By Dr. Richard Kelley
I have always been proud of the fact that the Hawaiian Islands, remote and small in size and population, have over the years produced an astounding number of national and international leaders. This feeling was reinforced once again two weeks ago during my visit to Washington, D.C.
I did not get a chance to speak with the most prominent Hawaii-born Washington resident, President Barack Obama, but I was able to spend some time with Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, who was raised on Oahu.
Gen. McKeague received his commission in 1981 through the Georgia Institute of Technology Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program. During his military career, he has served in a number of positions where he has been able to use his expertise in engineering, as well as his leadership skills. He has also taken advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the armed services, including two years of graduate work at Georgia Tech leading to a master’s degree in industrial engineering.
He is currently working at the Pentagon as Assistant for National Guard Matters to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is responsible for making sure the interests and the capabilities of the National Guard are considered and coordinated, as policies and decisions are made at the highest levels of the government. With the National Guard having over a half million members, that is no small task.
I met McKeague at a reception at the home of Gen. Craig R. McKinley, Chief of the National Guard Bureau. We quickly found out that we were both raised on Oahu.
As typically happens when two “local boys” meet for the first time, even in Washington, D.C., we quickly asked each other, “Where did you go to school?” For kama‘aina, that question always means “high school.”
I said, “Punahou,” and he responded, “Damien.”
We chatted about the next most important thing, our schools’ football teams! Only later did we discuss some of the weighty topics of the world, such as national defense and the war on terrorism.
(Every culture in the world is different, and probably only guys and gals raised in Hawaii can fully appreciate that conversational sequence.)
The other Hawaii-born leader in Washington, D.C., is Eric Ken Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Shinseki was born on Kauai in 1942, and his birth certificate, like mine, reads, “Territory of Hawaii.” (Hawaii did not achieve statehood until August 21, 1959, just over 50 years ago.)
Shinseki attended Kauai High School, where he became Student Body President. He was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Artillery upon graduation in June 1965.
A few months later, he was a forward observer for the U.S. infantry in South Vietnam. In 1966, he stepped on an enemy land mine, which severely injured his foot. He was sent to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu to recuperate.
He returned to Vietnam for another tour of duty in 1969 and was wounded a second time in 1970.
After recovering, he held numerous positions in the Army, including Commanding General of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood in Texas, a place that has been very much in the news this week following the slaughter of 13 servicemen and women on base last Thursday.
Gen. Shinseki’s military career reached its peak in 1999 when he was appointed Army Chief of Staff. He retired from active duty on August 1, 2003.
The U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii at Fort DeRussy, next to the Outrigger Reef on the Beach hotel, has an exhibit dedicated to Gen. Shinseki’s outstanding military career.
Gen. Shinseki’s public service is not over, however. He was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and was sworn in on January 21, 2009. Since then, he has made a huge impact on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
I heard W. Scott Gould, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Vice President of IBM, describe the magnitude of the VA’s domain. There are some 23 million veterans in the U.S., and in 2008 alone, approximately one-third of them received a service from the VA, including health care, scholarships, and insurance payments. Gould noted that some 100,000 burials were conducted in 130 VA cemeteries last year. The VA has nearly 300,000 employees, 153 medical facilities, and 232 counseling centers across the country.
Unfortunately, in the past, VA service has been less than five-star – often far less.
As described in last week’s issue of Saturday Briefing, the VA’s work is even more challenging this year, as it is dealing with large numbers of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Secretary Shinseki is tackling those issues, using not only all of the skills he acquired in his military career but, at the same time, trying to make the services provided more personalized and focused on the individual – with the spirit of Aloha and ‘ohana – something he grew up with on the Garden Island of Kauai.
Many other Hawaii-born men and women have achieved national and international prominence, but this week, in honor of Veterans Day, November 11, let’s send our special Aloha to Gen. McKeague, Secretary Shinseki, and all the other men and women who have distinguished themselves by serving in our armed forces.