WASHINGTON — In other wars, in other eras, Eric Shinseki might have been an ideal fit to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs through a crisis. He’s run some of Washington’s biggest and most complex bureaucracies. He knows what it’s like to fight back from life-changing war wounds, having lost half a foot to a land mine in Vietnam. He prefers to stay out of politics and work on problems quietly and in the background.
“He’s not a political infighter. That’s absolutely not him,” said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a longtime mentor. “If you asked him to define the perfect public servant, it would be a quiet professional.”
The question facing President Barack Obama as he seeks to contain yet another widening VA scandal is whether quiet and resolute professionalism still works in an age of noisy disputation.
In his almost six years running VA, Shinseki has had to manage a steady stream of crises caused by the accumulated burdens of almost 13 years of war and an aging population of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans who are turning to the system for care. The list includes a rising veteran suicide rate, a massive backlog of disability claims and allegations that long wait times for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix and other cities may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans.
Shinseki also has had to balance the demands of traditionally staid, old-line veterans groups, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with a new generation of digitally savvy and increasingly vocal veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Younger veterans groups have adopted many of the lessons of today’s fast-moving, hyperpartisan political campaigns to raise the pressure on Shinseki and his department.
No group exemplifies this shift more clearly than Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is based in New York and has about 270,000 members who have signed up for its email list. IAVA’s 45-person staff — most of them younger than 30 — is small compared with those of the larger, more established veterans organizations. Like the traditional veterans groups, IAVA is nonpartisan.
But the group and its founder, Paul Rieckhoff, 39, have been a relentless presence on Capitol Hill, online and in the national media, criticizing Shinseki’s leadership of the department. “IAVA is packed with a bunch of digital natives,” said Phil Carter, who studies veterans issues for the Center for a New American Security. “That affects the speed that they can get out a critical message and the uptake that their message gets from the media.”
As Rieckhoff puts it: “We’ve been political insurgents . . . small, focused and ferocious.”
The group’s combative approach has drawn the ire of VA officials, who said that IAVA and Rieckhoff are more focused on criticizing the department and garnering media attention than working to solve tough problems.
While Rieckhoff sends out tweets that say “The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken,” Shinseki’s preferred method for delivering his message has been to talk with veterans in person.
Shinseki, 71, has met only a handful of times with IAVA officials since taking office in 2009, but he sits down monthly with the big veterans groups. Most of the major ones — with the exception of the American Legion — have said that they support Shinseki staying in his job. “He’s been available and open to criticism,” said Ryan M. Gallucci, deputy director for national veterans issues at the VFW. “We do not agree that he should resign right now, but this crisis demands strong leadership and decisive action, and we plan to hold him accountable.”
Shinseki has visited veterans groups and hospitals in all 50 states. “I engage veterans locally,” he said in an interview with Army Times in May. “I get direct feedback from those veterans. That feedback provides some grist to our discussions.” Shinseki declined to comment for this article.
The low-key approach has long marked his career. As the Army’s top officer, Shinseki was widely known for his reticence around the media. “He knew what had to be done, but he just couldn’t do it,” said Joseph Galloway, a longtime combat correspondent to whom Shinseki turned for advice in handling the Pentagon press corps. “It’s something going back to Vietnam with him.”
When Shinseki has taken public stands, it has often seemed to happen under duress. Until recently, Shinseki was best known for drawing the ire of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, as the war in Iraq neared, by predicting that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq and separate warring sects in the wake of a U.S. invasion. The controversial estimate, which made him a hero among Army officers and many lawmakers, wasn’t relayed through the media: Rather, it became public in Shinseki’s spare and unemotional response to a senator’s question during congressional testimony.
Rieckhoff, meanwhile, is part of the new generation of soldiers that Shinseki, as Army chief, sent to war. As a junior officer, Rieckhoff led an infantry platoon in Baghdad. His post-combat career has been lived almost entirely in the media spotlight. Within months of returning from Iraq, Rieckhoff formed Operation Truth, a group that pressed lawmakers and the Pentagon to better equip troops fighting the growing Iraqi insurgency. The group would become IAVA.
