Obama's VA pick pleases veterans groups, lawmakers

News of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki's nomination for Veterans Affairs secretary has drawn mostly cheers from veterans groups and Congress.

"We're very excited that this type of change is going to be effective at the VA, specifically having someone who will do the right things," said Todd Bowers, director of government affairs at the nonpartisan veterans group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Someone who won't put politics ahead of patriotism."

President-elect Barack Obama made the announcement in Chicago on Sunday, the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Harking back to World War II, Obama said that when "those troops came home to a grateful nation," they had support in the form of the GI Bill and "a chance to live out in peace the dreams they had fought for, and so many died for, on the battlefield." He used the same theme of commitment to veterans in introducing Shinseki.

As Army chief of staff, Shinseki clashed with the Bush administration on its Iraq war strategy, specifically telling Congress before the war began that stabilizing Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops. Veterans groups say that this prediction helps show how Shinseki will ensure veterans are well represented by the VA.

"He always made bold decisions, well-defined assumptions and had an understanding of the issues," Bowers said, citing Shinseki's testimony to Congress prior to the Iraq war.

Obama himself said Shinseki was "right" about needing more troops on "Meet The Press." When Obama announced Shinseki on Sunday, he highlighted the courage the 66-year-old Army veteran showed during his time in the military. "No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans," Obama said. "No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need."

Will Shinseki's knowledge and expertise on the Iraq war prompt Obama to seek his advice on military issues outside of Veterans Affairs? Bowers didn't think so. "He's always had a reputation to be a quiet, reserved officer," Bowers said. "He's very committed to the chain of command and the way that that structure is established." He added that Shinseki's time in the military will help strengthen the communication between the Pentagon and the VA.

Bowers said that one of Shinseki's top priorities as VA secretary will be to implement the new GI Bill, which passed Congress this summer and offers more education benefits for veterans. "Him having been in the service and extremely educated, he will see that the program get implemented by the Aug. 1 deadline," Bower said.

One common trend emerging from many pro-Obama veterans groups, such as VoteVets.org and the American Federation of Government Employees, is praise that Obama is taking a step away from the veterans policies the groups reproached during the current administration. In a statement, the AFGE said that this appointment "represents a clear break from the past eight years in which the Bush Administration sought to dismantle the VA through the use of fee-basis contract care and undercut the agency by continually understaffing and underfunding the agency." Brandon Friedman, vice chairman of VoteVets.org, commends Shinseki for "always think[ing] ahead to what needs may be down the road," and not being "afraid to strongly speak his mind to the president of the United States."

Congressional Praise

The Shinseki appointment also received praise within Congress. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., released a statement Monday morning "applauding" the nomination. Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said Shinseki's "past leadership as Chief of Staff in the Army coupled with his brave service as a four-star general will bring a new energy to the department and bring hope to our veterans."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, also praised the nomination. "I have great respect for General Shinseki's judgment and abilities," Akaka said in a statement. "I am confident that he will use his wisdom and experience to ensure that our veterans receive the respect and care they have earned in defense of our nation."

One member of the House veterans committee, however, expressed his "disappointment" that Obama will not keep current VA Secretary James Peake. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., attributed many positive changes in the VA to Peake's leadership, and lamented that "replacing him could cause a major setback." He didn't explicitly disapprove of the Shinseki pick, stating toward the end of the statement that the prospective VA secretary is an "honorable man."

Check out the new blog Lost in Transition, a joint effort of Government Executive and National Journal.

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