With the economy, two wars, and all the other major issues facing America, no incoming Obama Administration Cabinet member is getting handed an easy job. But one of the hardest jobs in the Cabinet might not be the first one you think of: Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Until 1989, it wasn't even a Cabinet level position.
It's a huge job--and one that has been filled by three different people since 9/11 alone. The VA is the second largest Cabinet department in the U.S. government (after the Department of Defense). And it's the largest health care provider in the country. The VA is responsible for caring for the 23.4 million veterans nationwide, including the 1.7 million new veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. New veterans are facing significant problems getting health care, jobs, and disability benefits. Currently, one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are facing serious mental health injuries like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression. Wounded veterans are waiting months, sometimes years, to receive disability benefits. And the struggling U.S. economy is hitting new veterans especially hard. To ensure our veterans get the care they need, we need a powerhouse at the VA's helm.
That's why this week's nomination hearing for General Shinseki, Obama's choice for VA Secretary, is so crucial. Shinseki is a wounded, decorated, combat veteran, and the first Asian-American in U.S. history to be a four-star general. Prior to the war in Iraq, he was largely known for his controversial 2001 decision to make black berets the standard uniform for all soldiers. Before this decision, the black berets were the trademark of the famed Rangers only.
But Shinseki is most famous outside the military for his prophetic comments in February 2003 about troop numbers in Iraq. He was right, Rumsfeld and others were wrong. But that was a long time ago, and Shinseki was in a very different job. This week, he must make it clear that he is turning the page on that dustup, and concentrate the media and the country on his new role. He must make it clear that when it comes to the VA, all Americans must separate the war from the warriors.
General Shinseki has the potential to be an effective and dedicated advocate for veterans of all generations. But nobody gets a free pass. The Senate must ensure that he is the right person for a very tough job.
Shinseki must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the issues and the unique vision necessary to lead the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government. IAVA has outlined 10 critical questions the Senate committee must ask General Shinseki to thoroughly assess his stance on the key issues facing new veterans. Top of the list are the new GI Bill, the VA budget, and mental health care. You can check out all of our questions here.
Rest assured that IAVA will be following every minute of the nomination hearing tomorrow at 10 AM. You can watch the reaction of IAVA veterans live on our blog. We'll explain what's important, and we'll hold the politicians' feet to the fire if they fail to ask the right questions - and insist on real answers. Our veterans deserve nothing less.