Shinseki is charged with leading what he modestly refers to as "a large enterprise." In fact, the VA is among the most complex and interconnected departments in the federal government. It operates the largest integrated health care system in the United States, with nearly 9 million enrollees. It has the eighth-largest life-insurance program. It delivers monthly disability checks, as well as pensions and survivor payments, to more than 4 million people. It assists 1 million students with their education.
With that workload, Shinseki could be excused for concentrating solely on keeping the trains running on time. But those who have worked under him say the secretary is an advocate for innovation, constantly setting seemingly unreachable goals and pushing the department to evolve to meet new challenges. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who served as the VA's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, remembers meeting with Shinseki soon after she was sworn in. "It was kind of funny, because he said to me, 'We're going to end veteran homelessness.' And I said, 'I'm happy to work with you on that.' And he said, 'No, you don't understand—we're going to end it in five years.' "
Shinseki's relentlessness was a trademark of his distinguished military career, which included two tours in Vietnam—the second of which cost him a foot, when he stepped on a land mine. Instead of being discharged after the partial amputation of his right foot, Shinseki stuck around the military—for another three decades. Having graduated from West Point in 1965 before deploying to Vietnam, the Hawaii native went on to earn degrees from Duke University and the National War College while climbing the chain of command, eventually becoming Army chief of staff in 1999.
Shinseki, 70, knows personally the critical role his department plays in taking care of veterans, and not just the "youngsters" he sent into Iraq in 2001, but also the aging soldiers he fought and bled with in Vietnam. "For me, this is a noble calling," Shinseki says, "one that offers me an opportunity to give back to those who have served with and for me in uniform, and those veterans from World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in the profession of arms."