Florida, Manatee officials react to Veterans Affairs secretary's resignation

kirby@bradenton.comMay 31, 2014 

MANATEE -- President Barack Obama announced Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation on Friday afternoon in the wake of scandal at his department. Most local representatives and veterans offices were unsurprised to hear it, expressing wishes to move on from Shinseki and focus on fixing the VA.

Lee Washington, the Manatee County veterans services officer, said it was a sad day to see a VA leader resign and that he'd seen some good changes under Shinseki, but someone did need to take responsibility.

"It happened on his watch," Washington said. "Sometimes you've just got to take the bullet for your mistakes."

Washington said of 40,000 veterans in Manatee County, about 10 percent were unhappy with their wait times for care at local VA medical facilities.

Lee Kichen, a retired lieutenant colonel and former Veterans Service Officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Florida, said he thought Shinseki's resignation was necessary to move the conversation forward, but that he doesn't blame Shinseki personally.

"VA is virtually unmanageable based on its size," he said. "Just health care alone is huge."

Kichen said he believes a bill already passed by the House of Representatives that would make it easier for the secretary of the VA to fire people responsible needs to be approved by the Senate and signed into law, otherwise the same issue would keep happening.

Dave Daily, commander of the VFW Braden River Post 12055 in Lakewood Ranch, said middle and upper-level managers need to be held accountable for problems at the VA.

"There's something wrong, knowing they can make mistake after mistake and cost someone their life and they're not going to be held accountable," Daily said Friday, before Shinseki's resignation was announced.

Jason Dangel, public affairs officer for the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, would not comment on Shinseki's resignation specifically, but said, "regardless of leadership changes, our mission to serve veterans does not change."

The resignation wasn't enough for Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.

"A resignation is not a solution," he said. "We have to make certain that no veteran ever again has to suffer the misery and neglect of a broken system."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had called for Shinseki's resignation in a statement on Thursday, saying problems with the VA office were "even worse than we thought." Following Shinseki's resignation, Rubio joined Buchanan in calling it only the first step to fixing the VA.

"The systemic mismanagement will continue unless we bring reform to the VA and hold all those who are responsible accountable," Rubio said. "Under current law, whoever succeeds Secretary Shinseki will be prohibited from firing VA employees such as those detailed in the inspector general's latest report, who have failed at their jobs and therefore failed our nation's veterans."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was supportive of Shinseki's decision to resign and called Shinseki a "strong, patriotic general" in a statement released Friday. But he said the discussion needed to go back to fixing the VA, not focus on one man's resignation.

"Now that he resigned, we can get on," Nelson said.

--Staff writer Kathryn Moschella contributed to this story.

Kate Irby, online reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Follow on Twitter@KateIrby.

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