This combat veteran’s pick for VA secretary: Pete Hegseth
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As a presidential candidate, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE was unequivocal in calling for reform at the dysfunctional Department of Veterans Affairs: “We are going to take care of our veterans like they’ve never been taken care of before,” Trump told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in July.

His 10-point reform plan promised “a VA secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans. Under a Trump Administration, the needs of D.C. bureaucrats will no longer be placed above those of our veterans.” That message came through loud and clear, with veterans preferring the upstart Republican by a 2-to-1 margin on Election Day, according to exit polls.


Now it’s time for the president-elect to make good on those promises. He should start by nominating retired U.S. Army Major Pete Hegseth as VA secretary.

The problems at the VA are well documented, with long waits, poor service, and delayed and denied health care and benefits. Veterans deserve better than the shoddy and inconsistent service the VA has doled out, at ever higher cost, in recent years.

A good part of Trump’s appeal to the veterans’ community was that he didn’t make excuses for the VA’s performance problems — he simply pledged to make it right.

But doing so will require more than a 10-point plan. The VA needs a leader with a deep knowledge of veterans’ issues and an unwavering commitment to turning around the foundering agency. Hegseth is that leader.

By way of disclosure, I make no claims to impartiality in my support for Hegseth. I worked closely with him at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), an advocacy organization he headed from 2012-2015, where I witnessed his skills and talents in action.

Having led troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Hegseth has leadership skills and a deep understanding of military culture. As an advocate for service personnel and veterans, first as the head of Veterans for Freedom then at CVA, he has been steadfast in standing up for our men and women in uniform.

Hegseth’s leadership at CVA is instructive. After he joined the fledgling organization in 2012, CVA began highlighting problems at the VA, particularly the towering backlog of disability claims. When the larger VA health care scandal, in which executives falsified wait time reports while delaying care to veterans, came to light, Hegseth was a leading voice in calling for reform. 

CVA’s sustained critique of the VA’s failures played a critical role in driving real legislative change. Hegseth was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the “Veterans Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Care Act” in 2014, which was signed into law by President Obama. That law marked a needed first step toward change at the department.

But Hegseth didn’t stop there. In 2014, CVA commissioned a bipartisan task force to develop a comprehensive, forward-looking plan to fix veterans’ health care. 

Throughout that campaign, Hegseth showed himself to be a knowledgeable policy thinker (if there were a PhD in veterans health care issues, he’d surely have earned it by now), as well as a savvy builder of coalitions.

The key to this success was Hegseth’s principled critique of where the VA had gone wrong. While his frank talk about the VA’s failures sometimes put him at odds with hidebound government labor unions and more traditional veterans organizations, it was necessary groundwork to build the case for transformation.

That clarity of vision is critical now. What the VA needs is a clear-eyed truth teller with an accurate diagnosis of where the department has gone wrong — and a reformist view of how to restore the agency to its fundamental mission of service to veterans.

That reform starts with expanding health care choices outside the VA system for veterans who so choose (which is not the same thing as “privatization,” as critics misleadingly claim), and demanding greater accountability from VA managers and workers (which includes terminating employees who fail to perform).

The VA needs fresh thinking from an executive who will put the needs of veterans before those of a calcified bureaucracy, and who will empower the department’s best employees—of which there are a great many — to do the job they signed up to do.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam WAR, the VA found itself in a similarly difficult time, as care for veterans returning from Southeast Asia overtaxed the agency’s capabilities and led to a nationwide scandal. In 1977, President Carter appointed Max Cleland, a 34-year-old U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, to head the VA. It was a signal that the VA needed a change in direction spearheaded by a new generation. 

Today’s VA is at a comparable inflection point—desperately in need of transformation but deeply mired in 20th century thinking and behaviors. Hegseth’s confirmation would mark a positive generational change for the VA.

Trump has made it clear he intends to make a bold impact on Washington. He should start with changing the way the VA does business by placing the agency under Pete Hegseth’s leadership.

Parnell is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."

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