The Veterans’ Administration: A case for “The Fish Rots from the Head Down”

The Veterans’ Administration, by even the most casual observation, is a broken organization. Nearly two years ago we were peppered with stories of vets literally dying in queue waiting for treatment. Those stories and the media wave they generated led to the ultimate, and in my opinion, the righteous firing of General Eric Shinseki.

In the last few weeks, the news of VA Secretary David Shulkin’s European Vacation has dominated the news cycle. We have all watched with amazement as the VA leader tries to defend using tax dollars to fund a vacation with his spouse.

The Veterans Administration has decrepit field facilities. They do not maintain a stable of quality practitioners. And how could they when they must compete with Level 1 & 2 hospitals across the United States. Finally, VA employs archaic technology systems to administer their health and logistics programs. At what point do we say, “Enough is enough?”

During his run for the Presidency, Donald Trump promised to “fix the Veterans Administration because our vets deserve the very best.” What did he do? He kept the same leadership team in place that, by all reasonable analysis, had already proven their inability to get the job done.

VA is a large and complex organization. Further, it is one of the oldest organizations in the Federal government. Fixing its ills requires radical thinking based on the use of services best practices and processes. Successful modernizing of the VA requires leadership that is not only ethical but also knowledgeable. Changing an organization comes from the top. 

Once again, President Trump has been given the opportunity to put good leadership in place at Veterans Administration. And once again, I fear, he has let this opportunity pass. To be clear, this is not a criticism of another Navy Flag Officer. My words below are not an indictment of RADM Ronny Jackson, rather I am criticizing his selection as the new VA Secretary.

 Navy Medical Officers do not command ships, submarines, squadrons, or battle groups. Officers who do that work are called “Line Officers.” Doctors, logisticians, and oceanographers are part of the Navy Staff Officer Corps. Staff Officers bring great and needed skills to the fight. The Navy could not function without them. However, they do not experience the same levels and breadth of command as their Line Officer counterparts.

RADM Jackson’s official bio is a compendium of education, tours, and stations. These biographies are vetted before being placed on the Navy’s website. If one reviews RADM Jackson’s biography, they would find nothing in his background that prepares him to run the Department of Veterans Affiars.

RADM Jackson has experienced a superlative career. The Navy should be proud that one of their own was selected to serve as the President’s physician, a role that could have gone to one of our Air Force or Army counterparts. As a fellow Flag officer, I know all too well what it took for him to attain two stars. Make no mistake; I assume Admiral Jackson is a fine Navy Officer.

That said, not all Flag Officers are created equal. We are provided the ability to serve at the Flag and General Officer rank because of our track record of success in our various areas of specialization. Consequently, I anticipate he will undergo a turbulent confirmation process. Further, I fear it will bring a level of humiliation that no dedicated public servant should experience.

VA needs ethical, qualified, serious, and courageous (in equal parts) leadership. Secretary Shulkin was a fifty-percent solution. I am afraid that Rear Admiral Jackson is seventy-five percent solution. As a veteran, I don’t think it is too much to desire a complete leadership solution.


By: Rear Admiral Ken Carodine