Allison Hickey, the Veterans Affairs Department's top benefits official and arguably the most polarizing figure in the VA leadership ranks in recent years, stepped down from her post Friday amid praise from her colleagues and renewed attacks from her critics.
As under secretary for benefits, Hickey oversaw more than 20,000 VA employees and the delivery of benefits to more than 12 million veterans and their families. She is one of the last holdovers from former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's tenure, frequently praised by top officials for her efforts to modernize the department and her dedication to veterans.
"She has been an exceptional colleague and an even better friend to me," VA Secretary Bob McDonald said in a statement. "Her commitment to excellence and service to our country is unquestioned."
But her work also drew intense criticism from conservatives on Capitol Hill and some veterans advocates, who blamed her for management failings within the Veterans Benefits Administration.
In March 2013, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, called for her resignation as the number of backlogged disability claims from veterans ballooned to more than 600,000.
A year later, officials from the American Legion began an ongoing dismissal petition not only for Hickey, but also for Shinseki and former VA Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel, for problems related to lengthy patient wait times and data manipulation throughout the department.
Last month, those same critics renewed those calls after reports emerged about abuse of the VA's employee relocation bonuses. A VA Inspector General report suggested Hickey should be investigated for negligent oversight of the program, and Miller's committee has scheduled an Oct. 21 hearing on the issue.
A senior VA official said those repeated requests have taken a toll on the 57-year-old Hickey, who worried she had become a distraction to further reform efforts. "There are only so many times you can go back into that cauldron before you get fed up with the process," the official said.
But VA leaders emphasized that Hickey's resignation was her own decision, one that McDonald reluctantly accepted. They praised her steady leadership through an era of unprecedented growth and transformation for the agency, one that has seen the number of veterans seeking benefits increase dramatically as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
Since peaking in March 2013, the disability benefits backlog has steadily fallen each month, to just under 74,000 cases this week. Officials have credited that 88 percent drop in part to Hickey's push to modernize the department, trading piles of paperwork for more automated electronic systems.
"She has done a tremendous job rebuilding the morale of the VBA workforce amid some big challenges," the senior official said. "She has been both a leader and a shield for them."
She also has been a strong advocate within the administration for women veterans issues, speaking frequently about the need for more women to celebrate their military service and seek the benefits and assistance they earned.
McDonald also praised her handling of GI Bill payouts, a problematic program in the years before her arrival as the department shifted to the new post-9/11 GI Bill benefit.
In a letter to employees on Friday, Hickey called her four-plus years both a challenge and a privilege.
"There has never been a job I have been blessed to do that was so rich with purpose; no customer so honored to serve; no team so amazing to work alongside as this noble mission," she wrote. "But we aren't done yet. There is more to do, and that will take new, fresh thinking and energy from your next leader in VBA."
Hickey was part of the first class of female cadets to graduate from the Air Force Academy in 1980, and rose through ranks to become a brigadier general during her 27-year military career. She worked for several years in private-sector technology and customer service work before returning to federal service with the VA in 2011.
Her resignation is effective Monday. Principal Deputy Under Secretary Danny Pummill will take over as acting under secretary after her departure.