The secretary of Veterans Affairs presides over the U.S. government's second largest Cabinet department, after Defense. It is a politically sensitive job, especially of late, with new studies showing that the Bush administration has vastly underestimated the cost of providing health care to the more than 750,000 soldiers who have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But three months ago, former secretary James Nicholson resigned abruptly after a difficult tenure to "get back into the business world"—and tension among vets is rising because the White House still hasn't nominated a replacement. "I wish I could tell you what's going on," says David Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. "I think the administration thinks this is the least of their priorities."
Some veterans advocates say the VA is in such disarray that the White House has been unable to find a top-notch candidate willing to take the job, much less go through a confirmation hearing. "Who wants to come in for 15 months and take over a department that has been left in shambles?" asks Paul Sullivan, a former VA official who now heads Veterans for Common Sense. White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore declined to comment on particular candidates, but says, "We are working hard to nominate a highly qualified individual." She adds that the White House hopes to announce a nominee "soon."
In response to criticism over the issue, President Bush unveiled new proposals last week to revamp the health-care and disability system for vets, partly by streamlining the bureaucracy. Days later, USA Today reported the results of a new internal VA study showing that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder is rising rapidly, from 29,041 a year ago to 48,559 this year. Few of these soldiers are even counted in the Pentagon's official tally of 27,753 wounded in Iraq.
Yet a Pentagon task force recently concluded that the number of mental-health professionals available to vets is "woefully inadequate," and the average wait time for disability claims is six months. Linda Bilmes, a policy analyst at Harvard who will testify before Congress this week, calculates that over the next decade, the disability costs for vets will be at least $60 billion—more than six times the administration's official projections. The numbers coming out of government budget offices, she says, "are significantly underestimating the reality." All this has angered some vets and their families. "I would love to have the president live my life for one week to see how difficult it is," says Annette McLeod, wife of Army specialist Wendell McLeod, who is suffering from PTSD after serving in Iraq. "How do you fund a war but not fund the casualties?"