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Biden’s nominee for VA secretary isn’t a veteran — does it matter?

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Super Bowl season is upon us, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs for this year’s Vince Lombardi trophy. 

Although the Lombardi trophy is generally regarded as the highest prize in football, it is worth remembering that Vince Lombardi, the trophy’s namesake who is considered the greatest head coach of all time, never played in the NFL. 

The next few weeks are a political Super Bowl of sorts, as confirmation hearings take place for Cabinet-level secretaries and other high-ranking government officials in the Biden administration. 

At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), President Biden’s nominee to the lead agency is Denis McDonough, who is scheduled for a confirmation hearing on Jan. 27. McDonough is not a veteran, which caused some initial consternation among stakeholders in the veterans’ community. 

However, just as Lombardi proved that one need not play in the NFL to be a successful NFL coach, can a non-veteran prove that one need not serve to successfully lead the VA?

First, it is important to note that, if confirmed, McDonough would not be the first non-veteran to lead the agency. David Shulkin, President Trump’s first VA secretary, was also not a veteran. However, Shulkin’s tenure as VA secretary was cut short due to political in-fighting, the signature mark of the Trump administration, leaving the question as to the merits of a non-veteran leader somewhat unanswered.

Nonetheless, in a recent interview, Shulkin stated that the job was just as much about overseeing a large and complex organization (VA is second only to the Department of Defense, in terms of size and budget) and managing “the nearly constant crises that require congressional and executive branch coordination[,]” as it is about having personally experienced the agency’s mission.

According to the Biden administration, it is for these reasons that McDonough was selected for the job, with one source stating, “[he] was chosen because of his ability to navigate crises and sort through the complex morass of government programs that support veterans.”

Second, it is also important to note that, while multiple veterans have led VA in the past, this hasn’t guaranteed them success in the job.

Most recently, the immediate-past VA Secretary Robert Wilkie faced intense criticism and pressure to resign from leading veterans organizations and Congress after a scathing VA Office of the Inspector General report found that he had failed to cooperate with an investigation into a sexual assault allegation at a VA facility and had attacked the victim publicly in the media.

Subsequently, veterans groups stated that Wilkie had “breached their trust and could no longer effectively lead an agency responsible for the care of 9 million veterans.”

Wilkie’s military service, which includes serving as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and previous service in the Navy Reserve with the Joint Forces Intelligence Command, did not trump his lapse in judgment as VA secretary.

In this regard, Wilkie is not alone. Of the 10 Senate-confirmed VA secretaries seven (six of whom were veterans), ultimately resigned or were fired due to scandal or frustration with the agency, and the other three (including Wilkie) who served out their terms all faced calls for their resignations for various reasons despite all being veterans themselves.

Finally, it is perhaps most important to note that veterans, as a population, are diverse, meaning that while some veterans are upstanding citizens, unfortunately, some have succumbed to white nationalism or ideological-driven racism. Little has been to address this problem in recent years. 

Indeed, in the post-9/11 era, marked now by nearly two decades of war, the civilian-military divide has caused many on the civilian side to revere all military veterans and continuously claim that all veterans issues are bipartisan, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Of course, although military service can foster a sense of purpose that is conducive to political leadership, this isn’t always the case. 

Perhaps the most glaring example occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, where a recent analysis by NPR found that nearly one in five defendants in the insurrection served in the military, despite the fact that only about 7 percent of Americans are military veterans.  

As the VA continues to grow and evolve as an agency, it appears that the veteran-status of its leader may only matter in terms of public perception. And although public perception certainly has its place in politics, perhaps more emphasis should be publicly placed on management and governance given how expansive the VA bureaucracy truly is, given its nearly 400,000 employees and $243 billion budget.

As Lombardi once said, “the price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that, whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

McDonough may not be a veteran, but if he applies the best version of himself to the hard work of leading the nation’s second largest cabinet department, the nation’s veterans will ultimately win.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

Tags biden administration Biden cabinet Biden Cabinet pick Biden nominee David Shulkin Denis McDonough Department of Veterans Affairs Donald Trump Jeff Miller Joe Biden Robert Wilkie VA VA Secretary

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