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Newsmaker: Eric Shinseki

The hero who keeps getting kicked

Eric Shinseki took another public fall in 2003 when he dared to question the Bush administration’s estimates on how many soldiers would be required for postwar Iraq.
Getty Images

Eric Shinseki took another public fall in 2003 when he dared to question the Bush administration’s estimates on how many soldiers would be required for postwar Iraq. Getty Images

As the words left President Obama's lips on Friday that he had accepted the resignation of retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs, a pained groan emerged from a crowd of troops, veterans and civilians who'd gathered around television sets at the Pentagon.

Even as calls grew in Congress for Shinseki, 71, to step down, many in the military had remained decidedly in Shinseki's camp, convinced an American hero — maimed in Vietnam and humiliated for questioning Iraq policy during the Bush administration — was being made a scapegoat.

His resignation does not fix the intractable problems that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs for decades, Shinseki supporters said. Particularly galling to some in uniform was that Shinseki was well-known for loving the soldiers he commanded and that he had risen to become the chief of staff of the Army, the highest-ranking Asian-American in U.S. military history.

"Gen. Rick Shinseki gave his all in the service of his nation. He will be missed," tweeted Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a friend of Shinseki, said that Shinseki was right to resign because he, rather than the VA's problems, had become the focus. But McCaffrey said it would be hard for anyone to make much headway in solving the VA's problems before November's elections. Politics will hinder real change.

"I would be surprised if you could find someone in military who doesn't look up to him. But that doesn't mean that he is a political infighter that would deal with Congress, the media and these semi-independent systems in the VA," McCaffrey said.

To be sure, there are those who reject Shinseki's claims that he did not know about the problems that have led to investigations at VA medical centers nationwide. The American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America called for Shinseki's resignation.

But to some of those who served alongside him in uniform, Friday's announcement marked the fourth time in Shinseki's career that he has been wounded in the service of his country. This time, it was because he did the same things that had made him such a successful Army commander — he trusted those around him, reacted calmly to crisis and tried to address it through channels.

In Vietnam, Shinseki sustained shrapnel wounds in the shoulder and chest, returned to combat, then lost part of his right foot when a landmine exploded. His grace in dealing with his wounds resonated with the last generation of soldiers.

Often, in talking about his injuries in Vietnam, Shinseki would say: "Twice in my career I have been carried off the battlefield on the backs of soldiers."

But it was his comments in the 2003 run-up to the Iraq War that made him a national hero of thoughtful resistance to the growing warpath, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that Bush administration predictions of what was needed to pacify Iraq were wrong.

Calling on his experience as a commander of peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, Shinseki said that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would likely be required for postwar Iraq, not the few thousand that the Bush administration had predicted.

A few days later, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz publicly contradicted him, saying, "The notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq is wildly off the mark."

Shinseki lost influence within the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the remaining months of his four-year term, which marked the end of his military career. In 2006, Gen. John Abizaid, then the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, acknowledged that Shinseki had been right.

The hero who keeps getting kicked 06/01/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 1, 2014 5:07pm]
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