WASHINGTON — When Chuck Hagel was appointed deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration by the Reagan administration in September 1981, few expected he would make waves.
Hagel, who had worked on Reagan’s presidential campaign and served as vice chairman of the presidential inauguration committee, “might be expected to toe the company line,” The Washington Post wrote in reporting his appointment.
But Hagel, whose nomination to be secretary of defense was expected to be approved Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not toe the line.
Hagel’s actions at the VA 30 years ago, together with his experience as a combat-wounded Army sergeant in Vietnam, would give him unusual credibility at the Pentagon, according to veterans’ advocates, something they say could help him tackle some of the military’s biggest problems, including military suicide and long-standing turf battles between two of Washington’s largest bureaucracies: the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the then-Veterans Administration, Hagel soon had run-ins with his boss, VA Administrator Robert Nimmo, who had described Vietnam veterans as “crybabies” and likened the health effects of the herbicide Agent Orange to “teenage acne.” Nimmo imposed tight budget restrictions limiting psychiatric counseling available at veterans’ centers, yet he spent more than $54,000 to refurbish his office.
Hagel raised concerns with the Reagan administration, but the White House backed Nimmo, according to accounts at the time and interviews with associates. In response, Hagel resigned in June 1982. Later that year, Nimmo resigned in advance of a General Accounting Office report criticizing him for the renovation spending, which violated a presidential directive.
“Chuck was right to have left,” Harry Walters, who replaced Nimmo, said in an interview. “The White House wasn’t listening to him. I thought it was a sign of integrity.”
“He resigned because they were jerking us around on the Agent Orange stuff,” said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. “He stepped up and did the right thing, which is about unheard of in D.C. these days.”
Hagel made allies among the veteran service organizations that have lasted to this day.
“The veteran groups thought highly of him and were disappointed to see him go,” said Everett Alvarez Jr., a naval aviator who was held as a prisoner of war for eight years by North Vietnam and who replaced Hagel as deputy administrator at the VA.
“There’s widespread support across the veteran community for Chuck Hagel,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “In many ways, he’s a grunt, which is something I say as a positive thing.”
Some critics have questioned whether Hagel’s experiences three and four decades ago is relevant. Eliot Cohen, director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has written that military service has little bearing on effectiveness of the civilian leader of the armed forces, and that it is the duty of the VA secretary, not the defense secretary, to care for veterans.
But Rieckhoff said Hagel’s background may give him insight into issues such as post-traumatic stress and the causes of rising levels of suicide in the active-duty military and veteran populations. “Ten years into war, our community needs someone who understands what it’s like at boot level,” he said.
Hagel’s biggest mark during his time at VA may have been in helping launch a well-regarded electronic health-records system now known as Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture.
A small group of VA programmers were working to develop a decentralized hospital computer system for storing medical records, but they faced resistance.
“The establishment in VA didn’t want to see it decentralized,” said Tom Munnecke, one of the programmers. “The conventional wisdom was to centralize it on a mainframe in Texas.”
Hagel met with the programmers. “He found out about it and liked it, so he pushed it at the right time,” recalled Walters. “Now it’s the most effective electronic health-record system in the country.”
The programmers presented Hagel with a certificate of appreciation at a banquet in 1982. “He stuck his neck out,” Munnecke said. “It was a gutsy decision on his part.”
Insight for future
That experience may give Hagel insight into how to carry out a long-sought but elusive reform between the VA and Pentagon to create a single joint electronic health-record system that would follow service members into civilian life. After numerous delays and spending more than $1 billion on the project, the departments announced Feb. 5 that they are scrapping plans to build an integrated system from scratch and will instead focus on integrating the existing VA and Defense Department systems.
The Pentagon and VA say this will allow health records to be shared on an accelerated schedule, but Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., expressed concern last week that departments “are now backing away from a truly seamless medical records system.”
Despite concerted efforts between VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, to improve relations between the departments, their unwieldy bureaucracies have proven difficult to tame.
Hagel’s experience at VA could help, some veterans advocates said.
“Being able to understand how that bureaucracy works, or what stops it from working, will be critical,” said Rieckhoff, who thinks Shinseki, who is also a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, would form a tight bond with Hagel.
Shinseki issued a statement after Hagel’s nomination calling him “a principled public servant who has shown unwavering commitment” to veterans.