By Peter Nickitas, JWV National Judge Advocate

“It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country” describes the public service of the first Jewish-American Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin. Shulkin served as Undersecretary of the VA from 2015 to 2017 and Secretary from 2017 to 2018. Shulkin served as the first chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and CEO of New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center before entering public service.

This book makes outstanding reading, as Secretary Shulkin describes his encounters with entrenched officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in his work to bring more accountability, veteran-focused care, accessible service, and timely appointments. His accomplishments included updating electronic health records (EHR) systems and expanding Agent Orange treatment to Blue Water Navy veterans who served on ships off the shore of Vietnam and suffered diseases induced by the Agent Orange clouds that blew offshore. In his words, he found himself with the choice between continued neglect of veterans based on dwindling scientific evidence as veterans died, or the moral choice, and treat Blue Water Navy veterans. He took the moral choice.

He spent a great deal of energy bringing the 2014 Veteran Access, Choice, and Accountability Act up to date in 2017 and 2018, culminating in the Mission Act. At all times, he fought to ensure quality and coordinate the delegation of some care to private providers without eviscerating the core Veterans Affairs budget for VA medical center care. During his time at Secretary, he even saw patients himself at surprise appointments at VA Medical Centers.

Shulkin says his vision for the future of the VA is “a new model of governance, complete with its own board composed of health care experts, veterans, and business leaders. It should remain a government entity but with a structure that allows it to develop strategies free of political influence…. This new governance structure would mean the end of political appointees. People who serve our veterans should be chosen not on the basis of political ideology or their commitment to a particular elected individual but rather because of relevant experience, competence, and commitment to the mission.”

“It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country” provides an example of a Jewish-American who as the founders of JWV would say, “redeems the good name of the Jew.” Shulkin took the opportunity for service and made the most of it, to show that we Jewish-Americans are capable of fulfilling acts of Torah-Mitzvot and our civic obligations to our nation, our neighbors, and our fellow veterans and servicemembers, with equal fervor and merit.

Volume 74. Number 4. 2020