I’ve spent the last couple of hours watching the interwebz light up like the proverbial Christmas tree over the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. I will here and now openly admit my favorable bias toward him and his stellar military career. I met him when I was serving in Saudi Arabia in 2000. I have his coin. I was serving on active duty in the Pentagon when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cut him off at the knees over his prescient notion that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize a post-war Iraq. I was there when Rumsfeld named Gen. Shinseki’s replacement far earlier than is normally the case, essentially making him a lame duck Army Chief of Staff.
Upon retirement, he didn’t do any whining and complaining about what many consider to be his harsh, forced exit from the national stage. He didn’t write a tell-all book about the inner workings of the wartime Army. He didn’t engage in any schadenfreude at Rumsfeld’s subsequent failure to secure Iraq for lack of boots on the ground. He didn’t dish. He retired quietly in the most honorable fashion. One cannot fault him for that nor blame him for that.
He was always media shy. I wasn’t his PAO during his tenure as Army Chief of Staff but as the Chief of the Army Senior Leader Support Team, I forwarded countless requests for interviews to his PAO both before and after those remarks and he always respectfully declined. So it’s no surprise to me that he didn’t make any noise and retired from public life with grace and dignity. (And it’s a style that I wish other retiring officers would emulate.)
Now this. It breaks my heart.
When the Senate Armed Services Committee asked him a question he gave them a straight answer. It was his obligation to do so in spite of pressures to do otherwise that are unimaginable to me. And I suspect he’d have done so even without the pressures. He did so at great professional peril and ended his Army career.
When called upon to tackle the VA, he answered the call quietly, as he always did. He was also handed a huge plate of shit, as it is common knowledge that the VA has always been the poster child for everything that a bureaucracy shouldn’t be.
Now we can argue all day about politics, leadership, accountability and a hundred other things that can be said about Shinseki’s time at the VA. Here’s MY bottom line: the rank and file government employees, managers, supervisors everywhere within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the arm of the VA which manages health care, failed him. He wasn’t the failure, THEY were. They failed to provide him with the information he needed to affect meaningful change. They failed to give enough of a damn about the care they were providing our veterans and went so far as to create methods to keep the bad news from the boss. And everyone at the VHA shares the blame for Shinseki’s resignation and for every veteran who failed to get timely care.
Let me say that again: THEY are to blame for EVERY veteran who failed to get timely care.
Secretary Shinseki is a genuinely good man, outstanding military officer, and gifted leader; himself a wounded veteran. When he took over the VA, I was certain that our veterans were in good hands and that he would make a difference. Too bad the rest of the VHA couldn’t bother themselves to make a difference as well.