Who Will Run Veterans Affairs?

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson said on July 17, 2007, that he is going to resign, leaving an agency criticized for the care provided to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Bush has a job opening for the head of a department with a crushing backlog of work, a sharp increase in demand for services and a battered public image.

And yet the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs will have an easy act to follow, according to those for whom the job-holder serves. Jim Nicholson resigned the post Tuesday amid widespread criticism by veterans groups of his 29-month tenure. They urged the President to replace him with a strong advocate who has knowledge of the vast VA bureaucracy, health care and the growing complexity of the military. "We hope for somebody who knows their primary allegiance is to the veteran and not to the Administration or anybody else," said Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Nicholson's resume had raised allegiance issues from the start. As Republican National Committee chairman during Bush's 2000 election and later as his ambassador to the Vatican, he had less experience in veterans' affairs than most predecessors. In office, Nicholson defended budgets that turned out to be billions of dollars short of wartime needs, grossly underestimated the numbers of soldiers returning with post-traumatic stress disorder and oversaw a backlog of claims that has swelled to nearly 400,000. On Capitol Hill, during a House veterans' affairs committee hearing in May, he was forced to respond to stories of veterans who had died from a medication overdose or failure to obtain services. "If the VA was the Titanic, he drove straight into an iceberg," said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense.

Bush commended the departing secretary for "innovative efforts," and his department flacks put out a statement that said he "transformed the VA health care system to meet the unique medical requirements" of returning troops. And not all of the VA's critics placed direct blame on Nicholson. "He was a victim of real misplaced priorities of this Administration," said Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat who heads the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "Like every aspect of the war, they didn't plan for the veterans." His defenders point out that the VA, which cares for 5.8 million former military personnel, is not responsible for the problems faced by active duty soldiers. Nicholson frequently found himself on the defensive over Walter Reed's deficient outpatient program, even though the VA had no responsibility over the Army hospital.

But for many vets, Nicholson, who had served in Vietnam, never strenuously pushed their interests. "He's not the most outgoing guy, and in this business that becomes a negative," said Bob Wallace of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Bobby Muller of Veterans of America said Nicholson "consistently deferred to the political considerations of the Bush Administration, instead of what he should have done as an advocate for his country's veterans."

The resignation gives Bush a chance to demonstrate his commitment to veterans, including the growing numbers of those who had fought in his wars. Their representatives want a secretary who "understands that this is a new military, a new war, and there are new issues ranging from traumatic brain injury to the fact that 15% of our forces are women," said Rieckhoff. He said the President could make a "powerful statement" by choosing someone who has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, like Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq and is now director of veterans affairs in Illinois. Appointing Duckworth would send a message beyond the veterans community. She lost a congressional race last November, running as a Democrat.

As with Max Cleland, a Vietnam War amputee who was secretary under Jimmy Carter, choosing Duckworth would let vets know that "one of their own" was tasked to "help care for them," Rieckhoff said. "Max Cleland is an inspiration to generations of veterans regardless of your political affiliations. Tammy is cut from the same cloth."