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Local veterans react to Shinseki resignation

Former 4-star general and Vietnam vet resigned Friday as head of the VA, but local vets respect him and hope problems get solved

Paul E. Griffith served in Vietnam like fellow veteran Eric Shinseki and says the former Army four-star general was a “hero.”

Griffith, however, said it’s probably best Shinseki announced Friday he was resigning as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs while an investigation focused on patient issues at 42 VA medical centers across the nation.

”I didn’t want to see him resign,” said Griffith, 70, commander of the Brookville Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars post. “But I think it’s probably better to get him out of the limelight and get on with business and try to improve the VA and get the problems we have now … taken care of.

“We need some new blood and we need to get rid of some people that have been creating problems,” said Griffith, who receives medical care at the Dayton VA Medical Center.

Veterans interviewed Friday had similar reactions to Shinseki’s departure, shortly after the VA leader promised action, the expected firing of top Phoenix VA Medical Center leadership, and a suspension of bonuses to medical directors throughout the system, after the VA Inspector General’s office reported the Phoenix facility kept 1,700 patients on an unofficial wait list.

President Barack Obama temporarily appointed Sloan Gibson, the No. 2 leader at the agency, to replace Shinseki.

“I think it’s good that they’re going to get it straightened out,” said Vietnam veteran Larry Swartout, 65, of Brookville, who was in the Army. “I’m not sure that he (Shinseki) was totally at fault. There’s a lot of people under him. This isn’t something that just came up. It’s something that came out. It’s been going on a long time.”

Gibson will oversee an embattled system under increasing scrutiny.

The VA has had a surge of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and a flood of new, more expansive Agent Orange claims from Vietnam veterans in recent years. The Obama administration has dramatically pushed up funding to handle the demands. The White House asked for a $163.9 billion VA budget the next fiscal year compared to $97.7 billion in 2009. The VA had 7.5 million enrollees in fiscal year 2009 compared to 8.9 million in fiscal year 2013, said spokeswoman Meagan Lutz.The agency has had to meet the needs of over 750,000 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to figures.

Thomas Hagel, former commander of the Dayton chapter of the Disabled American Veterans and the brother of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, said the VA needs a larger staff to handle veterans’ needs for health care and benefits. Shinseki did what he could with what was available, he said.

“I think he did the best that he could with a broken system,” said Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. “The problems that he confronted were so long standing and so deep I think it was just beyond his capabilities to deal with them.”

Shinseki’s successor will have a tough time tackling the problems without Congress backing more resources, Hagel said. Moreover, the federal agency needs “a complete overhaul of the disability system.”

In one way, the controversy has been “good” because it brings to the attention of the public, Congress and the White House “how serious these problems are” and the need for a good manager, he said.

Bob Langen, a Springfield resident and former Marine, said he’s not sure the change in VA leadership will make much of a difference.

“He probably couldn’t fix it, but I don’t know who can,” said Langen, a VA health care patient. “But I’ve never had bad service or bad treatment, and I’ve been down there a lot.

“I don’t know whether this will fix it or not,” he added. “Politically it might … These people have probably never been there in their life, don’t know a damn thing about it, but they have an opinion.”

Thomas R. Burke, 68, who’s term ended this month as leader of the Ohio chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said it was “a shame” Shinseki resigned, but he that doesn’t mean the problems will be resolved.

“When you become the point of contention it always is a situation that it just gets worse with time so I’m sure that his decision was his own” to leave, Burke added.

The concerns about the VA spanned among eras of veterans.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America encouraged Obama to appoint an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran to lead the agency through the crisis.

“IAVA members are outraged as this scandal has grown and they are ready for new management, new oversight and new energy,” Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA CEO and founder said in a statement.

“President Obama now has the opportunity and a moral obligation to step up and demonstrate his own leadership and bring under control a deep systematic element of incompetence and corruption that clearly exists at the VA,” Rieckhoff added in the statement.

Staff writer Katie Wedell contributed to this story.

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