After nearly two decades of overseas deployments and combat for U.S. service members, the Department of Veterans Affairs could be poised to get its first leader with experience serving overseas in the recent wars.
The early frontrunners to be the next VA secretary under President-elect Joe Biden include several veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, according to sources connected to transition work for the incoming administration.
Advocates say such a pick would not only have first-hand knowledge of emerging veterans issues such as burn pits and expanded roles of women in the military, but also potentially provide VA leadership with its youngest top administrator ever.
“A veteran from the current wars definitely brings a different perspective to the job, and could help bridge the gap on issues from older generations to the newer ones,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Among the candidates being considered is former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, former acting Army Secretary and the first Iraq War veteran ever elected to Congress (in 2006).
He served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, and was a major voice on military and veterans issues during his four years on Capitol Hill. He was a key leader in congressional Democrats' fight to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law which barred gay and lesbian troops from publicly discussing their sexual orientation.
Murphy’s candidacy has received strong support from several congressional offices in recent days. And officials from the American Federation of Government Employees (the largest federal workers union, representing a majority of VA employees) and the AFL-CIO have also backed his candidacy for the job in conversations with Biden transition officials.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., has also been rumored for the job, although convincing her to leave a safe Democratic Senate seat may prove difficult for the new administration.
Duckworth, a former Illinois National Guard soldier, lost both of her legs in 2004 when insurgents shot down her helicopter in Iraq. She worked in VA leadership as an assistant secretary from 2009 to 2011, before being elected to Congress.
She’s been a vocal leader on defense issues in recent years, particularly critical of restrictions on women in combat and President Donald Trump’s national security policies. Duckworth was under consideration as a possible vice-presidential pick for Biden, and has been discussed as a future Democratic leader on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Two Afghanistan War veterans — former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander — have also been rumored to be under consideration for the post.
Both men are viewed as rising figures within the party, and have talked frequently about how their military experience has shaped their post-military public service.
If either of those two or Murphy is tapped for the job, VA would have its youngest secretary nominee in department history. Former VA Secretary Jesse Brown was 49 when he assumed the job in 1993. Murphy is 47, Buttigieg and Kander are both under 40.
Duckworth, 52, could become the first woman to lead the department. Biden has promised to improve services for women veterans at the department, and named several advocates for women’s issues to his VA transition team.
Butler said even though a nominee with recent military deployments would bring invaluable experience and sympathy to the post, that trait can’t be the new VA secretary’s only defining characteristic.
“There are so many skill sets that are unique to being a good VA secretary, maybe more than any other Cabinet position,” he said. "You need to understand health care. You need to be able to manage a budget of enormous size. You’ve got to deal with other government agencies and programs.
“A post-9/11 veteran could bring a lot to the job. But the more important trait is to have a strong set of skills to be able to manage the whole department.”
Biden is expected to announce the majority of his Cabinet picks in the next few weeks.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.