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Tested in Vietnam, Shinseki finds himself in firestorm over veterans’ care

Posted at 5:57 PM, May 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-23 17:57:33-04

(CNN) -- Those who know Eric Shinseki chuckled when their laconic friend began his Army retirement speech in 2003 with this: "'My name is Shinseki, and I am a soldier."

It was pure Shinseki, longtime friend Rollie Stichweh thought.

Shinseki, ending his Army career that day as chief of staff, had always been a man of few words.

"Ric is quiet, low-key," said Stichweh, who graduated from West Point with Shinseki in 1965. "He's never been an extrovert. He hates being the center of attention."

More than a decade later, Shinseki is very much the center of attention as calls for his firing as Veterans Affairs secretary amplify by the day.

This week, President Barack Obama summoned Shinseki, 71, to the White House as allegations mounted that some VA health care facilities covered up long patient wait times for veterans.

CNN reported exclusively last month that, according to sources, at least 40 American veterans died while waiting to be seen at the Phoenix VA. CNN also obtained an e-mail that an employee at a Wyoming clinic of the VA wrote saying that employees were instructed to "game the system" to make the clinic appear more efficient.

As of Thursday, more than two dozen facilities across the nation were reportedly under investigation.

The VA has weathered other scandals since its creation in 1930. But veterans say this one puts the department at a crossroads.

Will the revelations lead to substantial housecleaning at the sprawling bureaucracy charged with caring for injured warriors, many part of a generation that has been battered by more than 12 years of nonstop war?

Some lawmakers have called for Shinseki to be fired. Highly respected veterans groups, such as the American Legion, have demanded answers and called for his resignation.

The focus on Shinseki has also given way to a larger discussion about the VA system overall.

"I have not called for Gen. Shinseki to resign, although I have to admit I am getting a little closer," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday. "But here is the point: This isn't about one person. This isn't about the secretary. It is about the entire system underneath him."


But as every military member knows, the buck stops at the top.

Obama nominated Shinseki in 2008, saying that the decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Army chief of staff was a man who "always stood on principle."

The Senate confirmed Shinseki in 2009.

At the confirmation hearing, lawmakers had mostly praise for Shinseki, who was known in Washington circles for his valor and for his long commitment to service in the Army.

Shinseki promised then he would come up with a "concise strategy for pursuing a transformed Department of Veterans Affairs," vowing to make the VA a "people-centric, results-driven, forward-looking" institution.

Skip to Wednesday after Obama's meeting with the secretary.

The President called a news conference, which generated much buzz that he was about to dismiss Shinseki.

Instead, Obama promised accountability and stressed that no decision would be made until an inspector general's investigation on the scandal was complete.

"We are going to fix whatever is wrong," the President said.

Shinseki has given a few brief interviews since the scandal broke, mostly promising to find out whether the allegations are true. He hasn't spoken to CNN despite the network's numerous requests.

In testimony last week, Shinseki told the Senate it was too soon to cast blame.

The general also displayed a rare moment of emotion.

"Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell," he said.

On Thursday, Shinseki announced an independent review and nationwide audit and told veterans the department was "redoubling its efforts, with integrity and compassion, to earn your trust."

Stichweh told CNN that he and Shinseki have talked about how the controversy has affected him, but Stichweh felt it would be a betrayal of Shinseki's trust -- and the privacy the general cherishes -- to share any of that with CNN.

"He is anguished over this, I can tell you that. He feels it," said Stichweh, a retired business consultant who lives in Connecticut. "There is nothing he cares about more than veterans."

Words fail him

Words are not enough for veterans groups. There must be systemic reform at the VA that goes beyond a single person, they said. But it has to be coordinated by one person, and some doubt that it should be Shinseki.

He just isn't candid enough, said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The organization that serves 2.8 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has been trying for years to get Shinseki to talk frankly with them about a variety of veterans' needs, Rieckhoff said.

"We've tried nonstop to get him to talk to us, but it appears he's not interested in hearing us, and that's too bad because we've wanted the secretary to succeed," he said.

The veterans' group has not made a statement about whether Shinseki should lose his job.

"But there's no doubt he's let the relationship with veterans fall apart over the years," Rieckhoff said, pointing to the VA's disability backlog problem that CNN and other outlets have covered in recent years.

This week, The Washington Post reported that almost half of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are filing for disability benefits when they leave the military. The VA is saddled, the Post reported, with a backlog of 300,000 cases, some of which are taking months to process, others more than a year.

"Shinseki appears to be overwhelmed. We need a younger person in that role, an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran," said Rieckhoff, 39. "I know about Shinseki's military career and it is admirable. He had a wonderful military career, but that's the past. We are living too much in the past."

