Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, above, has sent a personalized letter to all veterans in the wake of controversies swirling around the VA. (TOM BROWN / STAFF)
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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki released an unusual http://www.militarytimes.com/static/projects/pages/031309shinsekiletter.pdf">open letter to all veterans Friday, saying he is committed to transforming his department into a 21st-century organization in which "veterans are central to everything VA does."
Issued after two weeks of controversy swirling around VA for problems both inherited and caused by some preliminary decisions within the Obama administration, the letter is an unusual step. VA officials said that other than annual Veterans Day messages, they are unaware of any other such letter to veterans sent by a VA secretary for at least a decade, and probably longer.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said it would be wrong to read too much into the message. "It is what it is," Budahn said. "He wanted to send a message to veterans that introduces him and lays out his priorities."
Veterans organizations who so far appear to like Shinseki seemed pleased. Joe Davis, public affairs director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation's largest group for combat veterans, said VA "is in the service industry, and its leader is communicating in simple language that his customers are his No. 1 priority and the reason his department exists."
"Secretary Shinseki is one of us, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that VA fulfills a grateful nation's promise to her veterans," Davis said.
Shinseki is a disabled veteran twice wounded in Vietnam who served a full career in the military, rising to Army chief of staff. In his letter, he says he views his new job as an "opportunity to give back to those who served with and for me during my 38 years in uniform and those on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession of arms."
At a March 11 hearing, Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said he is aware of Shinseki's reputation as "a soldier's soldier. Now, we want you to be a veterans' veteran."
The Obama administration has received high praise from veterans groups for proposing a $113 billion VA budget for 2010 that would include the largest one-year dollar and percentage increase in veterans spending in history. That would be $15 billion over the 2009 budget, a 16 percent increase.
However, a budget proposal that would bill veterans' private insurance for part of the cost of VA treatment for service-connected health issues, and the disclosure in a new VA inspector general report that 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail related to benefits claims were discovered in one processing center, have led to renewed criticism of VA.
VA officials said Shinseki's letter is not a direct response to those issues.
In the letter, Shinseki said he is open to suggestions and help. "The Department of Veterans Affairs has a solemn responsibility to all of you, today and in the future, as more veterans join our ranks and enroll to secure the benefits and services they have earned," he wrote. "I am fully committed to fulfilling President Obama's vision for transforming our department so that it will be well-positioned to perform this duty even better during the 21st century."
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