The choice of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as the next secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department suggests President-elect Barack Obama is not afraid to hear the truth and offers the best hope in years for improving an agency rightly criticized for failing disabled veterans. In picking Shinseki, Obama directly addresses one of the major reasons the VA has failed: Top officials would not challenge their boss, President Bush, and his inadequate and misguided policies. Obama's pick also will simultaneously bridge the longstanding gulf between Democrats and the military and demonstrate that he wants all options on the table when making decisions.
Shinseki has two Purple Hearts from the Vietnam War and lost part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine. But he is also the former Army chief of staff who called on the Pentagon in 2003 to provide "several hundred thousand soldiers" to stabilize Iraq after the invasion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney publicly rebuked Shinseki, and the general quietly retired from the military.
Shinseki proved to be prophetic. Now Obama is counting on Shinseki, his integrity and his experience managing a large organization to improve Veterans Affairs. The department is struggling to respond to the growing number of veterans with physical and psychological wounds from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as aging troops from earlier wars. But Shinseki must also find ways to help thousands of combat reservists and guardsmen who return from active duty to a punishing economy. Many find their jobs gone or a housing market that forces them into homelessness.
If his past performance is a guide, Shinseki will be the veterans' advocate, and he will tell his new boss the truth no matter how ugly. Speaking to veterans on Sunday, Shinseki summed up his intentions: "I will work each and every day to ensure we are serving you as well as you served us." President-elect Obama has chosen a combat warrior to lead Veterans Affairs, an apt choice for a constituency that deserves, perhaps more than any other, forthrightness and courage.