Secretary Zinke Turned His Back on Veterans

According to E&E News(paywall), Ryan Zinke was offered–and rejected–the job of heading the Department of Veterans Affairs:

Zinke opened his address to the ranchers by recounting how he ended up getting nominated to lead Interior after first being offered another Cabinet position. “I get a call one day from Don Jr. and he says, ‘The president-elect would like to see you,'” Zinke said, referring to Trump’s oldest son. 

The wide-ranging discussion lasted around 90 minutes and left Zinke somewhat unclear on where he stood with Trump.“The subjects ranged from women in combat to a little bit of ag, a lot about military dispositions overseas — Syria policy, China policy,” he said. “It was a hundred subjects, and not any subject lasted more than about 30 seconds because he’s a shotgun, inquisitive president.

At the end of the conversation, he got up and he says, ‘What about the VA?’ And I said, ‘Sir, you don’t hate me that much.'”

Back in August, when he was criticizing the veteran-supported Veteran Choice program and touring the state with a member of Congress who wants to privatize the VA, Zinke said that the agency needed leadership to solve its problems:

Zinke believes the answer to the Veterans Administration problems will come when resources are properly applied and those in charge are held accountable.
“The answer, from a military commander’s perspective, is if you want to fix the battlefield, then push the resources to the front line,” said Zinke.

Why would Congressman Zinke, a man whose entire identity and political career are rooted in his status as a veteran, a man who has received an 80% disability rating from the VA and obviously knows the intricacies of its care, refuse the opportunity to lead the agency and reform all the problems he’s railed against? 

Why would Zinke turn his back on the veterans he claimed were dying because of failures at the VA?

Perhaps Zinke worried that his record of insulting those who receive VA health services would have been a problem at a confirmation hearing. Perhaps he worried that his record of voting against veterans while taking generous benefits himself would have been embarrassing on the national stage. Or perhaps he was worried that someone in the national press would ask him to explain his touring Montana veterans’ facilities with a leading voice for privatization.

Maybe he was even aware that he told Montana voters that “Indian Health Services is a superstar compared to the VA” in August of 2016 and would tell the Senate “As bad as the VA is, Indian health in Montana is worse” in his January confirmation hearing.

Important as these considerations must have been, the most important reason Ryan Zinke abandoned an opportunity to improve the lives of veterans is obvious:  leading the VA would not have furthered his political ambition. Taking the position at Interior has afforded Zinke the opportunity to travel the country and take photo ops in front of magnificent public lands he hopes to turn over to private hands and hold “listening sessions” with fossil fuel industry executives he will certainly need to fund his next run for office, whatever that might be. 

In contrast, the post at Veterans Affairs would have required Zinke to work to solve the challenges veterans face, not just demagogue about them to friendly conservative media outlets.  During some future campaign for office, whether here in Montana, back home in California, or on the national stage, I certainly hope that some enterprising member of the press will ask Secretary Zinke to explain his unwillingness to take on this critical task and tackle a health system for veterans he had no problem criticizing.

For years, Mr. Zinke has told everyone who would listen about the importance of leadership.  Perhaps he should have listened to himself.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • Thank your deity of choice that Zinke didn’t get the VA post – CHOICE is a mess, for certain, and the jury is still out on Shulkin and whether he attempts to dismantle the VA but I think the VA dodged a bullet. Not so much for federal lands, sadly.

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