Updated May 7, 2018 - Politics & Policy
Expert Voices

How a top military leader could right the rudderless VA

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, leaves Dirksen Building after a meeting on Capitol Hill.

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, former nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, leaves Dirksen Building after a meeting on Capitol Hill on April 24, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson’s decision to remove himself for consideration as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs was the right move. Only a two-star officer, he lacked relevant experience running a large agency, and the congressional investigations found multiple complaints regarding his tenure as the White House physician.

The big picture: As Lisa Rein writes for The Washington Post, there are a large number of senior VA officials leaving under intense scrutiny from the White House amid a lack of leadership. In this type of environment, a VA Secretary with a four-star background would have a better chance of success.

Jackson was a poor selection, but tapping a more senior military officer for this position has merit. There are many retiring four-star generals who are fully capable to lead a large organization like the VA, and possess all of the requisite experiences that Jackson lacked: strong leadership, experience heading a large organization and immersion in the perspective of, and promises made to, America's veterans.

A four-star military officer, vetted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, would bridge the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and ensure their much-needed integration. Support for America’s veterans is extensive, and a senior military officer that can connect immediately to the mission, the employees and the veterans they serve would be a great step toward providing the support veterans need.

The bottom line: To find a leader of veterans, the Trump administration would do well to turn to the institutions that produce them. A four-star military officer coming directly from the Defense Department could provide the VA with the direction it needs.

Neal Duckworth is a senior director in the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education program and a former U.S. intelligence officer.

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