HeroVet: Tony Principi, VA Secretary Balances Needs, Goals with Resources

Tony Principi

Editor’s Note: In honor of his four years of service as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, we are proud to recognize Anthony Principi as a HeroVet. Below is a profile we dedicated to Principi earlier this year for his tireless service.

Each month, most of us have to pay our bills and fulfill our financial obligations with the money we have in our checkbooks. The way of life is no different for administrators in government. They have to divvy up the resources made available to them by the appropriating authorities, e.g., Congress, to fulfill the mission and meet the statutory needs of their departments.

For Tony Principi, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, managing the financial facets of his job are a combination high-wire act and lion-tamer’s derring-do, performed under the spotlight in the center ring with millions of minions, critics, and appropriators watching. Despite the enormous pressures, he gets credit in many quarters for performing with admirable aplomb in the face of political pressures and bureaucratic roadblocks.

Not that everyone is happy. Last January, with the veterans health-care system hemorrhaging from an influx of veterans seeking services, Tony Principi had to make one of the most difficult decisions of his tenure as the nation’s Top Vet: to avoid a crisis, he suspended the enrollment into the VA system of "Priority 8" veterans – veterans who are required to make a co-payment for the medical care and prescription drugs they receive. Despite a chorus of criticism, he did what he felt he had to do: the buck stopped at his desk.

Walking the Walk

Tony Principi is well prepared to meet the challenges. For this son of New York City – he was raised on the rough-and-tumble streets of East Harlem and the Bronx – serving one’s country is more than an obligation. It’s an expectation. His father, an immigrant, served in the Navy in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. His wife has served as a Navy nurse. Two sons are currently on active duty. "Our uniformed roots run deep," he said during a recent conversation in his office at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We are a post-World War II nationalistic family."

No doubt, he said, his father’s legacy inspired his decision to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, from which he graduated in 1967. After serving aboard the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Principi was sent halfway around the globe to Vietnam. He was assigned to Task Force 116, operating in the Mekong Delta very close to the Cambodian border.

"I wasn’t in-country 72 hours when we had to get our boats up river. Nine Green Beret guys had been wiped out, blown to bits," he said. Charlie was set in ambush, waiting for Tony Principi and his mates. In a brief but violent confrontation, the American forces prevailed.

"That was my indoctrination to Vietnam," Principi said. "Afterwards, I was leaning on a palm tree. I was tired. The tree fell over. There below me were two VC. I emptied a clip into them. I remember thinking, I’m as green as can be; I’m not ready for this."

Ready or not, Tony Principi was quickly immersed in brown-water warfare. He and his crew spent much of their time placing electronic sensors and other monitoring devices where they would do the most good. "We were having a tough time monitoring movement across the border," he said. "With seismic and magnetic sensors and acoustic buoys, we could interdict some of that movement. We had some success, and quite a few difficult days."

On the successful days, Tony and his crew would get to spend a lot of time in the local villages, building schools, churches, and clinics and conducting Medcaps. To help turn at least some swords into plowshares, he’d get in touch with some of his Annapolis classmates to send over such necessities as clothing, medical supplies, and building supplies.

Then there were the other days, the difficult ones, the days incised in memory forever. One of the most difficult occurred as Tony’s last day in country loomed large. As part of President Nixon’s "Vietnamization" initiative, he and his crew were working with the ARVN to whom they would soon turn over their boats.

"We got out of the boat up river and I told this young Vietnamese lieutenant, ‘Okay, you lead and I’ll cover you. He took off into a rice paddy. He didn’t get more than 20 feet from me when he was blown up. He was very badly injured and his point man was killed." Principi escaped unscathed.

Learning Life’s Lessons

Secretary Principi (right) is joined by, Veterans Advantage Founder Scott Higgins (center) and VA Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology (and former Veterans Advantage Advisory board member) Robert N. McFarland.
Secretary Principi (right) is joined by,
Veterans Advantage Founder Scott
Higgins (center) and VA Assistant
Secretary for Information and
Technology (and former Veterans
Advantage Advisory board member) Robert N. McFarland.

In this real-life classroom, Tony Principi learned about survival. And about leadership. He learned that with increasing responsibility comes increased accountability. He learned that you have to have discipline to be successful. And you have to stay focused on the mission. These lessons are with him every day.

After he returned from Vietnam and completed law school, he embarked on a career centered around service. Following a five-year stint with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps in San Diego, he was sent to Washington as a legislative counsel for the Navy, the first of several executive-level positions in the federal bureaucracy. He went on to a three-year assignment as counsel to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a four-year hitch as Republican chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

After serving as Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the number two post in the VA, from March 1989 to September 1992, he thought he’d reached an apogee of sorts when the first President Bush named him Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a position he held until Bush left office in January 1993. Of the dozens of individuals profiled in this space, Tony Principi is the first to have served in the Cabinet of a President of the United States.

After a stint as Republican chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, he entered private industry, working as a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin IMS and as a partner in a San Diego law firm.

He then got the call from the current President Bush, who nominated him as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Again applying the lessons he’d learned in Vietnam to the cauldron of D.C. political infighting, he tackled some of the seemingly intransigent problems plaguing the VA. His first target was the backlog of disability claims awaiting adjudication.

"The situation was just unconscionable. There was no sense of urgency in the department to make a dent in this backlog. Veterans were being forced to wait years for a decision on their claims. I was appalled. We declared our own war – against backlog. And we’ve been able to dramatically reduce this backlog. We’ve created a culture of belief: that a large bureaucracy can respond if held to performance standards."

According to the Secretary, when he began his watch, some 433,000 claims were awaiting a decision. By instilling a sense of mission in the work force charged with reviewing claims, the VA has, under Tony Principi’s leadership, increased its resolution of claims by 70 percent, from approximately 40,000 claims a month to more than 70,000 a month.

Principi claims success in reducing another backlog: waiting time for appointments with primary care physicians at VA medical facilities. Where almost a quarter-million veterans were finding they had to wait six, eight, ten months, or more, for an appointment with a primary care physician or specialist, this number has been reduced to just under 60,000.

And he cites improvements both current and planned that will make the VA’s IT system more responsive to the needs of those it serves.

There are still problems to be resolved and difficult calls to be made. Perhaps most dicey will be Secretary Principi’s judgment on whether or not to accept the recommendations of the commission charged with targeting certain VA facilities to be shuttered in a quest for savings and efficiency.

But Tony Principi, who is quick to praise his "team" for "working hard to fulfill our mission," has succeeded in making a difference – and leaving a mark – as Secretary. And despite their grousing, as proverbial a condition among veterans as complaining about C-rations was among grunts in the boonies, veterans who depend on the VA for health care and home loans, for life insurance and dignified burial, have a lot for which to thank Tony Principi.

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