Rieckhoff wrote a book about his experiences in the Army and Washington. Since then, he has been an almost nonstop presence on cable news. The head of IAVA’s Washington office signed on with the group after watching Rieckhoff on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Before Stephen Colbert visited Iraq in 2009, he asked Rieckhoff and several other IAVA staffers to come and talk to his team. “We helped advise them on security and gave them some feedback on jokes,” said Rieckhoff, who had previously been a guest on the satirist’s “Colbert Report.”
IAVA’s relationship with VA hasn’t been nearly as smooth. Initially, the group supported Shinseki’s nomination, praising his “courage and honesty.” VA officials, meanwhile, said they tried to build a good relationship with IAVA. Shortly after he was confirmed as VA secretary, Shinseki met with Rieckhoff. Some VA officials said that Rieckhoff and other IAVA members would be cordial in meetings but slam the department in the press just days later.
While IAVA has not called for Shinseki’s resignation, Rieckhoff has repeatedly expressed doubts about Shinseki’s ability to lead the department. “I don’t question his commitment to veterans. I question his effectiveness,” Rieckhoff said. “Even on the easy things, he’s invisible. . . . He’s bungling the relationship with this generation of veterans.”
Rieckhoff and IAVA spent much of last year lambasting VA and Shinseki for failing to fix the disability-claims backlog, which had grown to more than 600,000 cases. Some veterans were waiting more than a year for their claims to be processed. “On the backlog, no one was with us,” Rieckhoff said. “The other veterans groups had just accepted the status quo.”
IAVA pitched the issue last year to writers for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Rieckhoff said. The comedian savaged VA in a series of sketches, some of which included appearances by IAVA employees. In one segment, called “Zero Dark 900,000,” a “Daily Show” correspondent launched a Special Operations-like search for an IAVA member’s disability claim.
Obama administration officials said that they inherited the backlog problem from the George W. Bush administration and that it grew worse under Shinseki after he approved rule changes to make it easier for Vietnam veterans with debilitating diseases caused by Agent Orange to file for benefits. The liberalization of the rules added hundreds of thousands of claims to the rolls. Shinseki also streamlined the claims process for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Even if I have to build the backlog in order to end it, that’s the right thing to do, and we’re going to do it,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Washington Post. Since then, the backlog has been cut in half, and Shinseki has set a goal of eliminating it by 2015.
VA officials debated whether Shinseki should take a more active role in defending his handling of the claims backlog. Some suggested that he should appear on Stewart’s show, where he was being pilloried on a regular basis. “There was a discussion about putting the secretary out there,” said one former top adviser to Shinseki who was granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “The question was, would we benefit in the long run? If I were Monday-morning quarterbacking it, I would say we should’ve done more of it.”
Just as the backlog crisis was fading, VA officials learned of allegations that hospital officials in Phoenix had created fake waiting lists to hide the long delays facing patients. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., raised the issue with VA officials on April 9. Shinseki immediately ordered the department’s inspector general to conduct an investigation into the allegations.
Fake list stories
Stories about fake lists soon followed in the Arizona Republic and on CNN, and the number of VA facilities under investigation grew to 26. Shinseki has exercised caution in his public statements, saying, “I don’t want to get ahead of myself or ahead of the IG here.”
That was Shinseki’s approach. Rieckhoff, meanwhile, did what any digital-age veteran might do. One month after the scandal broke, Rieckhoff was again slamming Shinseki for his leadership of the department and unwillingness to address the allegations publicly.
“What other Cabinet-level secretary could have this kind of scandal and hide from the public and hide from the media for this long?” Rieckhoff asked the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
A few days later, Shinseki appeared before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Representatives from the major veterans groups, including the head of IAVA’s Washington office, were called to testify as well. When it was their turn to speak, Shinseki didn’t leave the hearing room, as is customary for Cabinet officials.
Instead, he sat one row behind them — back straight, chin up and eyes straight ahead — listening intently as they spent the next hour debating his handling of the crisis, his leadership and his competence.
After the hearing, Shinseki held an impromptu news conference — his first since the scandal broke more than a month earlier. Rieckhoff, who was at a friend’s wedding in the Caribbean, watched the hearing on his laptop and then tweeted a picture of Shinseki fielding reporters’ questions. Beneath it he included a two-word caption: “Long overdue.”