The 'Removal' Of Senior Officials Will Be The First Big Test For New VA Secretary

Opinion
Veterans Affairs Secretary-designate Dr. David Shulkin, currently undersecretary for health at the VA, is sworn-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, prior to testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Assuming Dr. David Shulkin will be confirmed as the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and all indications leave us no reason to think otherwise, he will face a number of tests within the first 100 days. One of those tests involves DeWayne Hamlin, director of the VA Caribbean Healthcare System in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was removed from office and federal service on the same day that President Donald Trump was inaugurated.


Hamlin was arrested after midnight on April 26, 2014, after a police officer reportedly saw him parked on a roadside with his car engine running. While questioning him, police determined he had been drinking while driving and found Hamlin, again a VA medical center director, in illegal possession of Oxycodone. Hamlin later tried to fire an employee who revealed his drug arrest then subsequently tried to settle with the same employee, allegedly offering her over $305,000 to leave. That's what it took to get this federal employee removed almost three years after he was arrested.

Related: The One Problem That Will Make Or Break Trump’s Pick For VA Secretary »

Few facts are known publicly about another case that will test the incoming VA secretary. The case involves allegations of wrongdoing against the Overton Brooks VAMC Medical Center Director Toby Mathew, and other senior leaders, that were referred to VA’s Office of Accountability Review. Like Hamlin, Mathew was removed, which was later clarified to mean temporarily detailed where, according to a VA statement, “he will be working in [a] non-supervisory capacity while OAR completes its investigation. Once completed, the evidence will be examined by the appropriate management officials delegated with the duty to take appropriate corrective action.”

The operative word that begs the question in such cases is "removed" and what it means exactly. By removed, does it always have to mean a public servant who has compromised the public’s trust will collect a full paycheck while under reassignment in one of those positions that are neatly tucked away from public view? Like a position in a Veteran Integrated Network Office or some other safe-harbor role for an extended period? That has been the reality in far too many cases. If this is the case for Hamlin or Mathew, it will not be enough for the VA secretary to say his hands are tied by law or bureaucratic procedure. The public has grown tired of hearing that song; and Congress must ensure the VA secretary has what he needs to not have to sing it again.

Removed should ultimately mean just that — terminated. Not reassigned over a long period. Not awaiting some administrative hearing. Shulkin, in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs where he made the case for his confirmation as VA secretary, said, “The VA needs change…It needs to advance its culture of accountability and eliminate those from the system that have lost their commitment to doing what is right for our veterans … I don't have a lot of patience. And I am going to be serious about making these changes and regaining that trust. And if I don't do it, I should be held accountable, and you should replace me.”

I could not agree more. He knows what needs to be done; so does Congress; and the public has long known it. You can't bring about institutional change by moving poor leaders around within the institution no more so than you can treat pneumonia by taking cough drops. We’ll know in short order whether Shulkin has the right prescription to fix what ails VA and whether Congress will fill that prescription.

(DoD photo)

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(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith)

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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