President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the Veterans Affairs Department says, if confirmed, he will work to streamline the agency to better respond to the needs of U.S. troops returning home from war. Retired Army General Eric Shinseki, who had clashed with the Bush administration over its initial handling of the war in Iraq, made his comments at a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
General Shinskeki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that if confirmed by the Senate he would work to accelerate the processing of veterans' health and disability claims, which currently face a six-month backlog.
"It is our charge to address their changing needs over time and across a full range of support that our government has committed to providing them," he said.
Shinseki's nomination comes at a time of new challenges for the Veterans Affairs Department. Many severely wounded and disabled veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are in need of prosthetic devices to replace amputated limbs, or long term care for injuries that will last a lifetime. Others face less obvious wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
The 66-year-old Shinseki was the Army's first four-star general of Japanese-American descent. He made headlines in the run-up to the Iraq war when he told Congress that it might take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to control that country following an invasion. The testimony came under public criticism from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Shinseki retired soon afterward.
Many have argued Shinseki was vindicated when President George Bush announced a "troop surge" in Iraq in 2007.
Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and decorated World War II veteran, praised Shinseki's candor at Wednesday's hearing.
"He told the truth," he said. "It wasn't easy. And in so doing, took a position contrary to his commander in chief. His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job. But it is the surest measure of his fitness to serve as a member of the Cabinet."
Shinseki understands the sacrifices faced by war veterans. He lost part of his right foot while serving in the Vietnam War, and earned two Purple Hearts.
His nomination has won praise from veterans groups and lawmakers from both parties. He is expected to be easily confirmed soon after President-elect Obama takes the oath of office next week.