WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday nominated retired Army Lt. Gen. James Peake to direct the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, which is strained by the influx of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"He will work tirelessly to eliminate backlogs and ensure that our veterans receive the benefits they need to lead lives of dignity and purpose," Bush said.
Peake, 63, is a physician who spent 40 years in military medicine and was decorated for his service in Vietnam. He retired from the Army in 2004 after being lead commander in several medical posts, including four years as the U.S. Army surgeon general.
"He will be the first physician and the first general to serve as secretary," Bush said, standing next to Peake in the Roosevelt Room.
The nomination comes as the administration and Congress struggle to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as adequate mental health treatment and timely payment of disability benefits, after disclosures emerged in February of shoddy outpatient treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Peake currently is chief medical director and chief operating officer of QTC Management Inc., which provides government-outsourced occupational health, injury and disability examination services. If confirmed by the Senate, Peake would lead the government's second-largest agency with 235,000 employees in the waning months of the Bush administration.
In his new post, Peake, the son of a medical services officer and Army nurse, would manage the VA, criticized for poor coordination in providing medical treatment and disability benefits to millions of veterans.
Earlier this year, a presidential commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services Secretary during the Clinton administration, proposed sweeping change that could add to the VA's backlogged system by shifting most of the responsibility in awarding disability benefits from the Pentagon to the VA.
The VA's backlog is between 400,000 and 600,000 claims, with delays of 177 days. Nicholson in May pledged to cut that time to 145 days, but he has made little headway with thousands of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan returning home.
"There is a lot of work to be done as we move forward on implementing the Dole-Shalala commission recommendations," Peake said. "The disability system is largely a 1945 product, 1945 processes around a 1945 family unit. About everybody that has studied it recently said it is time to do some revisions."