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Fallen star, shining star

Eleven years ago this month, I wrote about the retirement from the military service of the 34th US Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki. Now there is nothing really unusual about retiring chiefs of staff in the United States or here in the Philippines. In fact, in our country chiefs of staff come and go every year, sometimes twice a year. The position has become the most prominent stage in the short-time “revolving door” concept of leadership in our Armed Forces. And the sad part of it all is that the national authority apparently is happy and content with the system or, for unknown reasons, prefers not to change anything.

Anyway, I recall that what struck me about Shinseki were two significant aspects of his background and career.

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First, Shinseki’s grandfather was a Japanese who grew up in Hiroshima and later migrated to Hawaii during the early part of the 20th century. Eric was born in one of the islands of the Hawaiian chain, a third-generation Japanese-American, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1961, Shinseki entered the US Military Academy and graduated with the class of 1965. Straight from West Point, he was shipped out to Vietnam without any formal basic officer training. Here he lost his right foot and part of the lower leg which almost ended his military career. But he stayed on, outfitted with an artificial foot and worked his way up the ranks as a commander of armored units and, later, an expert in peacekeeping operations.

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On June 21, 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed him US Army chief of staff, the first of Japanese ancestry to hold this position and the highest ranking Asian American officer in US military history. Eric Shinseki, the grandson of a Japanese plantation worker from Hiroshima, took command of the most powerful army in the world.

Second, Shinseki’s tour of duty as Army chief of staff was marked by clashes with Pentagon officials, specifically Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. One issue had to do with the size of the peacekeeping force required for postwar Iraq. Shinseki went on record, mentioning several hundred thousand troops, a figure Wolfowitz publicly dismissed as “wildly off the mark.” Later events proved Shinseki right.

At farewell ceremonies marking his retirement from military service, both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were no-shows.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Shinseki, then already retired, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the fourth largest bureaucracy in the US government after defense, health and human services, and education departments. With over 20 million war veterans to care for, the agency has a budget of $152.7 billion for 2014. This includes a discretionary fund of $66.5 billion and $86.1 billion in mandatory funding.

Last month, a scandal broke out in the agency when it was discovered that at least 40 veterans, waiting for care at various veterans health administration facilities around the country, died due to scheduling problems that led to negligence in attending to their needs.

In a statement following a series of investigations, Secretary Shinseki declared, “he could not defend what happened because it was indefensible. But he could take responsibility for it.” And he did. Shinseki resigned on May 30.

Shinseki may have fallen but in my book, he remains a star.

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* * *

How many of our public officials take responsibility for the disasters that take place during their watch? Too often, they fall back on the old worn-out phrase, “I serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority.” Or, they stay on proclaiming their innocence until proven guilty.

* * *

In 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke out with the release of a CD showing abuses committed in this Iraq detention facility. The CD included shots of nude male detainees and female detainees exposing themselves to guards, and detainees performing indecent acts with each other.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, only the second Filipino-American to hold a two-star rank, was directed to handle the investigation. His report titled “US Army 15-6 Report of Abuses of Prisoners in Iraq” laid the blame for the situation on “a failure of leadership.” The report greatly embarrassed the Pentagon and White House officials with its startling revelations of torture and indecent abuse of prison inmates.

Before a congressional committee, Taguba testified on his findings. I remember watching him on CNN as he replied to questions clearly and without signs of emotion or any hint of exaggeration. After he spoke, senators from both sides of the aisle were generous in their praise for his work. Sen. John Warner, the senior Republican on the committee said, “I wish to personally commend you for your public service.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat, said, “General Taguba, I want to join others in commending you and thanking you for your service to the country.”

Unfortunately, the army brass were not too happy with his report. In January 2006, Taguba was told by Gen. Richard Cody, Army vice chief of staff: “I need you to retire by January 2007.” No reason was given; no pleasantries exchanged.

Taguba retired in 2007 after 34 years of military service. In one of the great ironies of his life, General Taguba was honored by the Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency with the “Americans by Choice” award given to outstanding immigrants who chose American citizenship and demonstrated commitment to the United States and its values.

Thomas Ricks, who covered the US military for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, suggested that Taguba be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “He did the hard, right thing instead of the easy, wrong thing.”

Antonio Taguba is currently a community ambassador for the American Association of Retired Personnel, a nonprofit organization advocating the causes of the country’s retirees and senior citizens. He is also involved in the World War II Soldier Recognition Project to get the US Congress to honor Filipino World War II veterans with Congressional Gold Medals. He is chair of the Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors, which helps young Asian-American military and civilian leaders in achieving their career goals.

Taguba, who was born in Sampaloc, Manila, now lives in Virginia, USA, with wife Debbie. His only son Sean is a captain in the US Army and served in Iraq and Afghanistan while a married daughter lives in South Carolina.

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