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In unorthodox move, Obama picks executive to oversee VA

Ex-CEO attended West Point and served in Army

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday will nominate Bob McDonald, a West Point graduate who served as the chief executive of Procter & Gamble, to take over as head of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, according to White House officials.

The unorthodox pick of a retired corporate executive whose former company produces household products such as Tide detergent and Charmin toilet paper — rather than a former military general — underscores the serious management problems facing the agency charged with serving more than 8 million veterans a year.

On Friday, White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors submitted a report to the president finding ‘‘significant and chronic system failures’’ and a ‘‘corrosive culture’’ at the Veterans Health Administration, which has come under fire for skewed record-keeping in an effort to cover up the long waits it has imposed on former soldiers seeking medical care.


In recent years, the job of VA secretary has been filled by retired generals, medical professionals, or politicians. McDonald’s background is a significant departure, though he and his wife have deep family ties to the military.

McDonald graduated in the top 2 percent of his class at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served in the Army for five years, achieving the rank of captain in the 82d Airborne Division before taking an entry-level job at P&G.

A native of Indiana, he is the son of an Army veteran of World War II, and his wife’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war.

‘‘The choice suggests a real focus on customer satisfaction, as opposed to what you might get from a retired general or medical leader,’’ said Phillip Carter, who follows veterans issues for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. ‘‘It is probably a wise choice given the concerns right now of veterans.’’


McDonald, 61, graduated from West Point in 1975 and is about the same age as most of the most senior generals in the Pentagon with whom he will have to work closely.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, graduated from West Point one year before McDonald, and General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, finished up at the academy one year after him. McDonald and Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who is expected to serve as his deputy, were West Point classmates.

‘‘McDonald is right in the sweet spot of the current four-stars in the Pentagon,’’ Carter said. ‘‘He’s got that social connective tissue with them. The VA is more like a big business than a military organization, so his background probably makes him more qualified to run the VA than a retired general officer.’’

In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, hailed McDonald’s experience as a veteran and as a leader in the private sector, calling him the ‘‘kind of person who is capable of implementing the kind of dramatic systemic change that is badly needed and long overdue at the VA. But the next VA secretary can only succeed in implementing that type of change if his boss, the president, first commits to doing whatever it takes to give our veterans the world-class health care system they deserve.’’

The VA operates the largest combined health care system in the country, with about 300,000 full-time employees and nearly 9 million veterans enrolled to receive care.


How McDonald relates to the younger population of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — smaller in numbers compared with the overall group of veterans but powerful politically — will be critical.

McDonald has maintained his Army ties over the years as a major supporter of the US Military Academy and as a life member of the US Army Ranger Association and the 75th Ranger Regiment Association.

Jim McNerney, chairman of Boeing, said in a statement Sunday McDonald was ‘‘an outstanding choice for this critically important position.’’

‘‘He navigated Procter & Gamble through the difficult post-financial-crisis years, where he expanded business in developing markets and made substantial progress improving the efficiency of the company’s internal operations,’’ said McNerney, who served on P&G’s board.

McDonald stepped down from his post at P&G in May 2013 amid some controversy. Analysts reported at the time that large investors and some employees were losing confidence in his ability to expand the company in the face of increasing global competition. The Wall Street Journal also reported that McDonald had come under fire over the time he spent serving on an array of corporate boards.

Still, he has won plaudits from many fellow corporate executives and has experience running a global consumer products firm with more than 120,000 employees and sales in more than 180 countries.

The White House has yet to select a new head for the Veterans Health Administration, as officials were particularly intent on finding a replacement for Eric Shinseki, who resigned as VA secretary a month ago.


McDonald’s nomination requires Senate confirmation.