POLITICS
05/30/2014 11:17 am ET Updated 6 days ago

Eric Shinseki, The Man Who Trusted Too Much

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki re-enters the hearing room after testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to examine the state of veteran health care. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON -- In the 38 years that he served in the United States Army, Eric Shinseki believed in a military culture where truth-telling, no matter how painful, was not just accepted: Brutal honesty was demanded.

In Ric Shinseki's army, no one got punished for telling the truth. And commanders could rely absolutely on their subordinates' word.

Now, with the facts about systemic dishonesty, cheating and dysfunction within the VA exploding out into public, it seems clear that within the largely civilian Department of Veterans Affairs, telling the truth was not just frowned upon -- it was punished by mid-level managers. Horror stories about veterans waiting for months to receive care at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix were just the beginning.

And Shinseki, a man widely known as deeply honorable and passionate about serving fellow veterans, has had to resign as VA secretary, in part because he trusted.

President Barack Obama announced Friday that he had accepted Shinseki's resignation, something that at least 100 lawmakers on Capitol Hill had called for.

In a speech Friday morning to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, prior to the president's announcement, Shinseki made no mention of the growing furor. But as he concluded, he urged the audience to continue fighting to keep veterans off the streets. "Now is not the time to let up," he told them. "Let's get on with it. It is the Lord's work."

"I'm honored to have been in this fight for justice with all of you," he added.

Admirers of Ric Shinseki -- and they are legion -- are sorrowful but not surprised.

"It may be impossible to manage an organization that's so huge, if people are willing to cheat the system and hold back information and essentially deceive and lie up the chain and to the secretary, to protect themselves, to meet performance measures so they can get their bonuses," said Marsha Four, a decorated Vietnam war combat nurse and longtime activist in the veterans community.

The bad news inside the VA -- an acute shortage of qualified medical and mental health staff; layers of middle management clogged with aging, overpaid time-servers; a scarcity of funds to modernize VA facilities; endless waitlists for appointments -- was not something employes have been rewarded for pointing out to VA headquarters in Washington.

Shinseki's tenure at the VA is a story of hubris and isolation at the top. He had insisted that any veteran seeking a medical appointment be seen within 14 days. Scheduling clerks found it impossible to meet that requirement, given the shortage of available doctors. But that bad news was systematically stifled by mid-level VA management.

When the VA proudly reported that 93 percent of veterans seeking primary care doctor appointments were being seen within 14 days, many people just didn't believe it. Shinseki apparently did.

"I'm sure his heart is breaking," Four said. "He wants to do the best for the veterans of his country, the people he served with. My heart goes out to him because he is a good man. He doesn't deserve this."

Close friends and former colleagues describe Shinseki as cool under fire -- perhaps too cool. He famously shies away from publicity, rarely gives interviews and appears visibly uncomfortable at congressional hearings. Under the intense and public pressure he is experiencing now, some say he tends to become less effective, less able to make hard decisions.

"He is a man who is revered," said one person who knows Shinseki well. "He's a great guy, has enormous values, family-oriented, embodies the Army to extreme. But when placed under public pressure, he just basically goes down and down. He emotionally shrinks into himself."

Garry Augustine, a wounded Vietnam veteran and executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, suggested that Shinseki has "not been counseled as well as he should have been.”

U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks at an event on Veterans Affairs at the U.S. Capitol on April 3, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Though many legislators called for Shinseki's resignation, Boehner remained one of his unlikely allies. "The question I ask myself is, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem?" Boehner asked Thursday. "Is it going to help us find out what's really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no."

Others say Shinseki has simply never been up to the job.

"We do not doubt the Secretary's sincerity in wanting to fix the problem," said Derek Bennett of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of several veterans' organizations that met with Shinseki Thursday to discuss how to fix the VA's issues. "But we still have serious questions about whether the Secretary has the tools, resources, and the confidence of VA staff and veterans to create real reform.”

The VA's problems were not exactly unknown. More than a half century ago, a presidential commission on the VA, chaired by Omar Bradley, aimed to fix the department's "backward-looking" management style and urged "more positive leadership" on the VA's part. In 1993, a Blue Ribbon Panel acknowledged that wait times were "unacceptable" and the backlog "has created additional and unacceptable delays" for veterans. And in 2007, a panel headed by former Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services, concluded that the department's problems ran so deep that "merely patching the system, as has been done in the past," wasn't enough. Instead, they called for "fundamental changes."

Despite its rhetoric praising veterans, the VA bureaucracy has often simply failed veterans on a grand scale. The rising demand among new combat vets for mental health services has been evident to the public for at least a decade, but the VA currently has 1,465 unfilled mental health job openings on its career site.

One indicator of how the VA serves mentally troubled veterans: Of the estimated 22 veterans who die by suicide every day, 17 have not sought care at the VA, according to Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Post-traumatic stress disorder was officially recognized by the mental health profession in 1980, but it took another eight years for the VA to agree to compensate veterans with PTSD. The department fought against compensating veterans for exposure to the Vietnam herbicide Agent Orange for decades, as it did with Gulf War Syndrome.

Army veteran Julio Bernal from Takoma Park, Maryland, works with others from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide to date in 2014 on the National Mall in Washington, on March 27, 2014.