The American Legion's national commander, Dan Dellinger, called for Shinseki's resignation as well as those of Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey.

The American Legion hasn't called for the resignation of a public official in 30 years, he said, but VA leaders were failing badly to respond to questions.

"Senior VA leaders have isolated themselves from the media and, more importantly, from answering to their shareholders, America's veterans," Dellinger wrote in an online note to members.

He's received a "massive amount" of e-mail from American Legion members describing their own long waits to be seen at the VA, he told CNN.

Dellinger also said he felt Shinseki's testimony was "lackluster."

"I thought he was ill-prepared or advised not to answer questions," the 64-year-old Army veteran said. "I felt sorry for the man."

Petzel resigned last week. But that in itself caused a stir.

The VA said last year that Petzel was expected to retire in 2014 anyway.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America blasted Petzel's exit in a statement: "We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA."

From the jungle to the capital

There are two moments in Shinseki's public life that have come to define him.

One took place in the jungle of Vietnam.

Another played out in the battlefield of Washington, just before the Iraq War.

Shinseki was born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite hostility toward Japanese-Americans, three of Shinseki's uncles enlisted in the Army and served in Europe in the all-Japanese-American 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Stichweh recalls meeting Shinseki and wanting immediately to ask why Shinseki would want to serve in the military, given the time when Shinseki was born and raised, his family's background and the fact that some Americans were still, at that time, not particularly warm to people of Japanese descent.

"I asked 'Gee, why would you want to be an officer?' And he told me about his family and what that history meant to him," Stichweh said.

A Boy Scout, Shinseki was raised to understand the importance of order and discipline. He also was an early achiever. He was the student body president at Kauai High School, according to U.S. News & World Report.

He married his high school sweetheart, Patricia. They have two children.

After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1965, Shinseki and Stichweh served in Vietnam. Stichweh left the service after fulfilling his mandated term because he disagreed with President Lyndon B. Johnson's war strategy.

Shinseki did two combat tours. In 1970, during a fierce gunbattle, he stepped on a landmine and blew off half of his right foot.

Even after that harrowing experience, he lobbied to remain in the Army.

"Ric persuaded the powers that be to let him stay," Stichweh said. "He nearly died, but he wanted to keep serving."

Shinseki was awarded a Purple Heart and other honors for his valor.

He returned to active duty in 1971.

The general and Iraq

While working his way up the Army career ladder, Shinseki got a master's degree in English at Duke University and went back to West Point to teach. He took important posts at the Pentagon. In 1991, he was promoted to brigadier general, became the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1994, and then was named commander in chief of U.S. Army forces in Europe.

Shinseki led NATO land forces in central Europe and commanded a NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina after that conflict.

In the summer of 1999, under President Bill Clinton, Shinseki became Army chief of staff.

The lessons he learned in Bosnia informed the second most-significant -- or at least publicly talked about -- chapter in Shinseki's career.

In 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq, he testified before Congress it would take "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" to secure the country. That was reportedly about double what the George W. Bush administration proffered would be necessary.

Days after Shinseki's testimony, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discounted that figure, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, told lawmakers that Shinseki's estimation was "wildly off the mark."

Nicolaus Mills, an American history professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said that Shinseki was merely using a formula developed by the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corp. The formula was applied during an international peacekeeping mission in Bosnia during the 1990s, Mills said, saying it required one soldier for every 50 civilians to keep the peace after a war.

"He was simply doing the math for Iraq, and we know he turned out to be right," the professor said.

March 2003 saw a ground invasion force of 145,000 troops, Mills wrote on CNN in March 2013, 10 years after the start of the war.

A month after the invasion, "mobs began looting government buildings and hospitals," and "there were not enough American soldiers to stop them," Mills wrote.

A "surge" of troops had to be sent to Iraq during the war to tamp down on insurgents who were attacking U.S. troops and allies. In January 2007, Bush addressed the nation saying, "It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq."

The United States completed its withdrawal of military personnel in 2011.

When Shinseki retired in June 2003, he was the highest-ranking Asian-American service member.

Former White House adviser and senior CNN political analyst David Gergen said this week that the idea of Shinseki as a person who spoke truth to power has persisted in Washington for years.

Gergen said Shinseki may have gotten the VA post in part because the Obama administration wanted to show he, rather than others, was right about Iraq.

Gergen also stressed that it was his recollection that soldiers revered Shinseki, mostly for his valor in Vietnam.

"But I'm not sure there was anything particularly distinguishing about him (to) lead a bureaucracy" the size of the VA," Gergen said.

In 2006, Newsweek asked Shinseki, then in retirement in Hawaii, how he felt about the criticism that he should have pushed harder for more troops at the launch of the Iraq War.

"Probably that's fair," he told the magazine. "Not my style."