President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that six-month waits to have a disability claim processed would not be acceptable under his watch.
Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, 66, promised to modernize the nation's second largest agency.
If confirmed, Shinseki would be the first Asian-American to lead the agency. He received a warm welcome from senators at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he anticipates Shinseki would be confirmed on Tuesday — the day Obama is sworn in as president. Akaka praised Shinseki's qualifications and empathy for veterans, but warned that leading the agency wouldn't be easy.
"The frustrating lack of timeliness, and the challenges of coordinating DOD and VA's systems, are some of the areas that must be addressed quickly," he said.
Shinseki was the Army's first four-star general of Japanese-American descent. As Army chief of staff, he helped lead the Army's transformation to a lighter, more mobile force. He retired in 2003, shortly after clashing with the Bush administration on war policy.
He told the senators he doesn't understand why veterans are currently waiting six months on average to have a claim processed. "We need to do something about this," he said.
Shinseki said another priority would be to ensure that new GI benefits are rolled out in August, as planned.
He promised to work to reopen benefits to many "Priority 8" middle-income veterans who didn't qualify under the Bush administration. Such "Priority 8" veterans, whose income exceeded roughly $30,000 annually, were blocked from enrollment in the VA system in January 2003.
As Army chief of staff, Shinseki testified before Congress prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that it might take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to control the country afterward. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld belittled that estimate, and Shinseki retired soon after.
But Shinseki's words proved prophetic four years later, when President George W. Bush announced a "surge" of additional troops to Iraq.
Like the veterans the agency serves, Shinseki knows well the potential lifetime consequences of combat. He was injured twice in combat, losing part of a foot while serving in Vietnam when he stepped on a land mine.
If confirmed, Shinseki would be the first Asian-American to lead the agency.