TIME Veterans

The Next VA Secretary

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Eric Shinseki’s long and troubled tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end. He left, apologizing for the mess he allowed to fester. This is a sad moment for an honorable man, who could not make the transition from military to civilian leadership. The question now is, how bold will the President be when it comes to replacing Shinseki? (Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who graduated from West Point in 1975, will be acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement.)

A few years ago, I wrote a TIME cover story about the Iraq-Afghanistan generation of veterans. It was a different sort of story, far more concerned with their civilian leadership potential than with their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. I wrote the story because I had embedded with the troops downrange and watched them apply the principles of “counterinsurgency” warfare in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan. Their job was, in effect, to govern the towns where they were deployed. They had public works funds at their disposal. They crowd-sourced the towns–for the first time in history, most likely–asking the people what sort of services they wanted. Then their leaders had to sell the people’s needs to the local Shuras, which often wanted something else (something that would line their own pockets). I watched Army Captains negotiate and contend with stubborn bureaucracies under fire.

One day in the town of Senjaray, just outside of Kandahar, I watched Captain Jeremiah Ellis negotiate with a local for the use of his house–and I realized: if he can do that here, he can run for mayor back home. Or be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This generation of military veterans have been trained in the political skills that Eric Shinseki’s generation forgot after Vietnam. They have been trained in how to unlock stuck bureaucracies, how to talk to average folks, how to make moral decisions based on incomplete information under fire. I’ve spent the past few years writing a book about them and I know several who would be brilliant as VA Secretary–indeed, who have experienced and thought through the problems of the system. I’m not going to name names; there are plenty others I don’t know, who might be every bit as good. But the President should take a risk, inject some energy into his flagging Administration, and appoint one of them.

He probably won’t. He has become far more cautious about his appointees: they tend to be people he knows and trusts. But Robert Gates’ recent memoir demonstrates how invigorating an outsider can be in the claustrophobia of the White House. The President and First Lady care deeply about this generation of veterans; I know this for a fact. Now it’s time for Obama to demonstrate his faith in them by appointing an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

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