Put the D in VA

Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is an honorable man who wanted to do right for his fellow veterans.  He is a distinguished military leader and warrior.  He understands transformation, culture change and symbolism.  He did it as Chief of Staff of the Army; recall the shift to the “Army of One” and the universal Black Beret.  Within the VA, however, he found himself trapped in a different paradigm where an oath to obey the lawful orders of your superiors and the Uniform Code of Military Justice don’t apply.

Unfortunately, the oath and the UCMJ are General Shinseki’s frame of reference from his days at West Point through his entire Army career.  I can only imagine his frustration and disgust in learning that men and women employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs did exactly the opposite of what Abraham Lincoln pledged in his second inaugural and what is emblazoned on the entry portal of the Department’s Headquarters building in Washington, DC.  In their charter to “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,” those individuals have failed.

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The vast majority of the folks serving in the Department of Veterans Affairs are dedicated to America’s veterans.  Regrettably, though, a culture exists that in many instances impedes their ability to do their very best.  I call it the “Veterans Administration Culture”; a holdover from a bygone era that just won’t go away.  It is time to make sweeping changes, beginning, perhaps symbolically, with rebranding away from the old VA and insisting on acknowledgement of the Department of Veterans Affairs is the DVA and includes a seat in the cabinet room.

Today, our members of Congress, much of the media, and even some employees of the Department refer to the organization as “the Veterans Administration.”  Indeed, in a recent national television interview the White House Chief of Staff used the same reference.  Of course, it makes sense that folks would expand the acronym “VA” to “Veterans Administration” especially since the Department has never taken any steps to incorporate the D (Department) into what should be its official DVA acronym.

I sincerely believe this failure to officially transition VA to DVA is both a symbolic and substantive reason for why the “Veterans Administration mentality” remains entrenched years after many in Congress and in the Veterans Service Organizations worked to elevate DVA to an “executive department in the executive branch of the Government.”  Preserving the VA “brand” has also preserved a mindset that embodies some of the worst aspects of bureaucracy. 

I came to the Department in 1990.  I had practiced law for 20 years and had served for many years in the Navy and Navy Reserve.  Entering government service, I did not understand the civilian personnel system and set about to learn about this huge system.  One of my early conversations was emblematic of the VA culture.  I was learning about the various categories of personnel, how they were hired, etc., such as “Excepted Service” and “Schedule C.”  I asked this long-time employee in the personnel office what was her  “schedule” category.  She said she was a “Schedule B.”  I responded that I was not familiar with that schedule.  She smiled and said:  “I will ‘B’ here when you get here and I will ‘B’  here when you leave.”  Unfortunately, I encountered many, albeit a distinct minority, who served for tenure accrual and “the veterans be damned.”

This current tragic and, perhaps, criminal scandal will reach closure, but it is just the latest and most dramatic of many instances of delays and impediments to serving veterans.  There needs to be a systemic change in the culture of the organization.  Congress started the culture change in 1988 when it enacted the “Department of Veterans Affairs Act” which specifically declared that “[t]he Veterans’ Administration is hereby redesignated as the Department of Veterans Affairs….”  There is absolutely no precedent for an organization to retain an acronym from an earlier designation.  The War Department became the Department of Defense.  Operating under a correct name and correct acronym is important for both symbolic and substantive reasons. It sends an important message that Congress intended a change in identity and emphasis and an elevation of the issues involving veterans to the Cabinet-level of our government.

A quarter century ago, the first Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs was sworn in and the Department came into being.  We are 25 years late in putting the D in VA.  Better late than never!

Cragin served as chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals from 1991 through 1997.  In 2008-2009 he served as chairman of the DVA’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans, whose report is entitled:  “Changing the Culture: Placing Care Before Process.”