VA Secretary nominee gets favorable Senate hearing

Retired Lt. Gen. James Peake says he will fight for needed money for health care if confirmed.

Retired Lt. Gen. James Peake, President Bush's nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, breezed through a Senate confirmation hearing today with bipartisan support. Members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee praised Peake, 63, a highly decorated veteran with 38 years of Army service including time in Vietnam and two years as its surgeon general. They also told him his task ahead would be difficult if confirmed.

"You have a tremendous challenge facing you," Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, told Peake. "Indeed it may be one of the most daunting tasks in or out of government."

Akaka and other senators said returning Iraq war veterans have problems different from other veterans, including mental health difficulties. A significant number of returning veterans suffer from traumatic brain injuries, other wounds and post traumatic stress disorders, Akaka said.

In testimony, Peake said veterans' mental health issues may be his biggest challenge in the job.

"I appreciate the universal concern that PTSD and traumatic brain injury may be less apparent than some of the horrendous physical wounds that we see fresh from the battlefields," he said, adding that "PTSDs are real wounds of war and ought to be treated." He said PTSD and traumatic brain injuries "are likely to become the signature injury of this conflict."

Peake pledged to work on getting veterans health care claims adjusted faster. "A veteran should not need a lawyer to figure out what benefit is due, or get that benefit," Peake said. He also vowed to address problems with the transition of veterans from active duty to veteran status.

"I don't think you could have better prepared for this job if you had planned it," commented Veterans Affairs ranking member Richard Burr, R-N.C.

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told him "a strong resume is not enough." She called on Peake to have "the fortitude, the backbone, and the courage to stand up to the administration, to be honest and upfront about our veterans' current and future course."

Akaka criticized former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson for not advocating more funding for the VA, but Peake promised to work for adequate funding. The committee has not set a date for a confirmation vote.