[The following post has been updated to include a statement from Senator Mazie Hirono, which arrived after it was first published]
Normally I don’t publish items on national stories, but given my recent cover story on my friend who killed himself six months after his discharge from the U.S. Army, I’ll gladly make an exception. My story dealt with the large numbers of veterans who kill themselves every year–which is in excess of the civilian suicide rate–but while reporting that story I couldn’t help but notice that other news organizations were exposing just how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was woefully unable to deal with the nation’s veterans. Inadequate health care, horrible wait times to get care and fraudulent reporting on those wait times to ensure executive bonuses–it was all too familiar with me.
This morning, after weeks of headlines denouncing the VA, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki–who was born in Kauai and once held the post of U.S. Army Chief of Staff–resigned. Almost immediately, congressional representatives and senators started issuing press statements. So far, I’ve received from the four members of Hawaii’s delegation. We’ll start with Democratic U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, whose statement on the resignation hit my inbox first:
“General Shinseki is a war hero and public servant who gave everything he had to our country and the job of Secretary of Veterans Affairs. In his judgement [sic], it was time for new leadership to move forward. The problems uncovered are appalling and unacceptable and the VA must deliver accountability for any wrongdoing and systemic changes to ensure this doesn’t happen again. I pledge to work with the new Acting Secretary to make sure all veterans get quality and timely care.”
Not bad. For a politician in the midst of a tough election fight (Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie appointed him to the Senate at the end of 2012), Schatz strikes just the right balance of measured anger at the VA’s inaction and incompetence, while still remaining passive enough to not anger the Obama Administration, which has both overseen the troubled department and endorsed the senator’s bid for election this year.
Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is also a captain in the Hawaii National Guard, sent her statement 30 minutes after Schatz. Her statement is a tad more fiery than Schatz’s. She starts by defending Shinseki, who spent many decades in the U.S. Army, eventually rising to the post of Chief of Staff:
“General Eric Shinseki is an American hero; he is a man of character and integrity, with a deep love and commitment for serving our country. Veterans everywhere, and the people of General Shinseki’s home state of Hawai‘i, continue to have great love and respect for him and his service. There is no question that he took his responsibility as Secretary of the VA personally and seriously, because he cares deeply for his fellow veterans, and did his best to lead a VA riddled with challenges that have existed for decades.”
After honoring Shinseki the man, Gabbard then turns a flame thrower on Shinseki’s six years as VA director:
“But this day is not about General Shinseki. This day is about all of our servicemembers and veterans, and the tragedy that has been occurring within the VA, an organization which has lost sight of its mission. Our loyalty, anger, and hurt must be focused on taking action to ensure that not another day passes where a veteran in need remains waiting in the dark. We are facing a crisis, with veterans waiting months and sometimes years on official or secret waiting lists, while others are lost in the bureaucracy. This is unacceptable, and dishonors these great Americans who sacrificed so much.”
According to Gabbard’s statement, she’s “drafting legislation that will ensure that veterans are immediately able to access care from a doctor, whether in the VA system or not.” I doubt seriously that she’s the only in congress doing so.
“This is an urgent action that must be taken to begin to deal with the immediate crisis and ensure all veterans are getting the care they need,” Gabbard concluded. “Until the VA undergoes a systemic overhaul, and is once again able to deliver the highest standard of care to our veterans, we need to take creative steps that will yield immediate results.”
Democratic U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, who is not currently running for reelection to anything, weighed in about two hours after Gabbard. It’s like the others–Shinseki was a good man, but it’s good he’s gone.
“General Eric Shinseki’s patriotism and dedication to this nation is without parallel. I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk directly with General Shinseki about the challenges facing the VA. I agree with the President’s statement that his ‘commitment to our veterans is unquestioned.’ I respect the Secretary’s decision to step aside in order to avoid being a distraction. The focus should be on delivering care to our veterans and ensuring the VA has the necessary resources to accomplish that. As I’ve done all year long, I met with veterans groups in Hawaii this week to discuss their firsthand experiences with the VA. I will take their comments, insights and concerns back to DC to inform my work to address the unacceptable situation that has been uncovered.”
As of press time, we haven’t yet heard from Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is running for Schatz’s Senate seat, but I’m sure we will by the end of the day…
Eric Shinseki’s official portrait from 2003: John Boyd Martin/Wikimedia Commons