Even as government budgets are being squeezed and "keep government off our back" rhetoric envelops political debate, Eric Shenseki finds it hard to believe anyone would begrudge America's veterans the benefits they were promised. As the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Shenseki, who was in town this week to address the national convention of the American Legion, likes to quote George Washington.
"In this country if you don't take care of the people who defend the nation, someday you may not have anyone step forward," Shinseki, a retired Army general, said in an interview. "Always place the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, never leave a fallen comrade. To the rest of us, those are bumper sticker terms that nicely roll off the tongue. Try living that. Why should veterans be treated with this kind of care? Because we put them in a position to need it."
After his speech, Shinseki was joined by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Walz and the VA have worked to address a growing need to combine county, private and federal resources for rural homeless vets in Walz's southern Minnesota district. Minnesota's VA hospital developed one of the first polytrauma centers to work with vets with multiple injuries. It also is home to one of the first spinal cord injury disorder centers. Minnesota recently began a tele-health project that links an intensive care unit in Minneapolis with rural health care centers.
Shinseki was the Army chief of staff during the buildup to the Iraq war. He departed after testifying before Congress that he believed several hundred thousand troops would be needed to sustain combat, a position that flew in the face of estimates from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Shinseki demurs about that period, saying only "that's a previous life." Asked about his congressional testimony at the time, he says only: "I wasn't the only one who felt that way. I just happened to be the only one to be asked on television."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434