Editor’s Note: This version of a story published on May 23 has been updated to include Shinseki’s resignation
NEW: Eric Shinseki resigns over VA scandal, Obama accepts it with regrets
Pressure mounted for Shinseki to step down over VA wait list, cover-up allegations
Shinseki, a man of few words, was in the spotlight before over the Iraq war
Those who know Eric Shinseki chuckled when their laconic friend began his Army retirement speech in 2003 with this: “‘My name is Shinseki, and I am a soldier.”
It was pure Shinseki, longtime friend Rollie Stichweh thought.
Shinseki, ending his Army career that day as chief of staff, had always been a man of few words.
“Ric is quiet, low-key,” said Stichweh, who graduated from West Point with Shinseki in 1965. “He’s never been an extrovert. He hates being the center of attention.”
More than a decade later, Shinseki had very much become the center of attention with his leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs under intense fire over allegations that some VA health care facilities covered up long patient wait times for veterans.
Saying he did not want to be a distraction going forward, the former Army general submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama on Friday. The President said he accepted it, but regretted doing so.
“Ric’s commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. His service to our country is exemplary. I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country,” Obama said.
Shinseki left his White House meeting, quietly, saying nothing to the press.
Earlier in the day, he apologized for the scandal that prompted more than 100 members of the House and Senate to call for his resignation and has Justice Department prosecutors sniffing around.
CNN has reported exclusively about problems with veterans trying to access health care.
The VA has weathered other scandals since its creation in 1930. But veterans say this one puts the department at a crossroads.
With Shinseki out, the question now is whether the newest revelations will lead to a substantial housecleaning at the sprawling bureaucracy charged with caring for millions of veterans, including injured warriors, followed by reforms?
Or, will a legacy of serious problems at the agency and failed efforts to reverse it continue beyond this administration as a new generation of veterans emerging from 12 years of nonstop war swell demands for care.
“This isn’t about one person,” House Speaker John Boehner has said. “It is about the entire system underneath him.”
But as every military member knows, the buck stops at the top.
Obama nominated Shinseki before taking office, saying the decorated Vietnam veteran and former Army head was a man who “always stood on principle.” He was easily confirmed in January 2009.
At the confirmation hearing, lawmakers had mostly praise for Shinseki, who was known in Washington circles for his valor and long commitment to service in the Army.
Shinseki promised then he would come up with a “concise strategy for pursuing a transformed Department of Veterans Affairs,” vowing to make the VA a “people-centric, results-driven, forward-looking” institution.
Obama has promised accountability.
“We are going to fix whatever is wrong,” the President said.
Shinseki, who supporters say did make some strides during his leadership of the VA, told the Senate earlier this month it was too soon to cast blame over the latest revelations.
He also displayed a rare moment of emotion.
“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell,” he said.
He launched an internal review and began the process of firing some top people. But details of an independent report released in recent days by the VA inspector general’s office outlining systemic problems spelled the end of his tenure.
Stichweh told CNN that he and Shinseki have talked about how the controversy has affected him, but Stichweh felt it would be a betrayal of Shinseki’s trust – and the privacy the general cherishes – to share any of that with CNN.
“He is anguished over this, I can tell you that. He feels it,” said Stichweh, a retired business consultant who lives in Connecticut. “There is nothing he cares about more than veterans.”
Words fail him
Words are not enough for veterans groups. There must be systemic reform at the VA that goes beyond a single person, they said. But it has to be coordinated by one person, and they came to doubt whether it should be Shinseki.
The organization that serves 2.8 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans sought for years to get him to talk frankly with them about a variety of veterans’ needs, Rieckhoff said.
“There’s no doubt he’s let the relationship with veterans fall apart over the years,” Rieckhoff said, pointing to the VA’s disability backlog problem that CNN and other outlets have covered.
The Washington Post has reported that almost half of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are filing for disability benefits when they leave the military. The VA is saddled, the Post reported, with a backlog of 300,000 cases, some of which are taking months to process, others more than a year.
Rieckhoff, 39, acknowledged Shinseki’s admirable military career, but said that spoke to the past.
“We are living too much in the past,” he said.
Shinseki also came under pressure from the American Legion’s national commander, Dan Dellinger, who called for his resignation.
The group hadn’t taken such a step in 30 years, he said, but VA leaders were failing badly to respond to questions.
“Senior VA leaders have isolated themselves from the media and, more importantly, from answering to their shareholders, America’s veterans,” Dellinger wrote in an online note to members.
From the jungle to the capital
Two moments in Shinseki’s public life have come to define him.
One took place in the jungles of Vietnam.
Another played out in the battlefield of Washington, just before the Iraq War.
Shinseki was born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.