So when President Obama selected Shinseki in 2009 to run the VA, the newly appointed secretary set out to reform the institution with tough new standards that he expected folks to meet. Among them: anyone coming in to see a doctor had to be seen within 14 days. He even set up software -- the Veterans Health Information System and Technology Architecture -- to run checks verifying that electronic waiting lists were being kept up to date.

Shinseki and the handful of ex-military men he gathered around him at the top of the VA went after the department's stodgy and resistant bureaucracy with a vengeance. They held management seminars and inaugurated a leadership training program. They shook up senior staffs and proselytized a new, streamlined culture of management.

Shinseki dictated performance standards and posted the reported results publicly, including the 14-day requirement. But with the shortage of doctors and staff at many VA medical centers, that standard simply couldn't be met. Scheduling clerks dealt with it by fudging the numbers, according to the VA inspector general's report on the Phoenix VA Medical Center released this week.

Precisely why middle managers were reluctant to report to Washington that they were unable to meet the 14-day performance standard and other requirements will be determined by the IG's continuing investigation. But one reason may have been a simple unwillingness to rock the boat. According to the VA's 2014-2020 Strategic Plan, its workforce, swollen with mid-level managers and administrators, is rapidly aging. A third of its 332,000 employees are eligible for retirement, including roughly 50 percent of the department's senior executives.

Whatever the reason, many of the VA clinical workers -- those on the front lines of health care -- say they are simply afraid to speak up, despite the federal No Fear Act, which is designed to protected federal government whistleblowers.

"There is no such thing as 'No Fear' at the VA," a VA psychiatric nurse told The Huffington Post. "They make us take all the training so they can let the people in D.C. know they've done the training. But I've been retaliated on lots of times. People try to send in a complaint, and the next thing, they are fired."

In his frequent travels to meet with VA employees around the country, Shinseki often pleaded with them to be honest about any problems they were having meeting the standards he had set -- "planting a flag," as he put it.

"You plant a flag, make a commitment. If it isn't perfect, tell us what we can do," Shinseki told a gathering of VA workers at a meeting in Huntington, West Virginia, last May. He was responding to a clerk who had risen to talk about overwork, stress and her fear of not being able to meet his requirements.

In an interview at that time, Shinseki told The Huffington Post of the clerk: "It's about high standards and expectations. I was trying to reassure her that we need her to do the best she can," and if she cannot, to send that signal up the chain. "I want her best work and [for her] not be afraid to make the call," Shinseki said.

The clerical worker, who cannot be identified under VA rules, went away unconvinced.

Ironically, on a personal level, Shinseki is a man driven by a hunger to know how well veterans are being served. Vincent Kane, who runs the VA's highly successful homeless programs, met with Shinseki many times in designing groundbreaking initiatives to get veterans into stable housing.

"He wanted to know on an individual level what we were doing that works and how that made a difference in people's lives," Kane said in an interview. "He wanted to know, every veteran we touch, are they still housed? How are they connected? He wanted pictures of the veterans. He talked about them as if he were their children. He held himself accountable for them."

In an interview in autumn 2012, Shinseki suggested that after three years on the job, he was beginning to sense the enormity of trying to transform the VA to better serve the veterans whom he deeply reveres.

When he took the job, he said, "I had no idea what I was getting into."

His determination to keep hammering at the problem was rooted in what he considers an honor debt he owes to veterans.

At the VA, he said in the 2012 interview, "I get to take care of the kids I fought with in Vietnam and the kids I sent off to war" in Iraq and Afghanistan, when he was Army chief of staff.

"This is a chance to take care of them when they come home," he said. "I wasn't just going to walk away from them."

But the contrast between Shinseki's military days and the VA today couldn't be sharper.

It was the Army's failure in Vietnam that led to a renewed emphasis on truth-telling and powered its adoption of group self-criticism from Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. In After Action Reviews (AARs) that Army companies, battalions and brigades routinely held after combat exercises in the 1980s and 1990s -- the period when Shinseki was rising through the ranks -- every action would be scrutinized to find out what went wrong, what went right and what needed fixing. Junior officers, and even junior enlisted soldiers, stood to tell Shinseki and other senior leaders to their faces that their plans were flawed, or that their logistics guys didn't deliver fuel on time, or that they hadn't allowed enough time to move to the objective.

In the kind of mission planning that Shinseki led as a battalion and brigade commander, it was expected that each member of the unit speak up if he couldn't do the task he was assigned. Feedback like "Sir, my squad's beat, we can't walk another 10 kilometers" might cause a hard-pressed leader frustration, perhaps even anger. But a subordinate's honesty would never be met with recrimination.

Unlike the VA, said Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and West Point classmate of Shinseki, in the military "if you screw up you have dead soldiers, and you can't hide them."

Within the military culture he lived in, Shinseki was able to effect a major transformation of the Army, rebuilding its combat brigades into smaller, lighter and more agile fighting units, and introducing the Stryker-wheeled combat vehicle that would be used to great effect years later in Iraq.

"If you are going to make a change," he told The Huffington Post last year, "make it big and bold. Walk up to the biggest guy on the block, stand in his face and get it started. Then go around, brigade by brigade, making it make sense. It's one thing to pitch it in Washington. It's another to stand in the room and let people bitch at you."

In that interview, Shinseki was clearly hopeful that the same techniques of setting high expectations and listening carefully to feedback would work at the VA. "You gotta just fight through it," he said then, referring to problems at the VA and the growing chorus of complaints from veterans and politicians. "I'm not leaving."

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