Juliette Kayyem

The VA’s generational problem

This week, we honor those who have died in America’s wars. And those who survive. Veterans and active-duty officers own the moment, as they should. Pausing twice a year — Memorial and Veterans Day — to honor those who carry the burden for the rest of us seems so little to ask.

Nonetheless, support for veterans has taken a decidedly political turn lately as calls mount for the secretary of veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, to resign. The issue is the “backlog,” a single word used to explain the nearly 600,000 disability compensation claims that have been pending for over 125 days. But Shinseki’s problem isn’t that he is a bad manager; he has actually done more to focus a long-neglected, $140 billion bureaucratic behemoth than any predecessor. Shinseki’s problem is generational.


Shinseki is a Vietnam veteran, a combat-wounded warrior, and a man who famously questioned former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s optimistic promises about the pending war in Iraq. Recruited by President Obama to overhaul the VA, Shinseki is caught overseeing a long-term modernization program in a short-term media cycle.

The backlog is, in some measure, the result of Shinseki’s diligent efforts to make sure that the entire benefits system becomes digitalized. The new computer network, the Veterans Benefits Management System, will allow veterans to go online to input their claims. The full integration will be complete by 2015. Meanwhile, paper forms have to be processed while the digital forms are created.

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The piles increase as new applicants from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come home and seek claims. In addition, Congress has been allowing a number of new conditions to be covered by the VA, the country’s largest health care system. They include such widespread ailments as post-traumatic stress disorder and the many diseases stemming from exposure to Agent Orange.

This isn’t to defend the backlog. But Shinseki is hardly without an argument to make, though he seems reluctant to make it. In media appearances he seems evasive and annoyed, as if questions about his agency were questions about his patriotism. He is rarely quoted in the press.

At 70, Shinseki is a product of the last war America fought with a mandatory draft, and his sense of soldierly restraint dates from an earlier era. Even his one moment of public conflict — stemming from his assessment that the Iraq war would require many more troops than Rumsfeld proposed — was drawn out of him while under oath. He never wrote a memoir about his painful experience. His only foray into literature is a co-authored book “Be, Know, Do: Leadership the Army Way.” It is an adaptation of the Official Army Leadership Manual.


The media-savvy, talking-point-hungry, Twitter-obsessed, Facebook-friending world that Shinseki is part of now doesn’t interest him. Shinseki’s reticence has its quaint appeal, but it doesn’t represent the attitude of newer veterans, the 2.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. More mobile, technological, opinionated, and media-friendly, these veterans aren’t particularly tolerant of the problems the VA faces today. Paper forms? An electronics system that won’t be up and running till 2015? A centralized health system that makes access to care a logistical nightmare for many?

Shinseki is in a generational battle as much as a bureaucratic one. He is the quiet leader at a time when veterans need a persistent public nuisance. New veterans comprise less than 1 percent of the American public. They know that for their needs to be addressed, they will have to organize, run for office, and engage in public information efforts.

Shinseki’s effectiveness is being undermined by his unwillingness to recognize that telling the story loud and often is how to win today’s political battles. He should not resign. But for the sake of the veterans he serves, he should add another requirement to “Be, Know, Do.”


Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem. This is her last column before a summer book leave. Her column will appear regularly in September.
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