Editor’s note: The resignation in late May of U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki left many in Hawai‘i with uneasy feelings. Like Hawai‘i astronaut Ellison Onizuka, the first American astronaut of Japanese ancestry to soar into space, Eric Shinseki had brought genuine pride to our state and our AJA community because he had always done his job well and with the utmost humility. He was someone the young in our community could look up to as a role model.
Longtime Herald contributor Kevin Kawamoto sent in the following commentary, which puts the situation at the VA in perspective. His commentary was prefaced by this message: “I was talking to a 442 veteran the other day and he was very disappointed with the way Shinseki had to leave the VA. I think a lot of people are upset that he left under a cloud, so I wanted to write something that addressed that sentiment.”
Here is Kevin’s commentary.
When Eric Shinseki, retired four-star general in the United States Army and former Army chief of staff, was appointed to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009, many in Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community were proud that this Kaua‘i-born sansei and recipient of two Purple Hearts was being given another opportunity to serve his country, this time as a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet. Imagine that: two Hawai‘i sons, along with our state’s two U.S. senators — Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, occupying such high positions in the nation’s capital at the same time!
But some must have also worried about Shinseki taking on the complex responsibilities of a massive bureaucracy with a troubled, controversy-laden past. Indeed, the lengthy wait times for veterans to get medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics long preceded Shinseki’s tenure, and this was only one of a number of serious complaints that veterans and their advocates had been lobbing at this beleaguered federal agency for decades. Trying to resolve the backlog of veterans’ claims for benefits — a situation Shinseki inherited from his predecessors — might have seemed like an insurmountable task, but Shinseki had implemented a plan for speeding up the processing of claims through the enhanced use of technology.
That task will now have to be left to his successor to complete, as Shinseki submitted his resignation to President Obama on May 30, and the president accepted it, amid a growing scandal relating to “questionable scheduling practices” that appear to have been done to intentionally mislead observers about delays in delivering health care services to veterans. The use of “secret waiting lists” was exposed at a VA facility in Phoenix, Ariz., but the practice may have been more widespread. Reportedly, one reason these secret lists were kept was because of intense pressure on VA health care providers to improve their wait times. Shinseki may not have known that these practices were going on and did not defend them prior to his resignation, but rather took responsibility for them as the chief administrator of the VA.
“Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki said in a public speech on the day he resigned. “I send an apology to the people I care most deeply about, and that’s the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones whom I have been honored to serve for over five years now.”
He also extended his apology to the American public, who he said “deserve better from their VA.” He told the audience that leadership and integrity problems “can and must be fixed, and now.” This was followed by extended applause, as was his assurance that the senior leadership at the Phoenix VA facility would be removed and that no senior executive in the VA health care system would receive performance awards for 2014. He said senior executives would be held accountable if it is found that they instigated or tolerated dishonorable or irresponsible scheduling practices.
Shinseki’s speech that day was difficult to watch. He looked genuinely sorrowful, if not somewhat shaken. Here was a great leader and public servant — who served his country with distinction for 38 years in a military uniform — forced to step down because of the actions of those he may have trusted too much. But he left his position at the VA the same way he entered it, with humility and dignity. He did not display bitterness or rancor, but rather a commitment, even in his final hours as VA chief, to correct any wrongs that may have occurred under his watch.
In accepting Shinseki’s resignation, President Obama said at a press conference, “Under his leadership, we have seen more progress on more fronts at the VA and a bigger investment in the VA than just about any other VA secretary.” He said that Shinseki’s commitment to veterans was unquestioned and that his service to his country was exemplary.
“As secretary of the VA,” President Obama said of Shinseki, “he presided over record investments in our veterans, enrolling 2 million new veterans in health care, delivering disability pay to more Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; making it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress, mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment; improving care for our women veterans. At the same time, he helped reduce veteran homelessness and helped more than 1 million veterans, service members and their families pursue their education under the post-9/11 GI Bill.”
Of course, these and other accomplishments will be overshadowed, at least for now, by the scheduling scandal and other negative news stories about the VA. This is unfortunate because the VA healthcare system, with all its problems, should not be painted over with broad strokes, as if the entire system and all of its parts are somehow contaminated. In fact, there are many good people working for the VA, people on the frontlines who interact with veterans on a daily basis and do a great job as physicians, nurses, social workers, mental health specialists, physical therapists, nursing assistants, chaplains, and so forth. They respect veterans and provide excellent care. Their stories and experiences may not make it into the news, but their efforts should not be overlooked.
As for Eric K. Shinseki, we should thank him for having taken on this three-headed dragon known as the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009, even though some observers may have wondered, “Why?!!” After all, he could have opted to spend his retirement sitting on a beach with a fishing pole. His resignation due to the scheduling scandal in 2014 does not define his tenure as a VA Secretary and certainly takes nothing away from his lifetime commitment to public service, the national defense, or caring for America’s veterans and their families.
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald and was a social work intern at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle (also known as the “Seattle VA”) for an academic year prior to Eric Shinseki’s appointment as VA Secretary.