterans that come home with severe mental disabilities, picked up while having their lives threatened in places that many had never known existed. Ultimately, the issue could have been prevented, but between the naivety of General Shinseki, and the past record of stop gap measures and patchwork that our government is well known for, it is a little surprising that the scandal did not occur sooner. Hopefully, now, with the affair being made so public, genuine measures will be taken to prevent its reoccurrence in the future.

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