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Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Obama and the vets: caring for a generation


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When Eric K. Shinseki, the first four-star U.S. Army general of Japanese- American ethnicity, was still his service branch's chief of staff, he became a symbol of doubt about official competence in pursuit of the Iraq war.

Regardless of whether he deserved the accolades or not, Shinseki became viewed, by the media especially, as the man who would not bow and scrape to the White House, even as he was the quintessential patriotic, oft-decorated career military man.

At that time — half a dozen years ago — most of our generals and admirals were known for being supinely supportive as the Bush administration chased its tail in Iraq. This occurred at an enormous cost while the security environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan deteriorated. But in 2003, Shinseki suggested in testimony before Congress — albeit only in passing — that nothing less than several hundred thousand more troops than officially envisioned were probably needed if the United States was to have any hope of quelling sectarian and anti-American violence in Iraq.

That controversial estimate was backed by much expert opinion at the time, but it was considered unpatriotic apostasy by the Bush administration. Shinseki's congressional testimony, deferential and even nuanced as it was, so outraged then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he personally rode the general, the recipient of two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in Vietnam, out of town.

Within months the courageous general was out of a job. Shinseki knew that the Bush administration did not tolerate policy dissent. White Houses at war rarely do. And so the general took his banishment with quiet class.

In hindsight, of course, the troop-level estimate was right, as Obama pointed out on an American TV interview show this past week when talking about Senate confirmation of Shinseki, who has been nominated for secretary of veteran affairs. This would seem to be perhaps Obama's best nomination so far.

Many more Americans — not to mention Iraqis — have died because of the misconceived U.S. operation. The arguable success of last year's U.S. uptick in troop deployment known as "the surge" underscored the accuracy of Shinseki's original assessment that more troops were needed. It was that professional objectivity that undoubtedly made him attractive to incoming President-elect Barack Obama, who has said, again and again, that he doesn't want to be surrounded by a cozy Cabinet of women and men who only say "Yes, Mr. President."

For the masses of long-suffering and in many cases underserved U.S. veterans, Obama's choice perhaps offers them hope of better treatment than in the past. The Department of Veterans Affairs is a mess and must be fixed: It is in desperate need of a thorough Shinseki shakeup. It is underfunded and mismanaged; it cannot cope with the general needs of returning veterans and the many varieties of battlefield-caused posttraumatic stress disorders. It cannot properly meet many clinical-treatment goals.

Americans who served in Korea and Vietnam as well as Iraq put their lives on the line for their country. Now their country needs to put its money where its mouth is and extend them all a proper lifeline. When our Vietnam vets returned home decades ago, they were castigated and criminally underserved. America must not let another generation of vets fall by the wayside.

This would be just as well as in the interest of the nation. Out-of-work and often-homeless veterans comprise an important proportion of America's drifting underclass. The size of this as well as its overall tenor is about to morph — as our economy worsens — into a Frankenstein monster.

Both Shinseki and Obama would appear to have the temperament and vision to see this problem through to a better social-policy conclusion. They know that America is no more immune to social unrest than China.

Both Obama and Shinseki were raised in Hawaii. Of Hawaii, one thing can be said: Many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds are squeezed together on relatively small islands. This is also a fairly accurate portrait of our armed forces and, increasingly, it is not a bad overall picture of the U.S.

Social stability is precarious when every group and individual does not receive a decent measure of fairness and justice. Why should our veterans of foreign wars get anything less? The general should take no prisoners in the righteous reform of the inept and seriously underfunded Veterans Administration.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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