WASHINGTON January 14 - Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today he will vote to confirm retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing, the former four-star general and Army chief of staff said he will modernize the second largest federal agency. He also pledged to reopen health care services to middle-income veterans who lost benefits under the Bush administration.
Sanders said the VA secretary is "one of the most important jobs in the entire federal government, but also one of the most challenging.
"I have met with General Shinseki and believe he is the right person for the job and I am confident that he is committed to making the VA an organization that puts veterans' needs first," he added.
Sanders said services for veterans are improving. He cited a new GI Bill to pay for veterans' college educations, for example, along with major increases in funding for health care and higher reimbursement rates for veterans traveling long distances to hospitals and clinics.
"While progress has been made, much more must be done," Sanders added. Among challenges still confronting the department, the senator cited a huge claims backlog and high unemployment among veterans.
He urged Shinseki to improve mental health and rehabilitation services that are straining to cope with the consequences of severe head injuries in battle and long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sanders also stressed that large numbers of Guard and Reserve forces from Vermont have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We need to make sure that the VA cares for these citizen-soldiers," the senator said.