Where’s Eric?

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki conspicuously has been absent from the media circuit — and veterans want to hear from the man they consider one of their own.

Shinseki, a retired general, was a difficult interview to nab in his days as chief of staff of the Army. He started his career at West Point, graduating in 1965. While fighting in Vietnam, Shinseki had a portion of his foot blown off, though the injury did not derail this quiet native Hawaiian’s career. (Put the emphasis on quiet.) Tapped for the Army’s top post in 1999, he guided his force through the early throes of transformation. It was Shinseki who put his soldiers in the black beret, an inspired decision some of us say, though he continues to be vilified by others.

Shinseki became the unintentional mouse that roared when before the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 25, 2003, he estimated troop levels of several hundred thousand necessary in post-war Iraq, far exceeding defense official estimates of just 100,000. Shinseki was banished from the kingdom and finished his tour as Army chief in relative obscurity. He retired June 11, 2003, but his 15 minutes of Senate hearing fame was repeated many times in the years the followed.

Fast forward to 2008: The retired four-star was tapped to head the VA. We found an interview or two when he was still the nominee, but the gatekeepers have pulled up the drawbridge to 810 Vermont Ave.

Does the VA secretary have an obligation to talk in his very public and official capacity? Shinseki was a man of too few public words when heading the Army — a mistake. His silence has been explained to some degree by his reps as ongoing work with policy issues. We’ll go out on a limb here and say that he may be working on VA policy issues over the next four years. Finished or unfinished vets want to hear from the man they believe gets “it.” (Shinseki is a smart, insightful guy.)

MOAA‘s Military Officer magazine is just one on a long list that wants to talk to the secretary, according to public affairs rep Jim Benson. We want to bring his perspective to readers – on healthcare, veterans’ benefits and other items. Shinseki made a couple of strong statements early on about improving care. The VA already has been named one of the best managed healthcare systems in the country. Of course the system can be improved, and the catastrophic injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan may need to be further addressed (though they probably comprise a fraction of the care for which the VA health system is responsible.)

Mr. Secretary, tear down this wall!

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